Time was, opera reflections of the Black experience pretty much began with Aida and ended with Otello. Then, around 1910, the ragtime king Scott Joplin came along with an enchantment called Treemonisha, but it wasn’t until 1972 that the world took notice. By that time, sad to say, Joplin had been in his grave for more than 50 years—while Porgy and Bess had been collecting royalties for the George Gerwshin estate for nearly 40.
With X, The Life and Times of Malcolm X in 1986, Amistad in 1997, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Central Park Five in 2019 (featuring a tenor racist blowhard named Donald Trump), the composer Anthony Davis has carved out a place for Black American history on opera stages across our nation. He is now at work on Fire Across the Tracks: Tulsa 1921, commissioned by the Tulsa Opera to commemorate the notorious Black Wall Street Massacre in the Tulsa district of Greenwood, a bloodbath that left 35 blocks of the richest Black American community of its time in ruins. For a sneak peek, check out the premiere of the ominous 10-minute monologue “There are many trails of tears,” delivered with fierce concentration by the bass-baritone Davóne Tines on the Tulsa Opera’s pandemic recital program Greenwood Overcomes, Celebrating Black Composers & Opera Stars. Of some two dozen selections by 23 living Black composers (winnowed down from a field of 300!), only this one addresses the long-taboo subject.