Abduction from the Seraglio: Revelations

Terrance McKnight: This is Every Voice with Terrance McKnight. It’s a new podcast from WQXR that interrogates the culture of our classical music scene and we look at ways to make it beautiful for all of us. In this series we’re Looking at representations of blackness in opera. This is the last episode of the series, and you’re still listening, glad to have you here. 

Woman at Lincoln Center: I’ve been to the opera at the met. It’s glorious, everybody should go once. Um, i wish more people would go, i know it’s expensive to go, and it would be cool if there was a way that was less expensive for more people in the community to be able to get to opera, but like, hey, lots of times it is not in english and it’s hard to understand what’s happening, but the met has these cool little things where they translate it for you on the seat in front of you so you can follow along.  And always the performances are gorgeous and the sets are gorgeous and the costumes are gorgeous and all the people who work there do really hard work and like … it’s worth going just to appreciate THAT. So even if you can’t follow the story, the music is beautiful. And everything else you’re watching is beautiful, so everyone should go to the met!  

Terrance McKnight: The met gotta hire her. She needs to be doing promotional materials. But that’s the sort of excitement we should all hear when we go to hear music.

Terrance McKnight: Many cultures, many voices, one people.

Terrance McKnight: I grew up playing trumpet and piano, at some point early in my development the symphony orchestra came into focus, we’d go hear their orchestra in elementary school but the only man who looked like anyone in my family sat towards the back of our orchestra in the string section.  Now, here's the thing, those environments, those orchestras, are part of our education system. So what do our kids take away from these experiences if they don’t get to see representations of themselves? Or they ONLY see representations of themselves? What does that say about the beautiful diversity of their classrooms? We gotta do something about that.

In my work as a concert presenter, I try to make the experience feel more like an American experience, less like a european experience. And for a lot of African Americans musicians , that experience involves church. Its where I first started playing music and it’s something I have in common with some of the singers  who took part in this series. Chauncey Packer, Sharon Willis, Limmie Pulliam and Janinah Burnett, they were all involved in the work of the church.

Chauncey Packer: My mom and dad were both musicians in the church. My mom, she carried the choirs and played piano. My father played, uh, guitar and drums and bass, and so we, we sang and did music, um, in our home and, and church. That's what I knew growing up.

Limmie Pulliam:  My dad was a, a preacher. Yeah. I was a pk and, uh, so we grew up in the, in the church. 

Janinah Burnett: You know, I sing and love Abyssinian Baptist Church.

Sharon Willis: I grew up in Beulah Baptist Church in Vine City. 

Limmie Pulliam: We sang in the choir, children's choir, and as we got older and the, you know, the teen and adult choirs and, uh, You know, I sang solos as a, as a youngster, uh, which is how I learned that I could, could sing, uh, was in church in the Sunshine Band, as they, you called it

Chauncey Packer:  when I first started to study music. I felt it was so compartmentalized that this is gospel, this is classical music, and this is what you have to leave to, to study classical music. Um, I feel on the contrary is you bring your full musical experience with anything you do as you grow as a musician and as an artist. 

(Chauncey sings)

Chauncey Packer: I feel I was informed brilliantly as, as in the music world, in the Pentecostal Church, how I grew up in Alabama as a southern, um, black man. Um, I, I always thank, I always thank my mother for the training that we had in church. There was discipline there. So that set my, sort of, my discipline up to, to receive and to, um, have the exchange of presentation.

Limmie Pulliam:  It, it wasn't until after I had gone off to college that, that I started incorporating it into, Uh, the music I would sing in church. Um, I think partially that was because I didn't, I knew most people wouldn't quite get it because it was, it wasn't something that they were used to hearing.

Limmie Pulliam sings from Aida)

Limmie Pulliam:  It wasn't a style that they were used to hearing and, and, uh, you know, in the Pentecostal church. Um, and it was, it was more of just, uh, I. As I began to learn more about my own self vocally and musically, I was able to, to better incorporate the classical style into, into gospel music, um, and to to use my classical technique to enhance the gospel singing.

