Opera Theatre of St. Louis might have been the first opera company to reopen and present a full season in person since the COVID-19 pandemic began.  In May-June 2021 OTSL presented six events in festival format on the campus of Webster University.  This was my first time at the Opera Theatre of St. Louis, and I was so excited to see opera again after 16+ months of pandemic shut down and learn more about their summer festival. I will quickly outline the summer festival and then present a few ideas about this little-known opera (Highway 1, USA) by one of the giants of Black classical composers, William Grant Still. Hopefully, this performance will lead to many more productions and place this work more squarely in the repertoire of the opera canon.

I have two disclaimers to make. First, I was only able to attend one opera, though had I to do things again, I would definitely rearrange my summer to attend more. Second, my trip was the result of having worked with OTSL in March and April to organize and present Belonging in Opera: Learning from Our Past, Engaging with Our Future, a two-day symposium (April 6 and 13) that explored the history of Black composers and the current and future landscape of Black creativity in opera and adjacent spaces. You can watch these sessions here and here.

In previous seasons, the company offered an elegant selection of boxed dinners (complete with bar service) to enjoy outside at lovely picnic tables before entering the auditorium for the opera. This season, the outside dining experience continued with socially distanced tables, and a parking lot was converted into an outdoor theatre. Seats were arranged in socially-distanced small groups (2, 3, and 4) to protect the audience, orchestra and singers. There was a raised stage, and singers used microphones to help project their voices in the outdoor space. The season was not only a great opportunity to feel almost normal attending a live performance, but also a most welcomed combination of older and newer works, familiar and lesser-known repertoire. All operas were chamber sized and had small casts, giving the event an intimate feel.  

Posters for OTSL’s full re-opening season, summer 2021.

Posters for OTSL’s full re-opening season, summer 2021.

This in-the-parking-lot re-opening season featured six events. The comedy finale from Puccini’s Il Trittico, Gianni Schicchi, opened the season. Next was Still’s Highway I, USA, followed by Poulenc’s La Voix Humaine, and three recently composed world premieres combined as three acts in an evening’s performance and billed as the New Works, Bold Voices Lab. The other two events were a Juneteenth celebration, I Dream a World, presented in partnership with the Missouri Historical Society, and two Centerstage performances of A Young Artist Showcase. The three new operas for the New Works, Bold Voices Lab were On the Edge, about parenting and teaching young children during the pandemic (music by Laura Karpman and libretto by Taura Stinson); Moon Tea, that brought together Queen Elizabeth, Prince Philip and the Apollo 11 astronauts after the 1969 moon landing (music by Steven Mackey and libretto by Rinde Eckert); and The Tongue & The Lash, that stages an imagined conversation between James Baldwin and William F. Buckley, Jr. after their historic debate in 1965 about whether, nearly 60 years later, “the American Dream is at the expense of the American Negro?”[1] (music by Damien Sneed and libretto by Karen Chilton).

The OTSL website has a lot of online materials about these six events, and you can read more about the plots and artist biographies there. Most of the operas have 25-minute introductory videos featuring the repetiteurs discussing the operas and playing excerpts on the piano. I’ve watched all of them for the season, and they are so informative and helpful! Here is the the discussion for Still’s Highway 1, USA by repetiteur Aurelia Andrew. Andrew’s presentation was especially helpful as I was exploring ideas around the theme of “dreams” in this opera.

OTSL’s Opera Preview for Highway 1, USA, with a discussion by repetiteur Aurelia Andrew.

There are certain themes in African American culture that circulate and signify important tropes. For example, more than just any type of drum, the tom tom drums are visual and sonic spaces that were used in the poetry of Langston Hughes, by W.E.B. Du Bois, Helene Johnson Hubbell, and other Harlem Renaissance figures. Additionally, tom tom drums are featured in the opening of William Grant Still’s orchestral suite Africa (1928); in the movies Emperor Jones (1933), Stormy Weather (1943) and Carmen Jones (1954); and in Shirley Graham Du Bois’s opera Tom-Tom (1932).[2] In these various spaces, the tom tom references a connection to the African continent, almost like a shared internalized heartbeat. They signal the resonance of something missing (that first-hand knowledge of Africa) brought together with a desire of the first born-free post-Civil War generations to create an identity that extended beyond enslavement. Still’s first opera (Blue Steel, 1934) incorporates the importance of drums and their connection to the African diaspora.[3]

Another recurring concept in African American culture is the dream. It is a manifestation of a new legacy that valorizes hard work and promises a future where things will get better. The dream is wrapped inside the late nineteenth- through twentieth-century politics of respectability within the Black community. In a democratic vision of assimilation, a belief that Blacks could gain access to the same lifestyle as white Americans (which, sadly, has never fully lived up to its promise), the dream encompasses seeing beyond a difficult situation borne from inequitable opportunities in education, lower income levels due to Jim Crow, and continuing discrimination. This dream gives hope and energy to keep moving forward and believing that hard work and honest moral living will be rewarded in the long run.

