Since a massive earthquake in 2010, the island nation of Haiti has been much in the news. But the French-speaking outpost in the Caribbean also captured the collective imagination of African-American literati in the 1920s. An opera that premiered in South Bend, Indiana attests to their fascination.
Clarence Cameron White’s Ouanga is considered the first completely African-American opera. The classically trained White—a graduate of Howard University and the Oberlin Conservatory—joined forces with librettist John Frederick Matheus, a professor of Romance languages, at West Virginia State College. Matheus’s interest in Haiti was shared by many blacks of the Harlem Renaissance generation, seeking to research and preserve the cultural forms and practices of the African diaspora.
Set in Haiti in 1804, during the reign of Emperor Dessalines, Ouanga was completed in 1932. White’s goal was to “produce an opera entirely for and about Negroes.” Performed in concert version later that year at the Chicago Three Arts Club, and again as a concert in New York in 1941, the opera was first presented as a fully staged production at South Bend’s Central High School Auditorium in 1949.
The production was staged by South Bend’s Harry Thacker Burleigh Music Association, an African-American music and theatre company that produced operas from Bedrich Smetana’s The Bartered Bride to Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Hiawatha. The Burleigh had been founded in 1933 by Josephine Curtis, an African American graduate of the University of Chicago and the Kroeger School of Music in St. Louis.
Curtis’s highly regarded company was unique in providing blacks professional opportunities in the world of opera—options that extended from black singers and instrumentalists to black composers, who were otherwise encountering serious roadblocks. At the time of Ouanga’s premiere in South Bend, the only other opera by a black composer to receive serious attention was William Grant Still’s Troubled Island. Also set in Dessalines-era Haiti, Still’s opera, completed in 1939, was produced by the New York City Opera only after a ten-year delay.
Funded by the University of Notre Dame and the Indiana Cab Company, among other entities, the Burleigh’s production of Ouanga in June 1949 was attended by Joseph Charles, Haiti’s ambassador to the United States and delegate to the United Nations. The South Bend Tribune pronounced the production a “resounding success.” Ouanga was fully staged again in 1950 in Philadelphia, and enjoyed two concert versions in New York in 1956–at the Metropolitan Opera House and at Carnegie Hall.
After the Burleigh’s last concert in 1960, the final curtain fell on a pioneering opera company that had earned South Bend a place in the annals of both opera and African American cultural history.
Topic selection and research for this essay was provided by the Indiana Magazine of History.
IMH Source: Wallace M. Cheatham, “Ouanga: South Bend, Indiana and the Premiere of a 20th-Century American Opera,” Indiana Magazine of History 100, no. 2 (June 2004): 173-185.