Welcome to the second BIBA Blog that highlights and reviews operas by Black composers, which are full of such richness and breadth! These posts examine the many ways that composers from the African diaspora have used music and drama to tell urgent and necessary stories of love, history, family, and social justice, as well as operas that celebrate or comment upon various aspects of life, the past, and more, with tones ranging from serious to light. In an art form where racism is both deeply and historically ingrained, blackface and yellowface somehow remain hotly debated, and contemporary artists of color are reclaiming the narrative online, the beauty and power of operas by Black composers are part of a necessary operatic revolution.
ANTHONY DAVIS: LEAR ON THE 2nd FLOOR
The Composer: Anthony Davis
With a career spanning more than thirty years and encompassing multiple genres, eight operas (thus far), and one Pulitzer Prize, Anthony Davis is a living force in classical music, dubbed the “dean of African-American opera composers” by the New York Times. His career first took off in the early 1980s, when Mr. Davis became known as a virtuoso jazz pianist and bandleader (after turning down a 1971 offer to play for the Grateful Dead). But it was his first opera, X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X, premiered in 1986 at New York City Opera, which introduced audiences to Mr. Davis’ eclectic, sophisticated musical style and his focus on politically and socially relevant subjects.
Since X, Mr. Davis has written operas based on historical and current events, including the Patty Hearst kidnapping (Tania, 1992), the landmark 1839 ship uprising of enslaved Africans and their subsequent trial (Amistad, 1997), and the spiritual connection between a contemporary Indigineous family and the historical Chief Standing Bear (Wakonda’s Dream, 2007). His works often center the experiences and perspectives of people of color and tackle political subjects, calling art “a healthy way to deal with issues and events that are deeply troubling and still resonate today.” His most recent opera, The Central Park Five (2019), explores the systemic racism and injustice at the heart of this sensationalized case -- five teenage boys accused, convicted and later exonerated of the 1989 rape and assault of a white female jogger in New York City. The opera was awarded the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Music. Mr. Davis is a longtime professor of music at the University of California, San Diego, and is married to soprano Cynthia Aaronson-Davis.
The Opera: Lear on the 2nd Floor
Anthony Davis, composer | Allan Havis, librettist | Premiered in 2013
The Basic Plot
A contemporary “riff” on Shakespeare, Lear on the 2nd Floor is the story of Nora, an expert in neurodegenerative diseases who is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. Nora, like Shakespeare’s Lear, has complicated relationships with each of her three adult daughters: Jenna, who performs in adult films and is estranged from her mother; Tara, a self-righteous and greedy accountant who recently married the family lawyer; and Lyla, a pregnant and idealistic substitute teacher whose marriage has recently ended. Nora’s mind deteriorates quickly, and she begins seeing and interacting with her deceased husband, Mortimer. Her daughters’ fight over control of her estate escalates, ultimately landing all of them in court for a bitter battle over legal guardianship. Tara wins, placing Nora into an institution (the “2nd floor” of the opera’s title) as her mind slips away completely.
The UCSD Production: Impressions and Thoughts
In contrast to Davis’s frequent use of historical events or figures as opera subjects, Lear on the 2nd Floor focuses tightly on a fictional family in turmoil as a way for the opera to investigate meaningful questions about memory, legacy, and the ties that bind. It is a complex work, filled with Nora’s bleak confusion and deteriorating relationships as well as moments of wit and irony. For me, it was really Davis’s score that brings this to life and makes it real -- the music is a sophisticated, and sometimes challenging, blend of dissonance, percussion, jazz, and occasional moments of lyricism. Let’s dive into a few moments to experience how this works.
In Act I, shortly after Nora’s diagnosis, Lyla finds her wandering in a cemetery, without her shoes. Their dialogue is bittersweet; Nora’s confusion is evident and she doesn’t remember her daughter at first, but as Lyla confides her ambivalence about her pregnancy and facing it alone, the two manage to connect emotionally in a surprising, lyrical duet. They sing of motherhood, of age, of time and of pain, sometimes in unison, other times in harmony, as the main melody dances along brightly. Lyla, who is based on Shakespeare’s character of Cordelia in King Lear, is patient and loving with her mother, following the twists and turns of her mind and doing her best to take care of Nora in a difficult situation. This clip begins at 14:55, keep watching until about 19:20 for this scene.
Now, contrast that with this section later in Act I. Nora’s condition has deteriorated even more, her mind embodied onstage by a soprano who makes gibberish, wordless vocalizations and screams while the orchestra plays ominously. It’s dark, frightening, and just for a moment, perhaps, makes the audience actually feel the terror of losing one’s mind. This musical moment transitions to Nora herself, who is wandering the street after a confrontation with Jenna. Her aria, like the storm scene of King Lear, gives us a window into her jumbled thoughts as she mixes the past with the present, remembers her daughters and contemplates death. This clip starts at 44:03, keep watching until 50:10.
These are only two examples, but they help to demonstrate the opera’s breadth and style -- the way it can shift from music that is bittersweet and even catchy, to sections that are dissonant, unfamiliar, and challenging.
Nora’s story is not an easy one, especially for the many of us who have seen loved ones taken by Alzheimer’s or dementia and the incredible toll it can take on families. I couldn’t help but think of my own grandmother as I watched, who slipped away early in my childhood and spent her final decade in a gentle, confused fog. She was childlike; she loved coffee ice cream, always perking up for a bowl even when she could no longer feed herself. Davis’s Nora is more like Lear -- a towering, successful figure, a parent with impossible standards, a person betrayed by her own mind and left alone. But there’s also a gentleness in Davis’s ending for her, as Nora and Mortimer imagine driving down an open highway with the radio blaring, reggae echoing in the orchestra. Perhaps, after all, there’s freedom in letting go.
The entire opera is available on YouTube through the University of California Television, which is an incredible opportunity to hear the essential work of Anthony Davis, one of the most influential opera composers of our time, for free online. Check it out below and let us know what you think of the opera too.
Additional readings and references:
Lacey Upton is an educator who specializes in the arts, out-of-school time settings, and community engagement. She began her career in opera at the Metropolitan Opera Guild in NYC and spent five years at Boston Lyric Opera as the Director of Community Engagement. She recently earned her Ed.M. from the Harvard Graduate School of Education and currently works in youth development with middle and high school students.
Photo credit: Esso Studios
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