Terrance McKnight: In this series we’re looking at representations of blackness in opera.  

Sylvia McNair:  we are talking about race in opera, we are pulling these issues out from the shadows where they've kind of been buried, hidden. We're shining light on them. 

Terrance McKnight:  In this episode we’re wrapping up the series with a  conversation on Mozart’s opera The Abduction from the Seraglio. In the opera there’s a black mute, he’s an enslaved man I’ll come back to him later, and then there’s Osmin who is a slave, he’s an overseer for pasha Salim’s harem.  This is how Osmin was portrayed in the opera.  

Pasha Salim: Osmin’s he an idiot,  He’s not quite bright. I think he’s an idiot actually. But, uh, He’s loyal. And, um, He’s loyal to a fault. 

Blonde: I find him terrifying, He’s so boorish and insolent, every minute he’s trying to come on to me. 


Terrance McKnight:  Remember the enthusiastic opera goer at the top of the show, the beauty of opera she talked about.  In an opera like Abduction, where’s the beauty for someone like me. The guys on stage who most resemble me are both enslaved and one of them doesn’t even say a word, and in Magic Flute, the other Mozart opera we covered, the Black man in that opera, is there for laughs and entertainment value. Perceptions of people get passed down and they filter into real life. Listen to what Ian George shared with us. Ian is a young man on our production team. Keep in mind that scene in Magic Flute where Monostatos dances uncontrollably.

Ian George: One of my first jobs out of college was I worked at top of the rock observation deck. It was a team of, it was a group of us and we just, it was tourists coming in all day. We were on our feet for like 8, 9, 10 hours, but we had a blast and we, we just talk to people from all over the world and oftentimes, You know, managers would, would call to me like, Hey, you know, Ian, you should really, you know, sing and entertain these people. And I was young and I was like“oh, this is fun.” And I did it. But I mean, I was compensated for being there. I wasn't compensated for that. If I'm looking back on it now, just being honest, right? It was just like, put on these tap shoes for our guests. He's not gonna say no, he loves doing it. He likes it.


Terrance McKnight: Somebody listening to this podcast is thinking, Hey, man, that happened to me. Yep, I know that’s right. Hey’ I’ve been there, I know what he's talking about.


Sharon Willis opera resonantes 

Sharon Willis: When we are perceived, as buffoons or vixens or mammies, that has no redeeming value for me. Why would I write that.

Terrance McKnight: Sharon Willis composes operas, who leaves her audiences feeling uplifted and beautified. Like they just left the salon or something.

Sharon Willis: The response that audience  members have given me have been very positive. Many of them had to be coerced by their neighbors or people who knew me to say. , I'm coming to an opera. I don't want to come to an opera cuz first of all, they're gonna be singing in a language that I don't understand and they're gonna be woohoo, woohoo. And that does not mean anything to me. But then they come out converted saying, is this what opera is? And they say, no, this is what Sharon Willis writes.

MUSIC: Sharon Willis. (Music recorded in Atlanta….)

Terrance McKnight: “Darling promise me” that comes from Pink Lady, and opera by Sharon Willis, that was her on piano with Leslie Hamilton, Soprano. Mel Foster, Tenor. 

We’re going to take a brief pause…This is Every Voice with Terrance McKnight, we’ll take a pause and come back with this guy 

Peter Sellars: You’re listening to Every Voice with the one and only

Terrance McKnight:  That’s what you hear when you get my voicemail. Thanks Peter Sellars.  we’ll be back.  This is Every Voice.

Terrance McKnight: This is the last half of the last episode of this series on representations of blackness in opera. In the series we’ve looked at two operas by Mozart, they were written during the transatlantic slave heist and Verdi’s two operas were written during America’s Reconstruction period.  After Reconstruction, it would be another 70 years before black singers and classical musicians integrated opera houses and symphony orchestras in America. 