The dream is invoked many times from the Harlem Renaissance through the civil rights movement, perhaps most famously by Langston Hughes and Martin Luther King, Jr. In a few references in his early poetry from the 1920s (“Dreams” and “Dream Variations”), Hughes urges us to “hold fast to dreams,” to dream of a place where it is safe to be “Dark like me,” and to jubilantly dance “Black like me.”[4]  Later in his career (in the poem “Harlem” from 1951) Hughes also warns us of the danger of a dream deferred, the festering, rotting, and possible crusting over that can lead to explosion.[5] These images of the dream are kinetic, active, and evolving.

Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream was most famously articulated in his “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered in front of the Lincoln memorial during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on August 28, 1963. Prompted by Mahalia Jackson’s exclamation “Tell them about the dream, Martin!” the well-known concluding section, an improvised powerful finale, combined King’s Baptist preacher background and a recapitulation of the main themes of his speech. With an almost mesmerizing repetition of the word “dream” (in multiple statements of “I have a dream today,” “I have a dream that one day,” “I have a dream”), the linking of “dream” and “freedom” becomes clear in the final moments of that historic public sermon. As King repeated his having a dream, the culmination of that desire is channeled through his recitation of the first stanza of “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.” It is here where the dream pivots to the call for freedom.

Martin Luther King Jr. delivers his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech on 28 August, 1963.

The familiar words of this patriotic song harkened back to Marian Anderson singing the same stanza in the same place, on Easter Sunday in April 1939, after the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to allow her to sing in Constitutional Hall. In this early, widely broadcasted and highly visible civil rights statement, Anderson laid the groundwork for King, 24 years later, to turn “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” into an anthem for Black equity. Coming directly out of King’s sequence of dreams, he repeats the final line of the song, “Let freedom ring!”, ten times as he highlights several states to emphasize his point: New Hampshire, New York, Pennsylvania, Colorado, California, Georgia, Tennessee, Mississippi…. Through repetition and rhetorical skill, the dream becomes manifested in the sound of freedom. King dreams of the promised United States, a nation where freedom rings out for everyone.

Still’s Highway 1, USA is an opera that directly interacts with the notion of dreams, as well as ideas of what it means to be free and have opportunities to pursue one’s dreams. Still started composing it in 1941 as A Southern Interlude, shortly after Marian Anderson’s historic 1939 concert, and returned to the project, changing the title to Highway 1, USA, for the premiere performance at the University of Miami in 1963, the same year in which Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. The opera provides a critical counterpoint to thinking about Black life during this time. Verna Arvey, the composer’s wife and frequent artistic collaborator, wrote the libretto. There are a lot of things to say about this one-act opera that packs so much into a few scenes, just under an hour in performance. Aside from the materials on the Opera Theatre of St. Louis’s website (the aforementioned discussion by repetiteur Aurelia Andrew and a talk by Prof. Maya Gibson), there is not a huge amount published on this opera yet.[6]

The three main characters (Bob is married to Mary, and Nate is Bob’s younger brother) all sing about the dreams contained in respectable living. Bob and Mary own a gas station along Highway 1 and have put all their money into supporting Nate’s college education. They have done this to fulfill Bob and Nate’s mother’s will that Nate get an education. Bob’s first aria relates the mother’s wishes: “She had her dream of a son with learning, a child who would stand guarding forth over all the world. Whose deeds would command respect, whose deeds would win wide acclaim.” Sadly, their mother did not have these dreams for Bob, and enlisted Bob’s support for his younger brother. When the opera begins, Nate is home from college and has not lived up to the high expectations his family has put on him. He is contemptuous of the neighbors and of Bob and Mary. Most frustrating is that Nate does not have a plan and seems content to sleep late, not look for a job, and live off Bob and Mary’s hard work.  Mary sees the honor in her husband (Bob), resents the sacrifices they have made, and is not taken in by Nate’s laziness and inaction. She believes in Bob and puts her faith in their future together.

Will Liverman as Bob and Nicole Cabell as Mary in OTSL’s production of William Grant Still’s Highway 1, USA, summer 2021. Photo by Eric Woolsey.

Will Liverman as Bob and Nicole Cabell as Mary in OTSL’s production of William Grant Still’s Highway 1, USA, summer 2021. Photo by Eric Woolsey.

When we finally meet Nate in scene two, we get a show-stopping aria that is lyrical and grand as well as haunting. Unlike the mainly declamatory tunes sung by Bob, Mary, Aunt Lou, the chorus and others, Nate’s entrance is broad and sweeping. His opening lines (“What does he know of dreams? How can he talk of success?”) are directed at Bob and the seemingly simple life he lives. Nate sums up Bob’s existence as trite and mundane with his next phrase (“the honk of a horn gives him his greatest thrill”) and assumes that Bob does not have a sophisticated inner life or ambition. Nate sings about how his brother has no craving to learn, no thought for the future, and refuses to take Nate’s advice about such matters. Nate’s condescending tone and dismissive air make it easy to see him as the villain. Later he disrespects Mary and then almost kills her. By the end of the opera, Nate has landed in jail.

