Echoes Of The Harlem Renaissance: Freeman's Opera 'Voodoo' Gets Second Life

Oct 10, 2018

Harry Lawrence Freeman was arguably the most important African-American composer of opera working during the era of the Harlem Renaissance.

The Cleveland native composed more than a dozen operas, five of which were performed during his lifetime.

Freeman’s opera Voodoo was one of the lucky ones. Completed in 1914 and premiered on Broadway in 1928, Voodoo is set on a Louisiana plantation during the post-Civil War Reconstruction era.

The opera’s plot revolves around the character Lolo, who turns in vengeance to the powers of voodoo when Mando, the man she loves, rejects her in preference for her friend, Cleota.

Voodoo features a musical language inspired by late-romantic European classical composers like Wagner, Puccini and Massenet, with influences from American and African-American music, including spirituals.

All of these influences abound in Lolo's "Voodoo Queen" aria:

After 1928, Voodoo was not performed again during Freeman’s lifetime, and the opera fell into oblivion.

But in the early years of this century, Annie Holt – then a graduate student – rediscovered Freeman’s Voodoo while working at Columbia University’s library to catalog boxes of materials donated by the Freeman family.

Holt launched a campaign to have Voodoo performed again.

In 2015 Morningside Opera – the now-defunct opera company for which Holt served as artistic director – Harlem Opera Theater and the Harlem Chamber Players gave two concert performances of Freeman’s Voodoo at Columbia University’s Miller Theater under the direction of conductor Gregory Hopkins.

In a New York Times review of one of those performances, Zachary Woolfe called Voodoo “an intriguing if overcautious mixture of traditionally operatic and folk styles” and remarked on its “meandering” melodies and “lackluster” text.

Writing for The Guardian, Seth Colter Walls was more generous. He hailed Freeman’s Voodoo as a “rare find” that “turned out to be the real deal.”