Opera Juneteenth lifts historically neglected musicians


BOSTON, Mass. – Fred VanNess is an opera singer for the North End Music and Performing Arts Center (NEMPAC) in Boston.

“The tide is turning, so to speak, and we’re actually going to start to see more equality on stage,” VanNess said.

NEMPAC is a non-profit organization that provides accessible and affordable music education. Alexandra Dietrich is the artistic director.

“For our 10e season, we just played “Juneteenth: Opera in the Key of Freedom,” Dietrich said. “It was a concert and a collection of works by four different black composers dating back to 1750.”

Dietrich says she came up with the idea after Juneteenth was recognized as a holiday in Massachusetts last year.

Now it is a national holiday.

Annette Gordon-Reed is an American historian and professor at Carl M. Loeb University at Harvard.

“June 19 commemorates June 19e, 1865, when US Army General Gordon Granger came to Galveston, Texas to retake the Texas area for the Union Army after the Confederate surrender, ”Gordon-Reed said.

Gordon-Reed says Juneteenth commemorates the emancipation of slaves in the United States.

“It’s important for us to think about slavery and the legacy of slavery that continues to influence our lives today,” Gordon-Reed said.

Dietrich says it’s time for black composers, musicians and artists to be recognized in the United States

“It’s the kind of work I want to bring to an audience,” Dietrich said. “Something that has a passionate message, something that showcases American poetry, American composition, but still centers the lived experience of the black composer knowing how much the black community fought alongside the struggle for freedom in American history and how frequently this community engagement has become marginalized or uncentred.

VanNess says he jumped at the opportunity to be a part of the opera performance Juneteenth.

“I got to sing in a program of mostly black singers,” VanNess said. “Which doesn’t happen very often, so I had to do rehearsals with them, I was able to perform on stage with them, and it was so exciting to be in an artistic space with people from my community who have the same experience as me.

The virtual performance was filmed by The Loop Lab – a non-profit organization run by BIPOC and specializing in media arts internships and digital storytelling. Dietrich says music has long been a symbol of freedom.

“Singing was historically one of the few things slaves in our country could do and not just pass messages through song to help each other in the potential flight north to freedom,” said Dietrich. “But also to instill hope., To instill a message of humanity, to hold on to humanity when treated in such a horrible way.

The building where this performance took place has a release tied to its history.

“Although Massachusetts is one of the first places where we can trace slavery was practiced and commercialized, it was also the first city where we started to have people speaking out against slavery.” said Dietrich. from the African reunion house, and the African reunion house is where we filmed our concert.

VanNess says he’s thrilled to see people paying more attention to lesser-known works.

He believes this is in part due to the social justice movement in the United States at the moment.

“I hope this can inspire other opera companies and other local organizations to do the same to make our voices heard, to make our voices known, because there is a ton of music from black composers, from Native composers, Latinx, Asian composers, it’s just not done because it’s not part of the European operas of Mozart, Beethoven, Puccini, ”VanNess said.

As for Juneteenth, he says he’s thrilled to see it become a holiday for remembrance, celebration and education all across the United States.

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