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The phrase I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which titles Maya Angelou’s autobiography, may be the underlying thread beneath the online streaming opera Black Flute. The dual depictions of a captive woman needing to be saved and the escape of a captive bird into the wild allows this opera to portray the emotions concerning a mother of a lost child and what it means to be free.
Produced by D.C.’s IN Series, a nonprofit theater company working to disrupt expectations, nourish empathy, stimulate insight, and deepen the conversation, Black Flute is a modern retelling of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s The Magic Flute by local playwright Sybil Williams and librettist Jarrod Lee. Instead of taking place inside a typical theater, this show, which runs through June, can be viewed online via the IN Series’ streaming platform, INvision. Black Flute—which tells the story of the Queen of the Night (Kristin Renee Young) and her daughter Pamina (Melissa Wimbish), who’s being held captive by Sarastro (William Powell III)—was filmed throughout D.C. The IN Series describes the opera as “recontextualiz[ing] the Enlightenment values of The Magic Flute in a time and place acutely aware of their inherent misogyny and racism, with an all-Black cast of characters grappling with this dissonance and determined to set it right.”
The singers’ voices mesh beautifully. Young especially shines as the Queen of the Night with an impressive soprano. KenYatta Rogers, the director of Black Flute, has won a Helen Hayes Award for acting, and performed in theatrical productions of Topdog/Underdog, A Raisin in the Sun, Jitney, and a number of other shows. Black Flute, according to IN Series, “proposes a revolutionary future for the field, in which Black voices are central to the performance and production of opera.”
Though it might seem the opera is set in a foreign time and place—opera was born in Italy more than 400 years ago—opera in the U.S., especially from Black creators, can take a contemporary stance. In September 2021, Fire Shut Up in My Bones, an opera by Terence Blanchard based on a memoir by New York Times writer Charles Blow, made its debut at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. The opera was met with fanfare, as it was the Met’s first presentation by a Black composer. Celebrities and notable personalities filled the audiences and the closing performance was live streamed to audiences around the country.
In the U.S., for the first half of the twentieth century, operas were Whites-only spaces. Porgy and Bess debuted in 1935. According to Naomi Andre, author of Black Opera: History, Power, Engagement, composer George Gershwin’s work is “a frustrating collection of stereotypes.” Black opera, on the other hand, has been largely ignored: The musical Carmen Jones (1954) and Carmen: A Hip Hopera (2001) were based on Carmen (1875), a French opera by composer Georges Bizet. But operas, including Treemonisha (1911) by the king of ragtime, Scott Joplin, Voodoo (1914) by H. Lawrence Freeman; and Tom Tom (1932) by Shirley Graham Du Bois all predate Porgy and Bess. Today, there are many options for what an opera can look and sound like, and for Black operas, that might mean staying the course with a classic narrative, which is the case for Black Flute.
Gwynne Kuhner Brown, in her review of Andre’s text, describes Black opera as “opera by, about, performed by, and/or received by Black people.” Operas like Black Flute might be changing the tides. It addresses questions raised by Andre—asking what Black bodies on stage mean for diverse audiences. But while Black Flute addresses issue dealing with Blackness (including Black feminism), it is adamant about asking what opera can do amid a racial reckoning in this country.
Black Flute questions outright how, or if, opera can do anything to contribute to the fight for the rights of Black people. As the recording of the opera begins, there are sounds of protestors shouting, “Hands up, don’t shoot,” followed by the voice of renowned opera singer Marian Anderson singing the National Anthem. This opening lays the groundwork for a Black opera that places Black people at its center. Following the anthem a voice over describes instances of violence against Black people and a discussion by the players on how Black people are revered in the opera space. Other aspects of Black Flute indicate an Afrocentric take on a classic composition with the continuous appearance of an African drummer and Afrocentric costumes. Thematically, Black Flute touches on Black injustices at its outset. It also focuses on the idea of captivity throughout, raising questions about enslavement and freedom.
While opera might be best appreciated in a theater space with the right acoustics, this streaming video production allows for Black Flute to enter the comfort of your living space with the bonus of being shot at multiple locations, which adds to the storytelling and breaks the monotony of a blackened theater space.
Black Flute, by Sybil Williams and librettist Jarrod Lee and directed by KenYatta Rogers, streams online via IN Series’ INvision. invision.inseries.org. Free.