South Shore Opera Company baritone Kirk Walker portrays Dessalines inthe South Shore Opera Company production of "Troubled Island"
South Shore Opera Company
When: 6 p.m. Saturday
Where: Robeson Theatre, South Shore Cultural Center, 7059 S. South Shore Dr. Tickets: $35-$50
Info: (773) 723.4627; southshoreopera.org
Updated: October 18, 2013 6:44PM
A single revival of a singular opera this Saturday in South Shore contains more on- and off-stage history, politics and sociology than a year-long run of “Madama Butterfly.”
The story is all-American and all Western Hemispheric, too. The opera was the first — and for many years, the only — by a composer of color to be given by a major company (the tragically just now-defunct New York City Opera, in 1949.) The presenter, South Shore Opera Company, is an intrepid South Side group now in its sixth season made up of local black artists with international careers but often too little notice in Chicago.
“Troubled Island” was the long-term project of two contrasting but parallel pioneering African-American artists, poet and author Langston Hughes (1902-1967) and composer and conductor William Grant Still (1895-1978). In a world of classical music and opera hardly open at all to black performers or composers, Hughes and Still compounded the brave nature of their task with subject matter no less controversial in the 21st century than it was in the 1930s and ’40s — the complex struggle for independence and dignity in Haiti.
“Troubled Island”’s protagonist is Jean-Jacques Dessalines, a much-debated leader of the late 18th and early 19th century slave rebellions and revolution that created the first independent black nation in 1804, although the operatic character combines elements of predecessors and comrades such as Vodou priest Boukman Dutty and revolutionary leader Toussaint L’Ouverture. Baritone Kirk Walker, an acclaimed alumnus of the Lyric Opera of Chicago Ryan Center, plays Dessalines, and contralto Gwendolyn Brown, long associated with Lyric, his wife Azelia. Conductor Leslie B. Dunner leads a cast of 20 with stage director Amy Hutchison. The four-act work will be done complete but with a two-piano reduction of the score.
Controversy and out and out prejudice knocked “Troubled Island” out of the repertory or even repeat performances more than 60 years ago. South Shore gives us a unique opportunity to see the work of two of America’s most significant artists in a story that still troubles.
Andrew Patner is critic-at-large for WFMT-FM (98.7).