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Black, Brilliant, and Almost Forgotten: LA Opera Streams Joseph Bologne’s The Anonymous Lover

November 10, 2020

History will be made on Nov. 14 at 5 p.m. PST when the Colburn School and LA Opera together present a free stream of the new critical edition of Joseph Bologne’s comic opera The Anonymous Lover (L’Amant anonyme). Not only will the performance be one of the very few modern productions of a 240-year-old opera by a mostly forgotten 18th-century Black composer, it will also present a unique opportunity to explore the potential of the streaming medium as a conduit for live opera in and beyond the COVID-19 era.

If you’ve never heard of Joseph Bologne (aka Boulogne) (1745-1799), whom King Louis XV granted the title Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges, it is likely due to his origins as the son of an enslaved African woman and a wealthy French plantation owner. Bologne was born and raised on the French Caribbean island of Guadeloupe. By the time he was 10, he began to receive an elite education in France, which included private lessons in music and fencing. Bologne rapidly blossomed into one of the most versatile and talented members of the aristocracy. Initially prized for his outstanding fencing and athletic abilities, he became a member of the Gendarmes de la Garde du Roi and was known as “the god of arms.” He was admitted to the Royal Academy as a professor and soon became a star of Parisian society.

Even before he had reached France, Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges began violin studies with his father’s estate manager. As befitted the son of nobleman who was a patron of the arts and had works dedicated to him by the violinist Antonio Lolli and the composer Johann Stamitz, Bologne eventually took lessons from Jean-Marie Leclair and possibly Lolli. Both Lolli and François-Joseph Gossec dedicated works to him.

Four years after joining Le Concert des Amateurs as first violinist, 24-year-old Bologne took over the orchestra. After becoming leader of its successor, Le Concert de la Loge Olympique (aka Le Concert Olympique), he commissioned, premiered, and edited the first published edition of Haydn’s six “Paris” Symphonies.

Bologne’s first documented compositions date from 1770 and 1771. By the time of his death, he had composed at least six operas, only one of which has survived. LAO’s production of The Anonymous Lover will incorporate the only surviving aria from another of Bologne’s opera, Ernestine — an aria that LA Opera Music Director James Conlon considers “extraordinary.” The opera will be sung in French (with English subtitles) save for its dialogue, which will be delivered in English.[1]

It is quite possible that Mozart, who stayed under the same roof as Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges for a month or two, was inspired to write his first Sinfonia Concertante after hearing the other composer’s music. Had it not been for opposition to his “mulatto” identity, Bologne might have become artistic director of the Royal Academy of Music (the Paris Opéra). Nonetheless, he made his mark as a renowned violinist, composer, and, during the French Revolution, the colonel of a troop of 1,000 “colored” soldiers.

That regiment, known as Le Légion Franche de Cavalerie des Américains (American free legion of cavalry), soon became known as the Légion Saint-Georges. Despite Bologne’s fame and revolutionary ardor, he barely escaped the guillotine. That the charges against him were trumped up should come as no surprise. His work as a composer declined post-revolution, as did his fame and fortune. He eventually succumbed to bladder disease at age 44, but not before spending two years as director of a new orchestra, Le Cercle de l’Harmonie.

Although Bologne was lamentably dubbed the “Black Mozart” in successive centuries, Conlon despises and rejects the title. He also acknowledges the uncertainty around the composer’s name and key aspects of his history.

“I don’t think anybody really knows how to pronounce his name,” Conlon said during an hour-long Zoom chat. “For short, I’ve been calling him Chevalier de Saint-Georges. His life is not as well documented as we would wish; there are a lot of big holes in it. The best book on him is a biography by Gabriel Banat, a violinist in the NY Philharmonic, whom I met in the 1970s.

“Being a mad Beaumarchais fan, I find it very touching that this Renaissance man died within three weeks of Beaumarchais in 1799. That means absolutely nothing, but because I love Beaumarchais and his fascinating life, I happened to notice it.”

