Five Operas or Oratorios That Swing

Jazz in the aria

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Carla Bley
By D.D. Rider

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TREEMONISHA
Composed in 1910, Scott Joplin’s vibrant, moving parable touting education as the salvation of American slaves goes far deeper than the ragtime Joplin is indelibly associated with. Ragtime is certainly evident, but is woven with black folk songs, spirituals and early blues strains. Self-published by Joplin, Treemonisha was never performed in full during his lifetime and remained forgotten for decades, finally receiving its world premiere in Atlanta in 1972, directed by choreographer Katherine Dunham.

PORGY AND BESS
With music by George Gershwin and based on librettist and co-lyricist (with Ira Gershwin) DuBose Heyward’s tales of African-American life along Charleston’s fictitious Catfish Row, this “American folk opera” was first performed in concert at Carnegie Hall in the fall of 1935, opening on Broadway a month later. Highlights like “Summertime” and “I Loves You, Porgy” became jazz standards, and recordings of Porgy material from the likes of Miles Davis/Gil Evans and Louis Armstrong/Ella Fitzgerald became undeniable classics.

ESCALATOR OVER THE HILL
Billed by Carla Bley and Paul Haines as a “chronotransduction,” their masterwork was released as a triple-LP set in 1971 and first performed live in 1997. Combining free jazz, rock, Indian music and Weill-inspired theatricality, this eccentric olio, set in a decrepit hotel, centers on what The Guardian rightly cited as a “jigsaw of a libretto.” Among the original assemblage of three-dozen musicians were Bley, Paul Motian, Don Cherry, Sheila Jordan, Charlie Haden, John McLaughlin, Jack Bruce and a formative Linda Ronstadt.

BLOOD ON THE FIELDS
Wynton Marsalis’ magnum opus premiered at Lincoln Center in 1994 and was subsequently—and somewhat controversially, due to a snag in eligibility—awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Music. The three-and-a-half-hour oratorio, a slave narrative written for three singers and a 15-piece orchestra, brilliantly coexists as both a wider examination of the black experience in America and a melting pot of black American musical forms. Earlier this year, a Jazz at Lincoln Center revival featuring Gregory Porter proved the work remains, two decades on, utterly transfixing.

WAKONDA’S DREAM
Researching Native American music at a Nebraska powwow, pianist and acclaimed opera composer Anthony Davis met a mother and her young son who claimed he saw and spoke with legendary Chief Standing Bear. The encounter inspired Wakonda’s Dream, commissioned by Opera Omaha and produced in 2007. Blending Native American rhythms with jazz, blues and gospel, it examines a modern American Indian family still at odds with the society that surrounds them.

Originally published in October 2013

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