An operatic aria by composer Daniel Bernard Roumain whose original premiere was thwarted by a dispute over a line in the libretto is being unveiled this week by a national coalition that includes Opera Philadelphia.
“They Still Want to Kill Us” was being prepared for its May 1 debut by Tulsa Opera when Denyce Graves, the mezzo-soprano who was to have sung it, objected.
“As a Black woman I am a huge supporter of all Black Lives, Black expression, and creativity. I don’t have trouble with strong lyrics, but I felt that they did not line up with my personal values,” said Graves in a March statement. “I could not find an honest place to express the lyrics as they were presented.”
The work was not included, as had been originally planned, among other pieces in Tulsa Opera’s Greenwood Overcomes program earlier this month marking the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Massacre.
The three-and-half-minute piece, with both music and text written by Roumain, reflects on the Tulsa Massacre.
A young man/ Mr. Rowland/ A younger woman/ Ms. Page/ Stumbled upon one another/ In that elevator everything changed.
May 31, 1921/ 18 hours/ A white mob/ Engulfed with white rage
The aria continues with imagery of murder and destruction, and then, at its climax:
God bless America/ God damn America
It was this last line that led to the cancellation. Opera Philadelphia and more than a dozen organizations and individuals have now stepped in to give the work a debut. A film version of the aria, performed by mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges and directed by filmmaker Yoram Savion, will stream for free Tuesday night on Facebook and YouTube and Wednesday on the websites of Opera Philadelphia and the Apollo Theater, Joe’s Pub, Stanford Live, and others. (The operaphila.org website also links to the Tuesday YouTube premiere.)
Roumain in an interview Sunday called the request to change the phrase and the subsequent cancellation an act of censorship. He said that he considered Graves “a wonderful and accomplished artist” and Tulsa Opera artistic director Tobias Picker “an important American composer.”
But, he said: “Opera is a dramatic art, a theatrical art. I wrote something commemorating the men, women, and children who died a hundred years ago in the massacre and [Black Americans] who continue to die. I wasn’t engaging Denyce Graves as a person, but as a great theatrical opera singer, so when she says she can’t personally sing the song, I understand that, but that’s not what I thought this was about.”
Graves on Monday called it “a matter of different artistic choices,” declining further comment.
Highly respected and widely adored, Graves has appeared often locally with Opera Philadelphia and the Philadelphia Orchestra. She was a favorite singer of opera lover Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and sang at last year’s U.S. Capitol memorial for Ginsburg.
Roumain is known to Philadelphia through We Shall Not Be Moved, a collaboration with librettist Marc Bamuthi Joseph and director/choreographer Bill T. Jones premiered by Opera Philadelphia at its O17 festival.
“They Still Want to Kill Us” started as an aria, but it is and will be more, Roumain says. It’s now a film, and he expects it to become part of a chamber opera.
“It’s also a website” — theystillwanttokillus.com — which “has become a town hall” in the wake of the controversy, he says. “You can donate to BIPOC artists, you can download the piece and learn a little bit about the history of the event and also where you’ll be able to see the film. This is what composers in 2021 do.”
The other thing composers do in 2021, he says, is to ask the same question of opera that many are asking of society generally: how to love Black people.
“Does opera love Black people and if it does, how? Where is the evidence? I think one of the ways opera could love Black people and BIPOC people is not only to engage us on the stage but also in the decisions that are made around it.”
That means trust, he says.
“Trust us to tell our stories our way with our words.”
One option at Tulsa Opera would have been for it to find a singer who was comfortable singing his text as written, he says.
The company did approach a number of singers performing in the Greenwood Overcomes concert with that request and none said yes, a spokesperson for Tulsa Opera said.
“Ms. Graves’ objection was not solely to the word ‘damn,’ but to the phrase the word is in, cursing the country,” said Howard Watkins, cocurator of the Greenwood Overcomes project with Picker, in a statement. “When Mr. Roumain indicated he was inflexible over making changes for the person for whom he was creating the work, the decision was made to remove the piece.”
Roumain was paid his commission fee.
The composer said lost in the controversy over the phrase “God damn America” was the larger historical context — the way it echoes others, including James Baldwin, who famously wrote: “I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”
Roumain says the phrase “God bless America, God damn America” is specific to “what happened in 1921 and what is happening in 2021. A score at its best is really a type of cultural documentation.”
If you want to understand a given culture, look to composers, he says: German nobility through Bach, Viennese culture through Mozart, Minneapolis funk by way of Prince.
“If you want to understand Black America right now, does anybody doubt that Black America is actively saying, ‘Yeah, we love America, God bless America. We love America. But God damn America, too.’
“Let’s be complex human beings,” he says. “Let’s get past binary thought.”
“They Still Want to Kill Us” premieres Tuesday at 8 p.m. on various platforms through July 31 via operaphila.org.