CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:
This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. Michel Martin is away. They call it The People's Opera, but after this month, the New York City Opera will exist only in the history books. The renowned company is closing after 70 years. The New York City Opera failed to raise the $7 million it needed to cover its debts and will file for bankruptcy protection.
There are a lot of opinions on what went wrong, but very little argument that the New York City Opera held a unique place as a champion for diversity in classical music. The company gave the first starring role to an African-American singer, the first regular contract to an African-American singer and premiered the first opera written by a black composer. That was in 1943 when blacks couldn't even sing in the chorus at the Met.
(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA "X, THE LIFE AND TIMES OF MALCOLM X")
HEADLEE: Anthony Davis is a composer and jazz pianist, and he had a breakthrough moment of his own at the New York City Opera. His work "X, the Life and Times of Malcolm X" - what you just heard a piece of - premiered on that stage in 1986. Anthony Davis joins us from his office at the University of California, San Diego School of Music where he's a professor. Welcome.
ANTHONY DAVIS: Oh, thank you. Hello.
HEADLEE: I wonder if you could give us a sense of the process. First of all, to talk a little bit about the process of trying to get an opera performed. It's not easy 'cause operas are so expensive, and whether or not you think that's made more difficult by race.
DAVIS: It is difficult to get an opera performed. And in the case of "X," it was actually my first opera. I think that it's complicated by race in that, the resistance to the influence of jazz and other musics being part of what opera is and kind of conservative notions about what opera should be. I was very excited about the opportunity to premiere my first opera at New York City Opera, and to see the community represented in the audience. At the opening night, I think it was maybe a 50 percent African-American house...
DAVIS: ...Which was unprecedented...
HEADLEE: That's amazing for an opera. Yeah.
DAVIS: ...In Lincoln Center. And all the performances were sold out with lines all around the block. The unfortunate part of it - and this may be part of the problem with the New York City Opera later - is that it was never revived. We had probably the most successful premiere of a new opera at New York City Opera, but they never brought back the piece.
HEADLEE: I wonder if you could talk a little bit about the sort of the quandary for African-American classical musicians and especially in the opera. I hear complaints - in interest of full disclosure, I myself am a professional opera singer. I know that it can be very difficult for black singers.
DAVIS: Well, I think that's fair to say. I think there's a lot of problems with that. Our stories are not being told, and I think it's unfortunate. I mean, the Met has never done a work by an African-American composer. You know, I think that they certainly have had opportunities to do that. And it doesn't stop with the Met. I think, you know, you could look at San Francisco Opera or Dallas Opera or Houston, there are lots of problems with the acceptance of African-American composers, in general, and then, specifically, also with the leaping over the aesthetic barriers, you know, that opera doesn't have to be only rooted in the Western European tradition, that it can be also rooted in African-American musical forms.
HEADLEE: So how is that different at the New York City Opera? My grandfather was William Grant Still. The opera I spoke about earlier that was premiered in 1943 was written by William Grant Still, a black man.
DAVIS: "Troubled Island," yeah.
HEADLEE: And Langston Hughes wrote the libretto. "Troubled Island," it has never been performed again. But I wonder how that made for different precedent at the New York City Opera.
DAVIS: You have to think about how badly African-American composers are marginalized in the classical world. I mean, that's certainly true. And as a composer, you just push on. But I've always had to find my own way of doing it, not necessarily the traditional way.
HEADLEE: I wonder - and I won't ask you about your personal experience, that's probably a little too risky - but I wonder, hypothetically speaking, if "Troubled Island" had not been written by Langston Hughes and William Grant Still, but by Rodgers and Hammerstein or the Gershwin brothers, would it have gotten another performance?
DAVIS: Probably. I think probably, yes. And I think that also, I mean, it was about the Haitian revolution, which was a great subject, and as mine was about Malcolm X. I mean, I think - in my case, I think there was a lot of political opposition to the opera. And it had not so much to do with audiences, not so much to do with...