Christian Mark Gibbs as Nate and Nicole Cabell as Mary in OTSL’s production of William Grant Still’s Highway 1, USA, summer 2021. Photo by Eric Woolsey.
Christian Mark Gibbs as Nate and Nicole Cabell as Mary in OTSL’s production of William Grant Still’s Highway 1, USA, summer 2021. Photo by Eric Woolsey.
What is harder to see is Nate’s humanity. Still set him as the tenor, a voice type that typically portrays the heroic love interest in opera. His opening line is filled with great yearning—it leaps up an octave, outlining the tonic (home) notes of the scale, in this case F minor, and then settles on the sixth degree (D)–but over a tonic harmony that gives the effect of a deceptive cadence, which is an arrival that is not quite stable. The line is also filled with chromatic harmonies that are at odds with the accompaniment. Supported by diminished seventh chords (fully diminished and half diminished) his second line makes an initial jump of a tritone (F-B, spelled F-Cb), considered to be the most dissonant melodic interval, as he critiques his brother’s conception of success. Though the musical gestures are broad and sweeping, the harmonies underneath present conflict. This is the truth of Nate’s character. He is struggling as he fails to fulfill his mother’s dream that a college education will lead to great deeds of accomplishment that would garner respect and acclaim. Nate’s hopelessness as his dreams are unformed and undefined lurks below the surface of his bravura melody. Still poses several questions with Nate’s character. What does an educated Black man do when he returns to the modesty of his upbringing? In our current language of cultural constructions, can code-switching ideals bridge the gaps between the educated Nate and his working-class brother and sister-in-law when they define success in such different ways? 

The sanguine conclusion of Highway 1, USA for Bob, Mary and their community also contains the tragic outcome for Nate. It seems a little unexpected for Still to celebrate Bob’s modest accomplishments while Nate has been stripped of the dream of a happy ending (a devoted wife, good standing in the community, and an articulated purpose in life). It is easy to see Nate as the lazy, jealous, and ungrateful “bad seed” for not appreciating the sacrifices Bob and Mary have made for his education. It is more challenging to explore how Nate brings up difficult conversations about Black life in the US during the civil rights era, as respectability and education can be both aligned as well as askew.

The composition of A Summer Interlude into Highway 1, USA encompassed the years around  the U. S. Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board of Education decision (1954) to desegregate public schools, which meant to open the pipeline for more African Americans to attend college and get a better education than the under-resourced Black schools had been providing. What do dreams look like for newly educated first-generation students? Within the context of African American communities during Still’s time—and continuing up to the present—this question remains provocative.

The cast of OTSL’s production of William Grant Still’s Highway 1, USA, summer 2021. Photo by Eric Woolsey

The cast of OTSL’s production of William Grant Still’s Highway 1, USA, summer 2021. Photo by Eric Woolsey

[1] This is the phrase James Baldwin supported at the famous debate with William F. Buckley, Jr at the University of Cambridge, February 18, 1965. The motion of the debate was that the American dream was at the expense of Black Americans (with Baldwin for and Buckley against).

[2] I write about the meanings and uses of tom tom drums further in Black Opera: History, Power, Engagement. Urbana: University of Illinois (2018), 142-143. Other scholars who are working on Shirley Graham Du Bois’s opera Tom-Tom include Sarah Schmalenberger, Lucy Caplan, and Fredara M. Hadley.

[3] William Grant Still’s Blue Steel does not specify tom tom drums. For more information on Blue Steel, see Gayle Murchison, “New Paradigms in William Grant Still’s Blue Steel” in Blackness in Opera, eds. Naomi André, Karen M. Bryan and Eric Saylor. Urbana: University of Illinois (2012), 141-163.

[4] “Hold fast to dreams,” is from the opening line the poem “Dreams” originally published in magazine The World Tomorrow, Vol. 6, No. 5 May 1923: 147. “Dark like me” and “Black like me” are lines from the end of the two stanzas of “Dream Variation” (also called “Dream Variations”) included in Langston Hughes’s first poetry collection, The Weary Blues (1926).

[5] “What happens to a dream deferred?” is the first line of the poem “Harlem,” which was published as a jazz influenced longer poem suite in 1951, Montage of a Dream Deferred.

[6] Prof. Maya Gibson gave an introductory talk about Highway 1, USA for Opera Theatre of St. Louis [OTSL] and a presentation for the Belonging in Opera symposium on this opera that was hosted by OTSL in April 2021 (the latter is on the Opera America website). An important source about this opera may be found in Beverly Soll’s I Dream a World: The Operas of William Grant Still. Fayetteville (University of Arkansas Press, 2005). Amanda Leonora Green-Turner’s Thesis has a character analysis of Mary from Highway 1, USA (DMA in Voice, School of Music, Theatre and Dance, University of Michigan, 2020).