Join us for an in-depth exploration of Shirley Graham Du Bois’ opera, Tom-Tom written while the composer, playwright, and activist was a student at Oberlin in 1932. Tom-Tom was the first opera written and staged by an African American woman and the work has not been produced since its initial run. All that survives of the score is an incomplete piano-vocal reduction. In this livestream, soprano Candice Hoyes, baritone Markel Reed, and pianist Kyle Walker perform excerpts from the score. Following the performance, Caroline Jackson Smith, Professor of Theater and Africana Studies at Oberlin College, moderates a panel discussion considering the opera’s complex representations of race, gender and history. Harvard lecturer Lucy Caplan, originally produced this event at Harvard in 2018, will join the panel alongside the three performers.
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Markel Reed, baritone
Candice Hoyes, soprano
Kyle Walker, piano
Caroline Jackson Smith, moderator
Lucy Caplan, panelist
Shirley Graham Du Bois Excerpts from Tom-Tom (1896-1932)
Following the excerpts, Caroline Jackson Smith moderates a panel discussion considering the opera’s complex representation of race, gender, and history.
Please submit questions for the panel during the livestream in the chat box.
Mobile-friendly Program Notes
This event was originally produced by Lucy Caplan in partnership with AMOC at Harvard University in 2018.
All artists and dates are subject to change and cancellation without notice as we work closely with local health experts and officials.
Markel Reed, baritone
Markel Reed, a native of Charlotte, N.C., has been featured in various concerts and recitals throughout the U.S., Canada, and in Europe. His repertoire includes Figaro in Il Barbiere di Siviglia, Count Almaviva in Le Nozze di Figaro, Leporello in Don Giovanni, Morales in Carmen, Papageno in Die Zauberflöte, Schaunard in La Bohème, and Guglielmo in Cosi Fan Tutte.
As a member of Utah Opera’s Resident Artist Program (2015—2017), Reed performed the roles of Masetto in Don Giovanni, Dancaïre in Carmen, the Jailer in Tosca, Kromov in The Merry Widow and covered the role of Brian Castner in Jeremy Howard Beck’s The Long Walk.
As a passionate conveyor of the operatic repertoire, Reed has established himself as a wonderful interpreter of the works of Mozart, and recently those of French and Bel Canto composers as well. His portrayals of varied characters and their moods have left audiences in awe of his versatility. Recently, Reed was featured in an original miniature opera revue as part of the collaboration between Utah Opera, local composers of Utah and story tellers of Salt Lake City’s The Bee, entitled Operas on the Hive, where his performance was praised:
Prior to his position with Utah Opera, Reed was a young artist of the Kentucky Opera Studio Artist program during the 2014—2015 season where he was featured in the role of Count Paris. He has also performed with Bronx Opera, Cincinnati Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Opera Louisiane and Utah Festival Opera and Musical Theatre.
Reed pursued his Bachelors of Music Performance at Oakwood University and is an alumnus of the University of Kentucky Opera Theatre program.
Candice Hoyes, soprano
Candice Hoyes is poised to “shape the artist-cum-activist role.” (NPR) She is set to release “Zora’s Moon,” the title single of her mostly self-penned album, in July 2020. This jaunty retro-soul escapade is an ode to Black girl joy and womanly prescience.
An acclaimed multi-genre artist, Hoyes is a 2020 winner of the inaugural NYC Women’s Fund for Film, Music, and Media.
“There is no better moment to share this project,” Hoyes remarks. “Music awakens our interior life so we can experience one another, and even bonds across any distance, so I am incredibly inspired to create.”
Hoyes is a graduate of Harvard University, where she studied sociology and Black Studies. Her 2015 EP of rare Ellington songs, On a Turquoise Cloud, was critically acclaimed, and her first recording was 2014’s Abyssinian Mass supporting the Wynton Marsalis and Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. Classically trained in voice and piano, Hoyes has performed across every musical genre.
Recent performances include Caramoor, 2020 NYC JazzFest, Nublu JazzFest, the Public Theater, and the Blue Note. She has written for Shondaland, Blavity, and The Los Angeles Review of Books, and she has spoken and performed at TED HQ.
