The Nashville Opera opens a new production tonight, The Difficulty of Crossing a Field. It’s set on a farm in Alabama about a decade before the Civil War, and black faces outnumber white ones onstage. That’s true to the dynamic of the antebellum South, but far from the norm in opera.
Robert Mack’s dark skin hasn’t gotten in the way of portraying a wealthy Frenchman in La Traviata, a Spanish judge in The Marriage of Figaro or a Scottish lord in Lucia di Lamermoor. After all, the prevailing idea in opera is that the voice is what makes a singer right for a part, not appearance.
The Difficulty of Crossing a Field is different. The tenor’s race was a prerequisite for his principal role as Boy Sam, house slave whose master disappeared into thin air. As tensions rise in the house and among the field workers, Mack says Sam feels caught in between, wondering if he should feel a sense of loss for the man who’d allowed him to work in the house or if he should fall more in line with the other slaves, who show obvious disdain towards the white man. “I think that’s very real,” Mack says.
It’s a meaty role, but some of Mack’s friends questioned the wisdom of taking the part of a slave. His response to them was that slavery is a part of history. To himself, he thought it was an opportunity to bring dignity to the role. “And if I do a great job at it, someone may be inspired to write another role that’s true to an African-American.”
ROLES THAT OPEN DOORS
There are other black roles, even all-black operas, but there aren’t many. More than 75 years after its debut, Porgy and Bess is still the only one that’s very well known. Singers like Mack certainly don’t want to be confined to only playing their own race, but those parts definitely provide a special chance to make their talent known. That’s how Mack got his break. After singing Sportin’ Life in Porgy and Bess for the New York City Opera and Opera Carolina the companies invited him back to do other roles.
Likewise, The Difficulty of Crossing a Field is forming a sort of entry point into the Nashville Opera’s supporting chorus.
Brooke Davis and Dionne Simpson are a both classically trained singers, but neither had even attempted to sing for the Nashville Opera before the call went out for local black singers. They play parts in a group of field hands that functions as a sort of everpresent Greek Chorus. As Davis puts it, “you can’t escape us, really.”
Of eight chorus members, only two had a history with the company. After all, even in the ranks of the supporting cast, opera is mostly white. So it could be tempting to find ways to work around race in filling out those roles.
NO CASTING SHORTCUTS
Artistic director John Hoomes says he’s heard of one production that used a nearly all-white cast, using some sort of stylized makeup to make everyone seem neutral rather than playing up anyone’s ethnicity. To Hoomes, that defeats the point. He says says a major reason for the parts sung by the chorus and Boy Sam is to address the thorny racial landscape of the antebellum South.
“If you’re going to try and keep the piece in a historical setting, as uncomfortable as some of the piece may be-intentionally-I don’t think we can be afraid to at least look at it. And it is written for a black performer.”
Davis admits it’s nice when there are specific roles for African-American singers, but says she generally prefers colorblind casting. She says it gives everyone an opportunity to do “bigger and better things.”
Most of the Nashville Opera’s performances are more colorblind, and now that the company knows Davis and her fellow chorus member’s voices, the field of singers it may call on for any show is that much bigger.
The Difficulty of Crossing a Field runs November 9, 10, and 11 at the Noah Liff Opera Center, with discussions of the show following each performance.