The Magic Flute: From Morehouse … to the opera house with Monostatos
Terrance McKnight: When I was a kid, sometimes when my father would come home from work, he and I would walk down to the corner grocery store, not to buy groceries now, but to pick up any litter that was in the parking lot. Man, I hated doing that. What if my friends saw me picking up trash on the corner. Can you imagine the jokes?
So dad would pick up this trash with his long broomstick, had a nail on the end of it. He put it into this garbage bag that I was holding, and at some point I asked my mother, "Is this dad's part-time job?" She said he was just trying to beautify the neighborhood, just trying to clean up a bit. He wanted the place where we lived to be beautiful. And I think my father was onto something. That's something that any of us can do, whether it's in our personal or professional lives.
My artistic neighborhood is classical music. I walk the streets of classical music every day, and we all know that classical music in America isn't the most inclusive of art forms. so in this podcast, we're going to try and create something more inclusive, something more beautiful for all of us. We'll share some stories and perspectives and music that has gone unnoticed. We'll experience the beauty of our diversity and the sameness of our humanity in this podcast. This is Every Voice with me, Terrance McKnight, many cultures, many voices, One people.
In this series, we're going to look at representations of Blackness in opera. It's an art form that's more than 400 years old, and it hasn't always been kind to people of my background. But before we get into that, I want to introduce you to Dr. Sharon Willis. She's an African American composer who lives in Atlanta, and her stories are positively Black, and positively captivating. Many of her operas are inspired by real-life historical figures.
Dr. Sharon Willis: I was in bed one night and I heard this story on PBS, and they were talking about this Black man on the Titanic, while I'm in twilight sleep, so I'm thinking that maybe I'm dreaming. This must be two o'clock in the morning, and I said, "Let me- let me- let me wake up," and they kept saying Laroche, Joseph Laroche. And when I heard that, I said, "I'm gonna look that up. That-that's-that's just too incredible." I look up the name, I remember Laroche, and Joseph Philippe Lemercier Laroche and when I looked him up, there's this Black man with afro, and he's married to a French woman, white and two little children with curly hair. And when I see that story, I'm saying, "Opera, opera, story, opera."
When I wrote--
Terrance McKnight: And when she composed the Laroche Opera, I was sure to be there. I've seen several of her operas. Dr. Willis has written 16 operas, and she often tells the stories of very successful African Americans. People love hearing these stories. They were relevant, relatable, plus the music was always wonderful. With just the right amount of familiarity. People would leave the theater asking about, "When's the next production?"
This is music from her opera, Madame CJ about the philanthropist and activist Madame CJ Walker, who in the early 20th Century became one of the first Black millionaires by creating hair products for Black women.
Got to move on,
Although I'am feeling so blue,
Yes, I do.
Got to move on,
Although I'm feeling blue,
Got so much ahead,
Got so much more to do!
Dr. 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 because first of all, they're going to be singing in a language that I don't understand, and they're going to be woo hoo hoo, and that does not mean anything to me.
Terrance McKnight: Outside of Atlanta, not many people know about Sharon Willis' operas. They weren't commissioned or performed by the big opera houses around the country. Those opera houses remain largely committed to performing works that were composed in Europe, based in Europe, or informed by white European perspectives.
The few times Black characters appear in those operas, the portrayals are outdated, offensive. It makes you think about what kind of culture, whose culture those big companies are promoting.
So I was introduced to Sharon Willis' operas during my student days at Morehouse. That was a place where it was acceptable and respectable for Black men to engage in classical music. Morehouse is the only college in the country devoted to educating Black men. So my alma mater is the perfect place for us to begin this exploration of old and new representations of Blackness in opera.
It was a quiet day when we got to the music department. I was there with David Norville, he's one of the producers of this show. Almost immediately, we ran into Dr. David Morrow, who is the director of the Glee Club. Let's go this way. How are you doing, man?
Male Speaker 3: Good. How are you?
Terrance McKnight: Where can I find Dr. Morrow?
Male Speaker 3: Dr. Morrow.
Terrance McKnight: Oh, right in front of me, huh? Yeah. Hey, Dr. Morrow?
Dr. David Morrow: Hello.
Terrance McKnight: I'm Terrance McKnight.
Dr. David Marrow: The Terrance McKnight?
Come on. How are you, sir? Things are well?
Terrance McKnight: Very well, sir.
Dr. David Marrow: Good.
Terrance McKnight: How are you?
Dr. David Marrow: I'm hanging on.
Getting ready to go in here and teach one student.
Terrance McKnight: Who you got?
