Thompson’s Opera “The Mask in the Mirror” Issued

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THOMPSON: The Mask in the Mirror / Cameo Humes, ten (Paul/Narrator); Angela L. Owens, sop (Alice); John Burt Polhamus, bar (Dean Howells); Leberta Lorál, sop (Victoria, Paul’s Friend/Woman in Bar); Lindsay Patterson Abdou, mezzo (Patsy/Mathilde/Mrs. Lyons/Leila, Alice’s Sister); Natalie Mann, sop (Sarah); Roland Mills, ten (Sales Rep/Drinking Buddy); Richard Thompson, pno; The Sanaa Opera Project; Stephen Tucker, cond / Navona NV6209

This three-act opera, premiered in 2012 by Trilogy Opera in Newark, New Jersey, is based on the life and career of Paul Laurence Dunbar, the first nationally recognized and published black poet. Dunbar, whose parents had been slaves, wrote many of his poems in the “Negro dialect” of the old South in addition to writing other poems and novels in conventional English. He died from the fatal combination of tuberculosis and alcoholism at the age of 33, in 1906.

Black British composer Richard Thompson has taken as the focus of this opera the conflict between Dunbar’s desire to marry a biracial woman, Alice Ruth Moore, who was also a poet and writer. The match would seem to have been ideal, but he faced strong opposition from both his mother to marrying someone who was half-white and her mother for marrying a man “who drinks and courts many women…in a tongue betrayed by liquor.” Dunbar married her secretly anyway, but continued to be hounded for it. It’s a sad story under any circumstances, but doubly so because, for many African-Americans, Dunbar’s surprise success in the white publishing world was a source of pride. Of course, tuberculosis was the primary cause of death and undoubtedly would have happened without the other stressors in his life, but these internal conflicts surely didn’t help and increased his drinking.

And it was true that he was always susceptible to flattery from intelligent women who understood what he was doing. While in London, and already smitten by Alice, a lady admirer named Sarah praises him for his “passion” and his voice “which touches my soul,” to which he instinctively replies, “Yes, I do also…My poetry is a path to your heart, a path I would tread so happily.” Short memory there, Paul, wouldn’t you say?

In a sense, I’m glad to see this opera recorded and distributed on CD because works of this sort have a history of being marginalized and ignored, even in these more enlightened times, by the classical music establishment. I was fortunate to see the Cincinnati production of Richard Danielpour’s opera Margaret Garner, based on the short story Beloved by Toni Morrison who also wrote the libretto. This was based on the true story of a female slave who worked “in the house” of a wealthy Kentucky slave owner but was also married to Robert Garner and had children by him. Escaping to freedom, the Garners were hunted down like animals and Robert was recaptured into slavery. Refusing to let her children also be captured and grow up as slaves, Margaret killed them just before the hunters broke into her hiding place. The opera was an extremely good one; I taped the radio broadcast of the performance and still have it in my collection; but after a short run in three American opera houses (Chicago, Cincinnati and Philadelphia), the opera died an unnatural death and has never been recorded or, to my knowledge, performed ever again. The plot and the characters were just too sensitive and close to the truth for many members of its white audience to acknowledge.

One of the real tragedies of Dunbar’s story was that, in a sense, it was more the internal family conflicts that led to his alcoholism and the tuberculosis that hastened his early death than the kind of ugly laws and norms that afflicted Margaret Garner. If anything, Dunbar’s success in the white publishing world of his time, though he had to compromise by writing several poems in dialect, was a breakthrough of enormous proportions, but because of this his work was forgotten and marginalized once the more famous poets of the Harlem Renaissance came along in the 1920s. That, too, is part of the tragedy of his short life.

I was pleasantly surprised to hear that most of the cast members of The Mask in the Mirror had really fine voices, not only tonally attractive but lacking the flutters and wobbles I’ve complained of in any number of modern recordings of other operas old and new, as well as very clear diction (something their more famous operatic brothers and sisters often don’t have). But ignoring for the moment the white singers in the cast (good as they are) I have to say this, that nearly all these singers are worthy of much more widespread success in the mainstream opera world as well, and this is still, to me, a modern tragedy that seems to have no end. If you’re a great black opera singer and your name doesn’t happen to be Leontyne Price, Martina Arroyo or Shirley Verrett, your career isn’t going to go very far. Even during the Price-Arroyo-Verrett era, there were several other outstanding African-American singers who either had much smaller careers or didn’t make it at all. Kathleen Battle had a breakthrough in the 1980s and early ‘90s, but there were others during her era who also deserved a big break and didn’t get it. Soprano Leona Mitchell had a pretty good Met career but was never quite as big a name internationally.  Nowadays, it seems as if Lawrence Brownlee and Daniele De Niese are the only black artists with really big international careers. Of the Margaret Garner cast, only mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves, whose voice sadly collapsed not too long after her participation in these performances, had such a stature. Soprano Angela K. Brown, who did sing a few Aidas at the Metropolitan Opera around the time of Margaret Garner, had an outstanding large lyric soprano voice but didn’t make records or become internationally known. Gregg Baker, who played Robert Garner, was one of the most exceptional dramatic baritones I’ve ever heard in my life (in addition to being a physical marvel and very sexy-looking), yet except for an Amonasro here and there mostly sang the stereotypical black baritone role of Porgy in Gershwin’s trashy little opera.

