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Poetry Month: Dunbar Opera at Clef Club

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Lyrics of Sunshine and Shadows:
An Opera Based on the Life and Love of
Paul Laurence Dunbar & Alice Ruth Moore
Steven M. Allen, composer and libretto,
Opera North, Inc.
April 11, 2010
The Philadelphia Clef Club
Broad & Fitzwater Streets

Paul Dunbar fell in love with Alice Ruth Moore from a photo: like Tamina looking at Pamina. The moment is caught in Allen Stevens opera about the Dunbars: Lyrics of Sunshine and Shadows, whose first act was presented at the Clef Club Sunday. Opera North presented with a cast drawn largely from here and the D.C.. April is poetry month. Allen wrote the music and the libretto working from the pioneering black poet’s biography and the letters Dunbar wrote to Moore, the writer who would become his wife, then leave him. Dunbar and Moore corresponded for two years before meeting. Her mother was against the marriage. Dunbar may have been famous but he was three shades darker than Moore’s family – who had pretensions and their own prejudice and more money. Dunbar worked his way up in Dayton, Ohio where he was the only black man in high school class of the Wright Brothers. He worked as an elevator operator when his second book of poems, Major & Minor, came out, the one that drew mainstream accolades from Wm. Dean Howells, although Howells chose to single out only the poems in dialect, not the poems (In Major) written in standard English. This stung Dunbar and rightly so.

Allen’s score is classical with a tinge of nostalgia, built into the fine writing for voice, clarinet and flutes. It’s good if at times a bit too look at me I’m in earnest. (The composer is working on a doctorate at Catholic University.) The libretto is convoluted: too many words. Without supertitles, the English sung by this cast is sometimes hard to make out. Lisa Edwards-Burrs as Alice Moore and Gregory J. Watkins as Dunbar were excellent choices, so was Syvlia Twine as Matilda Dunbar. A boy soprano and countertenor also were good news; Brandie Sutton was convincing as Moore’s sister; Jessie Baden-Campbell an imperious naysaying mother. Iris Fairfax took the role of the glamorous Victoria Matthews at the 11th hour when the scheduled singer was indisposed.
Allen conducted a chamber octet of strings, winds, keyboard. His arrangements for acoustic piano alone with the voice sometimes sound clunky, better the work with flute, oboe, bass clarinet. There are fine love duets in the third section which, includes Dunbar’s famous poem to Alice. Also a trio for baritone and boy sopranos, well, one boy soprano and a counter-tenor.

(I couldn’t tell if there were other Dunbar poems in this libretto: the diction was not always clear enough. But this is only one act – more will follow.) The pioneering poet –“We wear the Mask,” “Dreams,” “The Debt” lived only 33 prolific, achieving years. The love story was tumultous.
Allen’s libretto may need to cut back on the exposition to play up the drama. Though it’s important. having Dunbar’s agent sing of William Dean Howell’s glowing if backhanded review of Dunbar’s second book, Majors & Minors is labored. Dunbar had reason to loathe that mainstream review: The critic singled out the poems in dialect, ignoring the ones in standard English.
Lyrics of Sunshine and Shadows have operatic conflicts in the Moore daughters’ scenes with their negative mother but they are presented so statically the scenes lose a bit in the telling. The audience caught the sly comedy.
Projections are used with a simple staging and lighting. More images, please.
Opera North does a lot of its work behind the scenes, in schools and the community. It employs fine singers. Leslie Burrs is the artistic director.

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Written by Lesley Valdes

April 12, 2010 at 3:04 am

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