As an activist/producer, she produced her feminist performance lecture series for Jazz at Lincoln Center and CUNY, and is a key supporter of the Feminist Press, Well Read Black Girl, Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights in Law, Harlem Arts Alliance, Women in Music, and numerous grassroots organizations. She is first generation American, and her family comes from Kingston, Jamaica.
Hoyes is an alumna of Caramoor’s Bel Canto Young Artist program.
Her debut EP On a Turquoise Cloud is available on Spotify, Apple Music, Tidal and YouTube.
Kyle Walker, piano
A strong advocate for social equality, critically-acclaimed pianist Kyle P. Walker believes music can speak to social issues better than verbal language can, the understanding of which he brings to both traditional Western repertoire and that of the living world-wide composers with whom he collaborates.
Highlights of this season include appearances at the Colour of Music Festival, a solo recital tour throughout the East and West coast, and a Lincoln Center appearance alongside Miss America 2019.
Walker has been featured on WNYC, WQXR, NPR, and UNC-TV. Recent performances include his debut solo recital at Weill Hall at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, Stern Auditorium at Carnegie Hall, The Great Hall at Cooper Union, The Tantaloona Cave of Australia, and the Lied Center of Kansas.
As an advocate of social justice, Walker is a founding member and pianist of The Dream Unfinished, an activist orchestra which supports NYC-based civil rights and community organizations through concerts and presentations.
Walker performs with the group Sanctuary Project NYC. The ensemble composed of classically trained musicians and dancers, creates original productions through a collaborative rehearsal process, centered around structured improvisation.
He is currently touring a solo performance project entitled Bach to BlackNotes, which features the music of J.S. Bach juxtaposed with music of neglected composers, who speak to issues of oppression and inequality. See and hear more of Kyle Walker’s musicianship on Instagram @klassicalkyle and at www.kylewalkerpiano.com.
Caroline Jackson Smith, moderator
Caroline Jackson-Smith is professor of theater and Africana studies. A recipient of the prestigious 1993 fellowship for early career directors from the Theater Communications Group/National Endowment for the Arts, Jackson Smith made her New York debut at the New York Public Theater in 1995, when she directed Adrienne Kennedy’s Funnyhouse of a Negro for the Signature Theater Company.
She has directed and or worked as a dramaturg for the Cleveland Play House, Great Lakes Theater Festival, Karamu House, and the Cleveland Public Theatre on such productions as The Women of Plums, The Talented Tenth, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, and Our Town, Your Town.
A graduate of Yale University, Jackson Smith served as the executive director of the Yale Afro-American Cultural Center for eight years. Since coming to Oberlin in 1989, she has directed The Gospel at Colonus, The Tapestry, The Resurrection of Lady Lester, Darker Face of the Earth, and The Colored Museum, among other productions.
Lucy Caplan, Panelist
Lucy Caplan is an interdisciplinary historian of music and culture in the United States. She holds a Ph.D. in American Studies and African American Studies from Yale University, where she wrote a dissertation about how early-20th-century African Americans redefined the genre of opera as a wellspring of antiracist activism, collective sociality, and aesthetic innovation. Her academic writing appears in the recently published collection African Americans Arts: Activism, Aesthetics, and Futurity, and is forthcoming in the Journal of the Society for American Music. The recipient of the 2016 Rubin Prize for Music Criticism, Caplan also writes frequently for public audiences. Her essays have been published in The New Yorker and The Log Journal, among others, and her program notes have been commissioned by Boston Lyric Opera, Santa Fe Opera, Seattle Opera, and Lincoln Center. Currently, Caplan teaches in the History and Literature program at Harvard University.
About the Music.
Ten thousand spectators filled the lakefront stadium. They marveled at the multi-tiered stage, the elephant that lumbered across it, and the thirty-foot waterfall towering above. As the sun set, a light rain began to fall. Its rhythmic patter merged with the sounds emanating from a battalion of percussion instruments. Four soloists and a chorus of hundreds appeared. Their voices guided the audience out of the drizzly present — Cleveland, summer,1932 — and into the sweeping epic of Tom-Tom, the world-premiere opera unfolding onstage.