Thompson’s work, being a chamber opera, by necessity features a scaled-down orchestra and, in fact, he himself plays the piano in the Prologue. Cameo Humes, an excellent light lyric tenor, sings both Dunbar and the narrator. Interestingly, in Paul’s first entrance Humes does a parlando reading of one of Dunbar’s dialect poems:

G’way an’quit dat noise, Miss Lucy –
Put that music book away;
What’s de use to keep on tryin’?
Ef you practice ‘twell you’re gray,
You cain’t sta’t no notes a-flyin’
Lak de ones dat rants and rings,
F’om de kitchen to the big woods
When Malindy sings.

You ain’t got the nachel o’gans
Fu’ to make be soun’ come right,
You ain’t got the tu’ns an’ twistin’s
Fu’ to make it sweet and light.

Tell you one thing now, Miss Lucy,
An’ I’m tellin’ you fu’ true,
When hit comes to raal right singin’
‘Tain’t no easy thing to do.

Later in the first act, Paul has this to say in a spoken interlude:

I write English as well as any man! As well as any man! Am I to write only dialect poetry? Never! I will not be denied the recognition I deserve. I will gain my rightful place in the world of literature.

In a letter to his publisher, Dean Howells, Dunbar wrote:

Let the world praise my poetry in a broken tongue
While my deepest thoughts are dismissed…
We wear the mask that grins and lies
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,
This debt we pay to human guile,
With torn and bleeding hearts, we smile

This parlando style continues throughout the opera, interspersed with sung passages in what I would call melodic recitative. This is a popular and accepted form of modern operatic writing, and in a work like this it was a good idea. The scoring is exceptionally light, sounding for the most part like a 30-piece orchestra at most, and Thomson clearly knows how to develop his musical themes. In fact, one of the real joys of listening to The Mask in the Mirror is its structural integrity. It almost sounds like a dramatic cantata if you know what I mean, but in a very good sense. One’s interest never flags because the music is so well written. It is mostly tonal, and the sung lines very grateful to the ear despite the lack of real arias and duets, with more advanced harmonies occasionally injected into the orchestral writing.

There is yet another thing I liked about it, and that is, despite the more modern harmonic leanings of the score it is orchestrated in a way that mirrors early turn-of-the-century concert and vaudeville music (think of some of these modern ragtime orchestras you hear nowadays or, if your memory goes back far enough, Scott Joplin’s rags from The Red Back Book as recorded by Gunther Schuller in the 1970s.)

Indeed, the overriding feeling I got from Thompson’s score is best described as touching. It is very tender music but, thank goodness, free of sentimentality or bathos. I was deeply appreciative to him for this, and despite its continuous quality there is so much rhythmic and harmonic subtlety in it that I found myself continually interested. It’s music that “grows” on you; it might almost be described as poetry in sound.

Despite the compact nature of the scenes and Thompson’s interspersing of Dunbar’s writings and poetry with his own libretto, events sometimes develop slowly. For instance, it’s not until Act 1, Scene 3 that Paul actually meets Alice, who he has been corresponding with for some time, at the home of his friend Victoria. Told by Paul that the passion he feels for Alice is real, Victoria responds, “The passion you feel is for your work and, perhaps, for your mother. No flesh and blood woman could ever take poetry’s place!”

At the start of Act II, Dunbar recites what is possibly his most famous poem:

I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,—
When he beats his bars and he would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings—
I know why the caged bird sings!

And, after he reads another of his dialect poems:

All they want to hear is dialect, dialect!
I wish I had never written those damn things.
They are strangling me!

Although this is a chamber opera it is not a very short one, but runs about two hours. In performance, with two intermissions, it takes up a full evening. In the Harlem bar scene, Thompson writes in a sort of modified ragtime style, using the rhythm of that music but much more modern harmonies, with a bassoon happily burping a syncopated figure in the background. A bit later in the same scene, Thompson himself plays a rag with similarly modern (but not atonal) chords which I really liked as an interlude. When the “drinking buddy” sings, the orchestra shifts to a swing beat—anachronistic, but interesting—for a brief period before returning to ragtime, this time modified with a looser, more swinging beat. Paul, his drinking buddy and an unidentified woman then sing the one real “song” in the opera, a little tune called “Jump back, honey, jump back.”

Paul’s growing alcoholism interfered with both his poetry career and his relationship with Alice. He used his father’s similar proclivities as an excuse for his own; she reminded him that his father was not a great and famous poet as he was. One of the few rhythmic scenes in the opera occurs in Act III, Scene 2. Eventually Alice leaves Paul after he comes home from a multi-day drinking spree, worse than usual, and writes to her mother about it. The implication of the opera is that Paul’s inability to be accepted for his non-dialect writing was the primary source of his drinking, but having been personally familiar with alcoholics I can tell you that most of them look for a reason to justify their addiction and many, unfortunately, never stop. Alice made him decide between her and the bottle; she surely could have given him the deep emotional support he needed, but he still chose the bottle. Tragic, to be sure, but his TB would have doomed him anyway. The alcohol hastened his demise but did not cause it. The opera ends with the couple still separated, Paul writing her a letter explaining his loneliness and inability to cope with the relationship.

The Mask in the Mirror, like Dunbar’s life, is moving, subtle, and sad. It is more a revelation of what might have been had he not had TB or been addicted to alcohol, but unfortunately great writers, composers, artists and poets are flesh and blood and thus subject to the ravages of time, illness and addictions like any other segment of society, and some never manage to escape the prison of their physical or psychological ailments. By and large, this is a wonderful opera, artfully written and, for what I can gather without having seen a production, theatrically skillful, blending facts with imagination. It is almost like a dream image of Dunbar’s life, told in short scenes that add up to personal sadness, alienation, separation and death. I was very much moved by it.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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