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Overdue Chicago premiere of ‘Troubled Island’ a triumph

South Shore OperCompany baritone Kirk Walker portrays Dessalines inSouth Shore OperCompany producti 'Troubled Island'

South Shore Opera Company baritone Kirk Walker portrays Dessalines inthe South Shore Opera Company production of "Troubled Island"

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Updated: October 20, 2013 8:32PM

For an opera with a long and troubled history, about a troubled man who was a revolutionary leader two centuries ago of a still troubled nation, the decades-belated Chicago premiere of “Troubled Island” by William Grant Still and Langston Hughes Saturday night in South Shore was a major triumph.

Symbolism alone could have made this a special night. Performed at the South Shore Cultural Center in the old home of the South Shore Country Club, founded in the early 1900s as a whites- and Protestants-only lakefront redoubt, in the center’s Paul Robeson Theatre by an all-black cast before a standing-room-only, largely African-American crowd, the event would have carried bite even if it did not concern the Haitian Revolution — complete with the sounds of African drums and the moves of native dancers.

The content of this two-hour (plus intermissions), four-act work has much to do with the 10-year delay in getting the 1936-39 composition before an audience. It’s a sympathetic look at Jean-Jacques Dessalines, an illiterate black slave who played a prominent role in the Haitian Revolution and fight for independence from France (and Spain and England). Elected head of the new nation by his fellow generals in 1804, Dessalines soon declared himself emperor and was assassinated by rivals associated with wealthier mixed-race factions, his legacy and the continuing tragedies faced by his country still controversial today.

Add to this the explorations, both stark and subtle, in the left-leaning Hughes’ libretto and lyrics on skin shades and class rivalries within the black population and the initial wish of Still, the leading black classical composer and conductor of his day, that the cast be comprised of both white performers in blackface and black singers. It’s not hard to see why the work’s 1949 opening at the just now-defunct New York City Opera — the first professional production of any black composer’s opera — did not lead to repeat performances in the white-dominated world of classical music.

To mark its fifth anniversary, the small but marvelously ambitious South Shore Opera Company rightly chose to focus on singers and staging and to have conductor Leslie B. Dunner lead a rich two-piano adaptation of Still’s wide-ranging score by performer-composer Peter Slavin (partnered by the equally accomplished Pedro Yanez). With a cast of 25, including a superb chorus prepared by Charles Thomas Hayes, director Amy Hutchison, designers Shanna Philipson (effectively period and Caribbean production) and Julian Pike (lights) and eight dancers added for Kia Smith’s strong choreography, South Shore made a handsome and convincing case for a production with full orchestra. Given Lyric Opera of Chicago’s current interest in serious community engagement and production, a local partnership would be a great place to start.

The many fine voices and stage presences were led by contralto and longtime Lyric performer Gwendolyn Brown as Azelia, Dessalines’ first wife and the only character loyal to his dream of educating and empowering the peasantry. Wholly at home in Still’s embrace of European, American and spiritual composition traditions, the imposing Brown also set the company-wide standard for clear enunciation of the Hughes lyrics. No librettos or supertitles were provided — and none were required. (That consistent clarity also underscored the far lesser level of the subpar operetta-type lyrics for three songs contributed by Still’s collaborator, and later wife, Verna Avery when Hughes left the project for the Spanish Civil War in 1937.)

Baritone Kirk Walker, a Lyric Ryan Center alum, embodied the ambiguity of Dessalines, a man with the world quite literally set against him, doubtful of himself and his ability to create a nation with no institutions or traditions to build upon. Company artistic director tenor Cornelius Johnson offered a strong counter-thread as the emperor’s assistant and betrayer Vuval, and young baritone Antonio Watts showed a powerful and attractive voice as Vuval’s confederate Stenio.

Sopranos DoLisha Pleasant and Monica Perdue and contralto Monique Desiree brought hilarity and poignancy to their scenes as chambermaids keeping Azelia from her former husband. Soprano Dana Campbell as the mulatto Paris-obsessed Empress Claire, bass-baritone Don Alvin Huddleston as the Africa-connecting sage Martel and tenor Anthony McGlaun as Dessaline’s one reliable lieutenant, Popo, made their characters three-dimensional, although the full cast list earned kudos.

Still’s works, especially his 1930 “Afro-American” Symphony No. 1, do appear on concert programs, and Hughes’ is almost a household name. “Street Scene,” his 1946 opera with composer Kurt Weill and playwright Elmer Rice, was successfully produced by Lyric in 2001. Bravo to South Shore Opera Company for rescuing the collaborative work of these men, largely lost to history, and preparing the way for its wider rediscovery.

Andrew Patner is a Chicago freelance writer.

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