Composed by 35-year-old Shirley Graham, Tom-Tom was the first opera by a black woman to be produced by a major company in the United States. Over three acts, it hurtled through time and space, offering a diasporic narrative of African American history that compressed centuries and continents into a work of vast aesthetic proportions. One critic called it a “revolutionary project.” Another deemed it an “opera which marks an epoch in the history of creative music in this country.” A third proclaimed that it was “new opera. Something different from what has preceded it in history.” Yet despite the immense success of its premiere, Tom-Tom has never been staged again.
The circumstances of Tom-Tom’s creation were exceptional. Graham was invited to compose the opera by the Cleveland Stadium Opera Company — an extraordinary occurrence in an era when white musical institutions virtually always ignored black composers, especially black women. She had never before written an opera, but she drew from a wealth of relevant experience. Her early life had been peripatetic. Her father was an itinerant minister, and the family moved often throughout the United States. Immersed in the music of the black church, Graham also studied Western classical music and became a skilled pianist. Beginning in 1926, she made several voyages to Paris, where she studied music and became part of a diasporic network of black artists and intellectuals, including the illustrious Paul Robeson. She also studied at Howard University and the Institute of Musical Arts, worked as a music librarian, sang with jubilee quartets, and gave lectures on black music history. Beginning in the 1940s, her career centered upon leftist politics and activism. She became affiliated with the Communist Party and spent decades living in Ghana, Egypt, and China, advising political leaders and working in support of anti-imperialist and anticolonial movements. In 1951, Graham married W. E. B. Du Bois — a development that, while obviously crucial to her political and personal trajectories, has also tended to overshadow her own myriad accomplishments.
Tom-Tom originated as a one-act play that Graham wrote in 1929 while teaching at Morgan College in Baltimore. She enrolled at Oberlin two years later, intending to complete undergraduate and graduate degrees in musicology. After the opportunity to write Tom-Tom arose, she took a semester’s leave, rented a room with an upright piano, and worked ceaselessly for three months until the opera was ready for the stage.
Subtitled “The Epic of Music and the Negro,” Tom-Tom is indeed epic in scope. Each act depicts a moment of social transformation in African American life, anchored by four archetypal characters: the Boy, the Girl, the Mother, and Voodoo Man, who move from premodern West Africa to a cotton plantation in the U.S. South in 1865 to the “Harlem of today” circa 1930. The opera’s musical range is equally expansive. The first act is scored largely for percussion, and it includes various approximations of West African melodies. The second act is suffused with choral arrangements of spirituals, alongside music that references the wide variety of operatic repertoire that Graham knew well. Act III evokes the sounds of Harlem in the 1920s, from taxi horns to cabaret song. Today’s program features excerpts from each act — a brief tour through the opera’s kaleidoscope sonic universe.
The dazzling success of Tom-Tom’s premiere suggested that the opera would have a long life ahead. Plans were made for future performances: an autumn showing at Madison Square Garden, a tour of Europe the next year. Yet these never came to be. Despite Graham’s repeated attempts to secure the time and funding necessary to revise her work, various other personal and professional demands interfered. As the years went on, the possibility of Tom-Tom returning to the stage grew ever slimmer; the Great Depression only exacerbated these conditions, of course. Moreover, as Graham’s politics moved further leftward and her career moved away from the arts, the likelihood of an opera company taking on this work plummeted: what opera company would stage a work by a black woman affiliated by the Communist party in the Cold War-era United States?
Tom-Tom’s marginalization has created a sort of ripple effect: other operas not written, other sounds not heard, other ideas not considered. Yet ironically, that same marginalization invites a different relationship between Tom-Tom and contemporary audiences. What does it mean to bring Tom-Tom back to the stage and the public imagination, nearly a century after its premiere? How do we acknowledge its long absence without allowing that absence to overshadow the richness of the original work?
Although today’s event may lack the waterfalls and elephants of the premiere, it does offer the rare opportunity to hear music from Tom-Tom. We invite you to join the conversation as we explore an opera that remains new to our ears so many years after its premiere, still unfamiliar and, perhaps, still revolutionary.
— Lucy Caplan