To quote Fats Waller, “One never knows, do one?” when an ‘issue’ with racial overtones will pop up and demand to be addressed. In this case, it happened when I took a chance and went to the 2017 Venice Biennale in November just before it closed. Why so risky? La Serenissima, as this city on stilts is still known, begins to flood in the fall . . . and that means having to walk above the murky sea waters on hastily erected duckboards and yes, many warn, withstand the smells that waft up from the tide! But with the art exhibition about to fold, I decided to go come hell or high water.
Coincidentally, a dear friend from Little Rock, Arkansas, who resides in Vienna for reasons you’ll soon understand, happened to be in Venice as well. By chance, we found each other via a Facebook post. (When FB helps, it is righteous!) Kristin Lewis, a highly regarded and supremely divine lyric soprano of color, was rehearsing Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera at the La Fenice Opera House.
Kristin was not having such a good time preparing for her performance and asked me to “please come to the theatre tomorrow. I need your help!”
Now, this concert hall holds a special place in my heart because I heard Thelonious Monk and Dizzy Gillespie each perform there when I was a student in Italy (as I stood in the nose bleed section) and I was anxious to revisit it. My knowledge, however, of opera could fill a thimble but she insisted that my opinion would be valuable. I couldn’t imagine why until she explained her dilemma over dinner that night.
In short, a 30-something Italian director, who was making a name for himself as an operatic iconoclast, had decided to refashion the piece to accommodate Kristin’s ‘color.’ Yeah, you read me. So, he’d added slavery and slave hunting and slave hanging and you name it to the setting — Boston. Kristin played the lead, a freed slave named Amelia. She was fine with all the reimagining (stay with me here) until she found out that when her character has to go to a dangerous place to find some herbs in order to break the love she has with her (white) husband’s best friend, the (white) earl and governor of Boston, she must sing an aria over a dying slave and hastily leave him to expire as soon as the count shows up! The black man has just been cut down from the hangin’ tree, by the way.
“Yeah, honey,” I started, “if this was in the States, we would all be saying, ‘um, um, um. She left that poor, half-dead ‘brother’ to die alone while she ran off to her white lover man. Shame on her!’”
Kristin and I had a good laugh about that but agreed that she would have to figure out a more compassionate way to depart. She encouraged me to speak to the director.
“Moi? Are you kidding?”
“No, really. He is very open and I’ve broached it with him but I need some support.”
So, the next morning, I approached the registra himself and he actually listened to me. When he responded to my concern, however, I knew we had a problem.
“Amelia really wouldn’t know much about the dying man because, after all, she worked in the house and he was a field hand.”
“Not quite. She would’ve known all about him,” I began but the director was called away by an assistant and that was the extent of my two cents’ worth.
Well, all’s well that ends well. By the time that Kristin had called her sister, a professor of religion at Southern Methodist University, who had enlisted the aid of two Black Studies professors at different colleges, and the five of us came up with numerous solutions, we found one that worked.
Kristin wrapped her head in a turban a la’ Leontyne Price but made of African fabric. Then, after her aria, she unfurled it and laid it along the dying man’s body before she left him for the earl.
And a collective sigh of relief was heard from Venice to Dallas to New Jersey to Alabama to Rome, where I was during the run of the opera. We were relieved to have gotten ‘there’ but not after much hand-wringing and rattled nerves and feeling like we had to not let down the race and certainly not that dying black opera singer.