The Jacobs School of Music Opera and Ballet Theater will host an event honoring renowned composer William Grant Still at 7:30 p.m. on February 4-5 and February 11-2 at the Musical Arts Center. Tickets are on sale from $16 for regular admission and $10 for student admission.
The event will have two parts, an opera called “Highway 1” and a ballet “19”. Both performances will feature music and compositions by Still.
Still was an important black composer during the Harlem Renaissance. He composed over 200 plays, including 9 operas, of which only three were produced.
“Still was there at a very racist time, and the critics were actually giving him bad reviews to hold him back,” director Kimille Howard said. “He composed a well-known opera with Langston Hughes called ‘Troubled Island’, and critics later admitted that they made sure their reviews weren’t well written to ‘keep him in his place’.”
Howard describes “Highway 1” as a performance about a fictional small-town black couple, Bob and Mary, living on Highway 1 along the California coast. As Bob’s mother is dying, he promises her that he will take care of his younger brother Nate, sacrificing money and resources to ensure his success.
“The husband is getting ready to pick up Nate from college, go to his graduation and take him home,” Howard said. “They can’t wait to finally enjoy the fruits of their labor and the life they’ve always wanted, but things don’t go as planned.”
Howard said opera and ballet are important because of the representation they contain, which is not common in the music world.
“It’s an opportunity to see a mix of different identities on stage, which in a story where it wouldn’t be a suspension of disbelief for people who have those identities to play those roles,” Howard said. “It’s a different experience when bodies of color can portray characters they might authentically be.”
Kathiana Dargenson, lead singer and master’s student at Jacobs, said a key difference between operas and other theatrical performances is that singers must project themselves into the audience without a microphone. This impacts both the director, who decides on the staging, and the performers themselves, who must master both acting and voice skills in their performance ensuring that they are heard by the public.
“I don’t have a theater background,” Dargenson said. “So a hard thing for me to do was get out of my own box when it came to acting with my whole body, including my voice. And that’s where I struggled to take an approach more human on stage than as an opera singer.
After the opera, “19”, the ballet which will be performed on “Afro American Symphony”, written at the start of Still’s career. However, due to COVID-19 concerns, the ballet will not include a live orchestra.
“It’s a piece that has a lot of jazz influences,” said Arthur Fagen, professor of conducting at Jacobs and bandleader of “Highway 1.” “You hear blues aspects. It has beats that have their origins in black music and culture.
“19” consists of three movements. Movements 1 and 2 were created in 2020 by choreographer Sasha Janes, sparking the theme of isolation. Movement 3 was conceived this semester and is a nod to the future when the COVID-19 pandemic is over.
Janes said that to ensure safety at the start of the pandemic, the original cast rehearsed outside the Musical Arts Center. They learned the choreography on the grass while wearing sneakers and risked injury from the rough terrain.
“It was the kind of conditions that weren’t ideal for choreography and dancing, but the dancers were really good at overcoming it all,” Janes said. “They did whatever it took to get back on stage.”