When asked the name of the first African-American opera staged in the U.S., chances are the answer will be Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha. Though written in 1910, Joplin’s opus was not produced until 1972. However many historians agree that it was Epthelia, composed by Cleveland-born Harry Lawrence Freeman and staged in 1893. Cleveland was alsp the scene of the first opera written by an African-American women: Shirley Graham’s Tom-Tom: The Epic of Music and the Negro -- which premiered at Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium on June 30, 1932 as part of the city’s annual “Opera Week.” One of the only copies of the opera’s libretto of this historic work is in the Special Collections Department of the Cleveland Public Library.
Through music and dance, the epic three-act opera, traced the story of the Africans’ journey from Africa to the New World, through slavery, emancipation and ending in 1930’s Harlem. The music builds from the stark drumbeats of Africa and gradually builds into progressively more modern and complex orchestrations.
Shirley Graham (1896-1977), a student at Oberlin College working on her master’s degree in music, wrote the actual work in about three months time but said “the idea has grown in my mind since childhood.” In her memoir, His Day is Marching On, Graham attributes the discovery of many original African rhythms and melodies, some suggested by her brother, Lorenz, who was stationed at the U.S. Embassy in Liberia. Graham worked with Cleveland’s Karamu House (an African-American theatrical company) but others felt the work deserved to be produced on a grander scale. A shorter version of Tom-Tom had been staged by Graham at Morgan State College in 1929. It was brought to the attention of the organizers of Cleveland’s upcoming Opera Week who encouraged Graham to expand the work.
In mid-May, 1932, Laurence Productions, Inc. announced the line up for Opera Week. In addition to Tom-Tom there would be performances of Verdi’s Aida Wagner’s Valkyrie and Bizet’s Carmen. Instead of the shows at the 9,000 seat Public Hall as they had the previous year, the operas were to be held at Cleveland’s new Municipal Stadium. which could hold 81,000 people.
Not only was the Stadium needed for the audience, but the wide expanse of the field area was needed to accommodate the massive stage settings. In addition to a cast and chorus of over 1,500, the pageantry of Tom-Tom also included a live elephant. The elephant was brought to Cleveland three days prior to the premiere and tought by its trainer Rudolph Mueller to “die” for a scene in Tom-Tom and how to march for scenes in Aida.
In early June, chorus rehearsals began, directed by Graham. The dancing was under the direction of a young African-American from the Cleveland Settlement, Festus Fitzhugh. In early June, the cast was announced. In the lead as the “Voodoo Man” was noted African-American classical baritone, Jules Bledsoe. (1897-1943), famous for creating the role of Joe in Jerome Kern and Roger Hammerstein’s classic musical, Showboat (a role later immortalized by Paul Robeson.) as well the role of Amonasro in Aida on the London stage. Other actors included Cleveland-born, Lillian Cowan cast as “the girl.” Charlotte Murray of New York as the mother, Mary Branch of Cleveland as “the mammy” in the plantation scenes. Luther King as the boy. King was once a pupil under noted Cleveland Settlement teacher Almeda C. Adams. August Grist of Cleveland, rounded out the cast appearing as the leader, preacher, and captain.
The costumes, props and accessories for Tom-Tom were designed by Cleveland’s African-American youth. A contest was set up by Playhouse Settlement under Mr. and Mrs. Russell W. Jelliffe, offering a total of $90 in prizes. A prize of $50 was awarded to the one who submitted the best full-set design which was to include sketches of a: shield, head dress, robes, spearhead , tom-tom, body tattoo and facial tattoo. Many books of African costumes and masks were borrowed from the Fine Arts and Special Collections Departments of the Cleveland Public Library and the Cleveland Museum of Art by the Settlement to serve as inspiration for the young designers. Sixteen year old, William Smith won first prize for the 35 designs of costumes and accessories were drawn up and submitted.. A writer from The Cleveland Plain Dealer marveled that Smith could come up with his entries while holding down several jobs.
On Sunday, June 26, a preview of Tom-Tom aired over Cleveland radio station, WGAR. Because of the chorus of 200, the larger studios at WTAM were used. Local actor, Elmer Lehr narrated. The Plain Dealer reported the “excellent” narration actually “overshadowed the musical portion of the radio version.”
The day before the premiere, the Goodyear blimp hovering over the Stadium treated Downtown listeners to the drum beat from Tom-Tom. It was discovered that using a screwdriver produced a better sound rather than the usual “knuckle method.” Also featured from the dirigible was George Fassnacht, Jr. doing a selection from Wagner’s Valkyrie.
Tom-Tom premiered before a crowd of 10,000 at the Stadium. It started 45 minutes late and ended around midnight. Despite the late start and lighting problems in the first act the production was met with universal praise. The following day, Herbert Elwell of The Cleveland Plain Dealer wrote, “To say this epic...is an impressive spectacle is to pay it only a mild tribute.” "The work inspires a world of sympathy for its basic idea and a tremendous respect for the intense sincerity of the author's intentions." The Cleveland News noted that “....Miss Graham proves herself a folk-poet " and “exhibits a robust talent for humor...and irony.” The leads, chorus and dancers also received accolades for their performances. Bledsoe received an ovation and “prolonged applause” was accorded Charlotte Murray and Lillian Cowan.
Because of rain, the second performance of Tom-Tom scheduled for Sunday, July 3 was moved to the following Saturday. Changes were made for the second performance. In the premiere,, Laurence A. Higgins set designer was criticized for his soft lighting in the first act. It was said “...lights [were] so dim, the stage was almost in total darkness.” Also, the three act opera was also condensed to two acts, eliminating some of the slower passages. The afternoon, of the performance, a Transamerican plane flew over Playhouse Square and E.105th and Euclid scattering 250 pairs of tickets.
The second performance of Tom-Tom brought more praise and a crowd of 15,000 –the largest of the week (including Ohio Governor, George White). The last act had been “considerably curtailed” and the first act “benefitted by improved lighting.” “novel and striking for operatic presentation.” Clifford Barnes conducted. Elwell of the Plain Dealer admitted that much of the orchestration was, “... a mystery to my ear....But the spirit of the work, more manifest in the stage action than in the music, carries it to its bright moment. The paen of freedom where the slaves are unshackled. And this part is truly effective.”
Opera Week closed out with a special Sunday performance of Aida Cleveland Mayor, Ray Miller convinced the Stadium management to allow free use of the venue, the cast and crews all volunteered to appear. Cleveland was home to another first: Jules Bledsoe became the first African-American to perform the key role of Amanasro on the American stage. Despite having less than 24 hours to prepare, Bledsoe’s performance as the Ethiopian king, Aida was considered by many to be the highlight of the week. The Plain Dealer wrote. “Last night, he sang as if it were the thing he had come to Cleveland to do.”
Before Opera Week, it was said that Tom-Tom would possibly be staged in New York City’s Madison Square Garden the following October. However, it appeared the opera was never staged again, at least on such a grand scale. Miss Graham received her degree from Oberlin College and continued to be a noted playwright, author and social activist. In 1951, she married noted civil rights activist, W.E.B. Du Bois.
André, Naomi Adele., Karen M. Bryan, and Eric Saylor. Blackness in Opera. Urbana: University of Illinois, 2012.
Cuney-Hare, Maud. Negro Musicians and Their Music;. New York: G.K. Hall &, 1996.
Du, Bois Shirley Graham. His Day Is Marching On; a Memoir of W.E.B. Du Bois. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1971.
Graham, Shirley. Tom-Tom [Libretto]. N.p.: n.p., 1932.
Horne, Gerald. Race Woman: The Lives of Shirley Graham Du Bois. New York: New York UP, 2000.