Peter Sellars:  Classical music got stuck because in 1925, who sold the most records in the world? It’s Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong, 1925. Now, why won't those people be invited to the Metropolitan Opera House? Excuse me. And why did we say that? Stravinsky and Schoenberg are the only important composers when Bessie Smith is alive. What are you talking about? There's a historical backlash. Opera lost it big time and didn't just freeze those two people out. Froze composers out of the opera house for two generations. So opera has a lot of catch up to do, and catching up means. New pieces. Catching up means, let's hear it now and let's hear it with all the power and beauty and vision that opera is capable of. And let's not just go try fix the past, let's actually address the present in real terms. It's abnormal that a repertoire is made out of pieces from the past. Normally Verde and Mozart. There were only contemporary operas, so the only solution to what we're talking about is that all opera has to be contemporary again, and every once in a while you do an old piece. Sure. But no, it's about now it's made by now it sounds like now it moves, like now it talks like now, it's now. And that's not just the future, that's the present. 


Terrance McKnight:  Someone else who might have something to say about the direction of opera is someone who has been silent for the past 250 years. As we wrap up this episode, I wanna go back to a character that we really haven't discussed. A character in Mozart's abduction from the Seraglio. He’s described as a slave, a Black mute . He didn’t say a word, So I’ll speak up for him.  He was a silent witness in this opera. He witnessed everything, the violence, the cruelty,  the kindness, the empathy,  the notions of who deserves to be free and who doesn’t.  Oh I bet he has something to say. Now during his lifetime Mozart  was associated with at least two Black men. Perhaps he wanted us to see this character, this mute, minus all the centuries of demeaning racist stereotypes that were so popular in Western thought, art, literature, and pseudo science. Maybe Mozart wanted to take a look at opera through the eyes of this mute, and when we do that, we might all start to see and hear his voice, and the many voices of humanity that go unheard, and when we do that, what we hear is Every Voice. I just couldn't resist it. 


I'm Terrance McKnight. Thanks for being with us on this journey. We got a lot of folks to thank as we wrap up. All those artists who showed up for us on this program. Li Pullium, Youi Brown, Jr. Peter Sellers. Rand Bryce Davis, Thomas Hamson, Kevin Manor, Sylvia McNair, Malicia Taylor, Dr. Melvin Foster, Jennifer Welch Babbage, Jan Burnett, Nathan Stark, Sir Willard White, Mary Beth Diggle.


And also thanks to my colleague, Nemet Habachy, who joined us for our episode on Aida. Ah so many folks Thanks to our artist Erin K Robinson who did the illustrations for the show. Theodora Kulslan, and everybody, the whole team at WQXR, New York Public Radio, who made this show possible. And a huge thanks to the NEA, the national endowment for the arts, you know, that’s where our tax dollars go.


I gotta thank my good friend Harry Belafonte, the late Belafonte, who's life and career. Inspired so much of the work that I did. I always thought, man, what if Belafonte has listened to my show? I gotta get it right. 


Every Voice with Terrance McKnight was written and produced by Terrance McKnight, David Norville, and Tony Phillips. Our research team includes Ariel Elizabeth Davis, Pranathi Diwakar, Ian George, and Jas Ogiste. This episode’s sound design and engineering was by Alan Goffinski. And our original music was composed by Brother Jermey Thomas and Dr. Ashley Jackson on harp, and brother Titos Sompa on percussion and vocals.

Our Project Manager is Natalia Ramirez, and our Executive Producer is Tony Phillips. The Executive Producer for WQXR Podcasts is Elizabeth Nonemaker, and Ed Yim is the Chief Content Officer at WQXR.

This project is supported in part by the National Endowment for the Arts. You can find more information on the web at arts.gov.

If you enjoyed this episode, please take time to rate it, rate us, review up on Apple Podcasts, or wherever you listen. I’m Terrance McKnight. 

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