Emotionally charged concert celebrates Black tenors

By M.L. RANTALA
Classical music critic

Tenor George Shirley sings a Puccini aria at the South Shore Cultural Center. (Photo by Spencer Bibbs)
The South Shore Opera Company of Chicago presented a concert Sunday afternoon at the South Shore Cultural Center entitled “Tremendous Tenors.” Three tenors sang opera favorites.

Sound ordinary? The concept is tired and overdone, but what SSOCC did with this performance cliché was anything but ordinary. The concert went from strength to strength, and just when you thought it could not get more thrilling, it in fact did.

The special sauce that transformed the usual concert collection of tasty opera bonbons into an emotionally powerful event was the framing of the music. The SSOCC recognized and honored several Black tenors who were the Jackie Robinsons of opera: men who struggled to find recognition of their talent but who persevered and broke barriers for those that followed them.

The Tremendous Tenors were three men each bearing a particularly popular family name: Cornelius Johnson III, Luther Lewis III, and Henry Pleas III. They sang in turns, with each opera aria preceded by an introduction provided by Elizabeth Norman, the soprano who starred in a delightful production of Menotti’s “The Telephone” three years ago at SSOCC.

Each introduction had a brief biography of a Black tenor and explained how the piece chosen to honor him was selected. One was a favorite encore, another was sung at a CSO debut, still another was on a Grammy-winning recording. Each work was connected to a man the afternoon’s singers respected, and the results were very good indeed.

Lewis opened the concert with “Onaway! Wake Beloved!” from “Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast” by Samuel Coleridge Taylor. Accompanied by tender music from the ensemble, Lewis offered an attractively simple approach, although crisper diction would have made it easier to understand. This was a beautiful piece and seems like one SSOCC would consider presenting in its entirety one day. Lewis generated chuckles with his humorous approach — aided by a big white hanky and a few prancing moves — in Triquet’s aria from Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin.”

Johnson was elegant throughout the afternoon, starting with a fine “La fleur que tu m’avais jetée” from Bizet’s “Carmen.” He had carefully calibrated mood shifts, ringing tone, and benefited from a particularly alluring accompaniment from the chamber orchestra. In “Una furtive lagrima” from Donizetti’s “L’elisir d’amore” he beautifully conveyed the wonder and ecstasy of first love experienced by a rustic innocent.

Pleas offered a potent performance of “Wintersturme im wichendem Wonnemond” from Wagner’s “Die Walküre.” He put on an excellent display of storytelling as he recounted Siegmund’s story of winter giving way to spring. In Mozart’s “Fuor del mar” from Idomeneo,” Pleas was energetic as the King of Crete, capturing his torment and expertly navigating the coloratura runs.

SSOCC music director Leslie B. Dunner conducted a small, on-stage ensemble made up of string quartet plus bass and piano. (Last month Dunner conducted the world premiere of “The Central Park Five” by Anthony Davis at Long Beach Opera, something else that would be great to see presented by SSOCC.) The performance was universally splendid and the reduced arrangements yielded remarkably robust sound. There was an exquisite balance achieved between piano and strings, with the latter offering gorgeous blend and gleaming tone. Dunner showed sensitivity to the singers and knew how to make a point with nuanced detail.

The Black tenors honored at the concert were Roland Hayes, Vinson Cole, Issachah Savage, Steven Cole, Lawrence Brownlee, Russell Thomas, Charles Holland, Noah Stewart, Rodrick Dixon, and George Shirley. Well into the concert, the detail on Shirley became more extensive than that offered on others. It also became more emotionally charged as some of the racial barriers he faced were recounted. A stunning and exciting glimpse of a man, his era, and the strength of his legacy were laid out.

Shirley was then invited on stage as the special honoree of the event, and spoke briefly about his life in music. He concentrated on his early career, notably when he became the first African American member of the U.S. Army Chorus. From there he went on to become the first Black tenor in a leading role at the Met. The audience loved hearing from him and was truly excited when he left the podium to join the ensemble and sing.

Shirley is now 85 years old so you might wonder if he can still sing. He certainly can! He was engrossing in “Ch’ella mi creda” from Puccini’s “La Fancuilla del West.” His beautiful phrasing, expert deployment of emotion and dynamics, and charming characterization made for a magnificent performance. The audience went wild.

Rodrick Dixon was also present and he sang the work chosen to honor him. He offered a rousing and compelling “Make them hear you!” from Stephen Flaherty’s “Ragtime.” The audience went wild again.

This is not to say that there were no missteps. The program was confusing and had tiny type, making it hard to link the music to the bios of the men honored. The introductions varied in quality, one or two suffering from dry lists without a personal touch. Norman seemed to struggle repeatedly as she read. And a “Bohème” excerpt, “O soave fanciulla,” was bizarrely made over into a jokey quartet featuring the Tremendous Tenors and Norman. This prank was an unsettling shift in the tone and arc of the concert, yet the strong majority of the audience lapped it up like a kitten in front of a saucer of cream.

The SSOCC used projections at the back of the stage throughout, displaying a single photo of the honoree with each aria. This was not perfect — there might have been more than just one shot for each work sung; without texts in the program, it would have been nice to see the lyrics displayed on screen; particularly in photos that showed the honoree in performance, it would have been interesting to know where and when it took place. But these additions in projection complexity cost time and money. The fact that the group uses projections at all is praiseworthy, and this is not the first time they have done so. Incorporating new ways of communicating is the future of opera and classical music and SSOCC shows they know this.

The remarkable and memorable afternoon was topped off with an encore from the Tremendous Tenors. In a nod to the original Three Tenors (I think of Sunday’s trio as The III Tenors), they performed the work so often included in concerts by Pavarotti, Carreras, and Domingo: “Nessun Dorma.” This offered a link from the achievements of the Black tenors they honored that day to some of the best tenors of our time. All of the singers on stage taught us what we should already know: that opera is for everyone, whether in the audience or on the stage.