HEADLEE: Political opposition based on the subject matter of Malcolm X?
DAVIS: The subject matter, yes. And I think that that had to do with how operas are funded - the boards, funders at City Opera threatened to withdraw their money when Beverly Sills committed to doing "X." Reader's Digest Lila Acheson Wallace Fund withdrew a $250,000 grant to City Opera to produce a new work when they heard that they were going to do "X."
HEADLEE: Well, let's hear a little bit more of this music that we're talking about. This is from your opera "X" and it's called "Africa for Africans."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AFRICA FOR AFRICANS")
HEADLEE: I wonder, Professor Davis, if we're losing something, though, without really understanding the value of what we've lost. With the closing of the New York City Opera, as hard as it still is, even when they were open to get black musicians either hired or their music heard, at least in the New York City Opera they were at least - part of their mission was to hire those singers. In that production of "Troubled Island," they gave the first major stage premiere to a young singer named Robert McFerrin, father of Bobby McFerrin.
He became the first black man to sing at the Metropolitan Opera. But a full six years previously, he sang at the New York City Opera. Do people appreciate what the NYCO had to offer?
DAVIS: Well, I think that it's been a great showcase for singers. I mean, many of the prominent singers today had their debut at the New York City Opera long before they sang at the Met or other, you know, other houses in Europe etc. So in "X's" case, you know, Priscilla Baskerville and Thomas Young, and also I - in "X," I imported about 10 musicians into the pit of the orchestra who were...
HEADLEE: Oh, wow.
DAVIS: ...Improvisers and musicians. And so, in terms of the orchestra of City Opera, it was more integrated than it'd ever been, in my opera. It's ironic that, you know, both Mortier and George Steel wanted to produce "X," to bring "X" back.
HEADLEE: We're talking about some of the leaders, the artistic director and the leadership of the New York City Opera.
DAVIS: Yeah, artistic directors and they - never could happen, and that's unfortunate, you know, so.
HEADLEE: So what happens now, Anthony Davis? Where do black singers - I mean, I find it incredibly depressing that, for example, one of our greatest living black singers, Simon Estes, the great bass baritone moved to Switzerland. He said he couldn't get hired in the U.S. With the closing of the New York City Opera, have we really closed a door of opportunity for black singers and composers?
DAVIS: Well, I think LA Opera has been a great advocate for African-American singers. Domingo has the Opera Center program at LA Opera. Houston at Grand Opera, as well. So I think there are some opportunities. A great number of singers have moved to Europe, you know, work in the state houses in Germany. Many of the singers who worked in "X" are now living in Europe. So that's a reality. But that's reality also for a lot of American singers. I mean, the fact that you have to make your reputation in Europe, and then you can have access to houses here. That's been going on for a long time in terms of, you know, opportunities for singers.
HEADLEE: But do you have to give a reality check? I mean, if you have young composers that you're teaching and you have a young black composer who comes up and wants to write opera, do you ever give them a reality check?
DAVIS: No. And the reason is because you can't tell someone they can't write an opera. In a way, nothing can happen until you have a dream, nothing can change until there is a dream. Now I also tell them there are alternative ways to get things done. I produce my own operas, you know, here at the university and other things, and I'm also thinking about how to do operas in theaters rather than relying on an opera house to do it.
So there are ways to think about creating opera and making opera a vital part of our lives. But I think that there are obstacles. I mean, City Opera was a long shot. I mean, I think they've only produced three operas by African-American composers in their 70-year history. I mean, there are other avenues you can find. But I think that it's sad because in New York City I think, particularly, they're going to really miss New York City Opera and its role as the people's opera, its role as showcasing American singers.
HEADLEE: Anthony Davis, composer and jazz pianist. His opera "X, the Life and Times of Malcolm X" premiered at the New York City Opera in 1986. Anthony, thank you so much for talking to me.
DAVIS: Oh, thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA "X, THE LIFE AND TIMES OF MALCOLM X") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.