A new song cycle exploring the realities of life as a black man in America will receive its world premiere performance with Opera Philadelphia tonight, then in Chicago at the DuSable Museum of African American History on 22 February, and the Zankel Hall at Carnegie Hall on 24 April.
Cycles of My Being is commissioned by Opera Philadelphia, Carnegie Hall, and Lyric Unlimited, A Division of Lyric Opera of Chicago: heavyweights coming together to produce an important new work. The composer is Tyshawn Sorey, whose musical genres, according to Wikipedia, are an eclectic mix of “Jazz, Avant-garde, Classical music, and Klezmer”, poet Terrance Hayes is the work's lyricist, and Lawrence Brownlee its interpreter.
In these divided times, we hope to create something that brings people together with mutual respect, understanding, and communication across races and generations.
“In these divided times”… Is America backpedalling after so much recent progress?
America has a long history of slavery and segregation, and racism towards black people. It's much subtler these days, but I can still feel it when I'm walking down the street and I see a woman clutching her purse when I'm the only person of colour close to her.
To most people, I look like any regular black guy, and no one knows that I'm educated, have met kings and queens, have travelled to 45 countries and speak four languages. And there's a definite sense of the weight of all the things my father and grandfather couldn't do.
So, does the song cycle focus on the past?
It focuses on today, but of course the problems and feelings of today are borne out of years and years of repression.
Has your colour affected you as a musician?
Absolutely. Because of history, when people see me, they don't have someone like me in mind as the handsome prince, or the king, or another role that I'm playing which hasn't been historically thought of as a short, black man. No one has ever turned me down for a part and said, “Because he's black” or even, “Because he's small and black!” but I've come to understand a code – “We have a different idea in mind for the role” for example.
Where did the inspiration for Cycles of My Being come from?
The idea stemmed from the increase in news coverage about police brutality towards African Americans: it seems every week or month a black man is being murdered by police for something insignificant. Driving without a tail light could turn into a situation where someone loses their life just for being black.
The composer, lyricist and I wanted to bring our collective experiences together and give a pulse on what we are feeling and the questions we have. It's about how we view living in this country in this skin, and how we are viewed by others.
A subject close to your heart…
Of course, the subject is important to me as a black man and because of the difficulties of watching all the injustice happening on a daily basis. I wanted to use my art as a platform and say something meaningful, and I'm fortunate to be at a point in my career where many people support me and my work. I felt like the people of our time in history had something to say, and that it should be documented.
Just like Puccini, Wagner, and Verdi talked about current subjects and issues in their time, we should all help and collaborate to make art about our stories, so that people can look back on this time and understand us in a better way. I wanted to be a part of something that would have tremendous shelf life, that someone could pick up in years to come and feel like this is their story.
Sorey–Hayes–Brownlee — three cultural hard hitters! What are you aiming for with this new work?
We wanted the song cycle to have clarity but not be overly simple. The music itself is rhythmically challenging, and also challenges my vocal range. The music is volatile at times, which suggests the unpredictable ways racial prejudice manifests itself in daily life.
Cycles of My Being gives us, myself, and the composer and lyricist, the opportunity to be in the driver's seat; to be in control of the discourse.
How universal are Cycles of My Being's themes? Who is it talking to?
The songs address hate and hope, as well as America and its perceptions of black people. I hope it gives a new perspective, and really allows people to see into the psyche and mindset of a young educated black man in America. It should enlighten people, but also it should give people an opportunity to experience a bit of what we go through.
Though the hate that black people experience won't be understood by everyone, the theme of hope is universal. Hope is what gets us out of bed each morning. Hope is what drives us, and having a positive attitude allows us to face these things despite all the negativity surrounding us. Even in the midst of adversity and turmoil, we can still go about our day because of that hope and the ability to overcome.
A long departure from English lords, Spanish counts, and fairy-tale princes!
I spend my life portraying other, mostly fictional, characters. This is an opportunity to talk about something that is truly personal, and that is truly me.
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano') about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman's Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia' column for Dancing Times magazine.