Who gets to tell your story? Publishers Weekly wasn’t exactly over the moon when Richard Powers came out with his intergenerational mixed-raced family saga The Time of Our Singing. “Powers (Plowing the Dark etc.) has generated considerable excitement as a novelist of ideas, but as a creator of characters, he is on shakier ground,” an anonymous contributor began in 2003. “Powers deserves credit for taking a risk,” the review concluded, “but his own experiment reveals his startling tone deafness to the subtle inflections of human experience.”
Fortunately, the Belgian composer Kris Defoort and his countryman the librettist Peter van Kraaij must not have gotten the memo. Undaunted by the vast 630-page narrative, they distilled its essence into a trim two-and-a-half-hour opera, in English, which was filmed live at La Monnaie, Brussels, in September 2021. On the strength of that video, I had no hesitation calling the work a masterpiece in this space a year ago. Last week, the International Opera Awards, opera’s answer to the Oscars, named The Time of Our Singing the world premiere of the year. To celebrate, the video has been re-released online for a limited run, through noon on December 28, Central European Time.
The Time of Our Singing begins in 1939, at the Black contralto Marian Anderson’s historic recital on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. A Jewish refugee from Germany and a Black physician’s daughter from Philadelphia meet in the crowd and fall in love. When they marry, the societies they defy refuse to accept them. At some level, husband and wife never cease to be strangers to each other—and even greater strangers to their three children, who can find no solid footing in the world.
Music of every description is the language this family shares, and Defoort’s polystylistic score serves them well. Their lives matter. Their histories, each unique, draw you in. To these ears, and apparently those of the blue-ribbon International Opera Awards jury, Kraaij and Defoort’s pitch-perfect drama bears no resemblance to the failed experiment Publishers Weekly was dead wrong to call the book.
The Time of Our Singing is available on YouTube’s OperaVision channel through December 28
Matthew Gurewitsch writes about opera and classical music for AIR MAIL. He lives in Hawaii