Dr. David Marrow: Uh, so one with the music majors is in [unintelligible 00:06:30]. Hey.
Terrance McKnight: Oh, yeah.
Dr. David Marrow: All right. When you come back [unintelligible 00:06:35] Hello.
Terrance McKnight: This is Dave Norville. This is Dave Morrow.
Dr. David Marrow: My pleasure. Good name.
Dave Norville: Good to meet you.
Dr. David Marrow: Nice to meet you as well.
Terrance McKnight: Y'all got rehearsal today?
Dr. David Marrow: We do, four o'clock, we're getting ready to go to St. Louis maybe tomorrow. Um, going to St. Louis to sing for the Black Repertoire Ensemble. they'e having their gala. They've been featuring HBCU Choir.
Terrance McKnight: I sang in this Glee Club when I was in school. Some of my closest friends sang in this Glee Club. We toured the country together. We sang in African and European languages. We sang with orchestras, and we performed, at least, one opera. Being around all these men who shared my cultural experiences was critical to me finding comfort and confidence in classical music.
[Glee Club at Morehouse College Singing]
What was so important to our learning is knowing our history, and the history of this Glee Club. It was founded in 1911, and since that time, it’s only had three directors and a number of pretty famous members, like Martin Luther King Jr. This music was written for the Glee Club by Dr. Uzee Brown. He's the chairman of the Division of Creative and Performing Arts at the college. Let's go down to his office, so we can continue this conversation.
Our first Glee Club director in the back.
Dr. Uzee Brown: That's right. That's good.
Terrance McKnight: 1911 to 4-- '53.
Dr. Uzee Brown: Mm-hmm.
Terrance McKnight: Second Glee Club director in front of him, '53 to '87.
Dr. Uzee Brown: Right
Terrance McKnight: Dave Marrow '87 till now. We've had three in 110 years.
Dr. Uzee Brown: That’s right. Yeah.
Terrance McKnight: That's why the tradition is so strong, man.
Dr. Uzee Brown: Yeah, yeah. Absolutely, absolutely, and it makes a difference because--
Terrance McKnight: I took theory from Uzee Brown, a company in his voice studio, and after I got out of graduate school, he brought me back here to teach. It was in his class that I first started paying attention to opera.
Dr. Uzee Brown: There is nothing like being able to have historical context to what you do. You know where you come from, you know what you've had the experience to get to wherever you are. It's important to have that historical wisdom. Critical, I think, to being effective at doing the job, especially in a small, historically Black college.
Terrance McKnight: So you know, Dave, and when I think about coming back here and the fact that Martin King, King sang in our Glee Club.
Dr. Uzee Brown: Mm-hmm.
Terrance McKnight: And that--
Dr. Uzee Brown: Maynard Jackson.
Terrance McKnight: Maynard Jackson.
Dr. Uzee Brown: Mm-hmm, is a member of the Quartet, as a matter of fact.
Terrance McKnight: Yeah.
Dr. Uzee Brown: Mm.
Terrance McKnight: And Waylom was so connected to the King family and to that church. Dr. Brown connected to that family and to that church. You know, when I graduated, he told me, you know, "Now that you're graduating, remember that you're representing yourself, your family, Morehouse College, and your people."
Dr. Uzee Brown: Yeah.
Terrance McKnight: "So the work you do, just keep in mind that you're representation of all those things."
Dr. Uzee Brown: It doesn't matter whether you like the idea of-of that level of representation, it's forced upon you. It becomes by mere fact that you have touched those things that make you associated or connected in that way, is going to connect people to you and that institution and those experiences.
Terrance McKnight: Yeah. Well, you know, I think, you know, being able to see yourself in someone, or being able to see someone as being, you know, possibly brilliant, one has to have open eyes. And the time when Mozart was writing operas, you know, 18th Century or Verdi in the 19th Century, if you consider maybe like Black folks living in Vienna or in wherever in western Europe, there were- there weren't a lot of free intellectual Black folks who had equal opportunities with the white society.
Dr. Uzee Brown: Mm-hmm.
Terrance McKnight: And so their understanding of us was sort of limited. You know, we get 600, 700 students a year that come to this college who upperclassmen are looking at, who faculty members are looking at, and who, you know, see talent in these young men and think anything is possible.
Dr. Uzee Brown: Mm-hmm.
Terrance McKnight: You know, our list of graduates is astounding, some of the accomplishments.
Dr. Uzee Brown: Sure. True.
Terrance McKnight: Um, but you have to be able to look someone's square in the eye and think, first of all they're human and that there's God in them, and that there's possibility in them. And so when I think about what Western Europeans thought about Blackness or their only sort of touchpoint to Blackness, may have been visual art or music or theater.
So in this story, what I'm looking at is some of those examples of Blackness. You know, when we look at operas, there are some roles that were written for Moors, you know, for Africans, for Moors. You know, and one of the operas we wanted to talk about was in Mozart's opera, the Magic Flute.
Dr. Uzee Brown: The Magic Flute, Die Zauberflöte.
Terrance McKnight: Yeah. Yeah, Monostatos.
Dr. Uzee Brown: Mm-hmm.
Terrance McKnight: And he's actually a Moor. Um, and oftentimes this figure shows up in costume, and he's very dark skin. And lately people have been having problems with white singers putting on makeup to become Black. But I wanted to get underneath, Doctor, sort of the coloring, and try to dissect, what is it about this character that requires him to have dark skin?
Dr. Uzee Brown: Well, there are a number of, uh-uh, additional things that I would say about-- well, first of all, about that character and that particular opera, but about the world of opera, in general. It is not unlike quite frankly, uh, conditions of the day of today. You know, you can find many movies that I-I think, you know, though we are getting major breaks in film, a lot of the movies will center around characters that are not very savory in terms of our community.
And there is something about what that character looks like, in terms of making him seem more evil and-and despised than not. So the circumstance of the Monostatos is not necessarily unique in the sense of what white people knew about Blacks, and how they perceived representing them. And-and it is, you know, this is a-a vow buffoon-like character. But you have to remember that a lot of the Western European composers played into that kind of scenario, not just in terms of rights, but in terms of things they had to do with not only the racial divide, but human imperfection.
Terrance McKnight: You're listening to Every Voice with Terrance McKnight. We'll be back in just a moment.
Welcome back. Let's get back to our conversation about Monostatos, that Moor in Mozart's Opera of the Magic Flute.
Well, Monostatos and his own mind and from his own lips, he embodies human imperfection and he tells us why.
Here's mezzo-soprano Raehann Bryce-Davis talking about her first experience with the Magic Flute.
Raehann Bryce-Davis: So the first time I ever encountered Magic Flute, it was in Texas and we had an opportunity that all the universities were all getting together to do one big show. And it was in English, and I didn't know anything about the opera at all. And so we had like a sing-through. I had gone and just like learned all my notes. So I was sitting there happily, like tu, tudu, tudu, and I remember hearing the character that was singing Monostatos, uh, who was of course, uh, a white gentleman who was saying and in English, "Because my skin is black and ugly, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. I'm black, I'm ugly, blah, blah, blah," and I was just like, [gasps]
Raehann Bryce-Davis: [laughs] And as like the only Black person in the room, I like looked around like [gasps] is everybody equally appalled? [laughs] And like everybody was just pleasantly smiling, and looking down at their scores and like, there's nothing wrong here. And I was like, "What the freak is happening?" [laughs]
Terrance McKnight: Gotta laugh to keep from crying sometimes. Paul Laurence Dunbar said it this way, "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, and mouth with myriad subtleties. Why should the world be overwise in counting all our tears and size? Nay, let them only see us while we wear the mask. We smile, but O, great Christ, our cries to thee from tortured souls arise. We sing, but, oh, the clay is vile, but let the world dream otherwise. We wear the mask."
What makes Monostatos imperfect in this opera was something he has no control over, his skin color. It also cast him into slavery. Oh, and it gets worse, self-loathing Monostatos acts out in this opera. Some of the stereotypes that we've come to despise, reject, expect, show up year after year around the world in this opera, and we’re gonna talk about it in our next episode.
Well, this is Every Voice from WQXR, we interrogate the culture of our classical music, and we look at ways to make it beautiful for all of us. I'm Terrance McKnight, I'll see you next time.
This episode of Every Voice with Terrance McKnight was produced by David Norville. Our research team includes Ariel Elizabeth Davis, Pranathi Diwakar, Ian George, Jasmine Ogiste. This episode’s sound design and engineering is by Sapir Rosenblatt. Our original music was composed by Brother Jermey Thomas and featured harpist, Dr. Ashley Jackson.
Our Project Manager is Natalia Ramirez, and our Executive Producer is Tony Phillips. Elizabeth Nonemaker is the Executive Producer for WQXR Podcast, 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 @arts.gov. If you enjoyed this episode, please take the time to rate it and review it, and review us on
Apple Podcasts, or wherever you listen. Thanks for listening. Tune in next week. We'll see you next time.
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