What does mean a great deal is the music. Although Conlon acknowledges that absolutely no one is the equal of Mozart, and few if any opera composers of the period collaborated with a librettist on the level of Da Ponte, he insists that Bologne’s music has great merit.

“I feel the music justifies itself,” he said. “There are lots of operas where you can say that the plot is ridiculous, but I don’t think we should judge operas primarily by their plots and their supposed lack of literary value. The form is basically musical. I’m not saying that there isn’t drama in opera, but to me, it ultimately boils down to how do you feel about the music? I’m very enthusiastic about it. The music has a very simple, direct lyricism that I find quite appealing. It seems modeled on the music of Gluck, but I can hear into the 19th century in certain moments of this opera. The aria from Ernestine is extraordinary and sounds like a predecessor of Berlioz.”

The opera’s plot involves a young widow, Léontine (soprano Tiffany Townsend), who is secretly courted from a distance by her supposedly disinterested friend, Valcour (tenor Robert Stahley). After considerable resistance, she is touched by her anonymous admirer and presumably agrees to wed him. Along the way, we meet several other characters including Léontine’s friend, Dorothée (soprano Alaysha Fox), and Valcour’s assistant-in-deception, Ophémon (baritone Michael J. Hawk). There are also two young lovers, Jeannette (mezzo-soprano Gabriela Flores) and Colin (countertenor Jacob Ingbar). All singers are members of LA Opera’s Young Artist Program. Given that the story lacks a villain, there is no bass singer.

Mounting this opera seems part and parcel of Conlon’s Recovered Voices project, which he describes as his “mission” for the last 25 years.

“It’s a mission that will outlast me,” he acknowledges. “We wish to restore to the repertory and the consciousness of the classical-music-loving public the music [Entartete Musik] of composers who were banned, victimized, and sometimes murdered by the Nazi regime. There’s a big chunk of music from the ’20s and ’30s that has never been heard by the public.

“I look at an opera by an interesting 18th-century composer and ask why it isn’t being performed. When I look into the question and scratch away the surface, it’s basically the same problem: racism. Racism was one of the many great crimes of the Nazi regime, but it is a silent crime that predominantly white European and American societies practiced. I have never heard anyone suggest that the lack of attention to St. George’s music was for any reason other than he was Black. There’s been an explosion of interest in him in the last four months. Let’s hope that lasts, and that it bears fruit. His will be like a recovered voice.”

The recovery will continue beyond the production. Not only will the performance be available for viewing through Nov. 29, but it will be followed by Conlon’s plans to perform some of the violin concertos and the Sinfonia Concertante. With luck, those performances will be recorded. The music of other forgotten Black composers are also on Conlon’s to-do list. In addition, The Colburn School’s Colburn Artist Series will host the Viano String Quartet performing Bologne’s String Quartet, Op. 6, No. 1, on Dec. 20.

Bringing It Online

The Anonymous Lover will be the inaugural presentation of LA Opera’s On Now initiative, which intends to make streaming a permanent part of its programming. Ditto for the Colburn School, whose plans to digitize the campus involve connecting a number of physically distanced spaces in the school’s Grand Building via data, video, and fiberoptic technology. For this performance, the singers will perform in Zipper Hall to a prerecorded orchestra that performed in the nearby Grand Rehearsal Hall.

The prospect of staging an anonymous yet intimate courtship with safely distanced singers and orchestra is just one of many challenges facing the opera’s director, Bruce Lemon Jr. Lemon, who is artistic director of Watts Village, associate artistic director/ensemble member with Cornerstone Theater Company, and an Illyrian Player (actor), is not only making his LA Opera debut but also directing his first opera. Which is not to suggest that the classically trained actor is unfamiliar with the medium, which he first got exposed to while serving as an intern for stage management and production at The Juilliard School in New York City.

“I’ve also done stage directing and host a community-driven storytelling series called Unheard LA on our NPR station in L.A.,” Lemon explained at the start of our hour-long Zoom chat. “I bounce a lot and do a lot of different things. I wrote a poem as part of a public art piece for the new Dr. Martin Luther King behavioral health center in my neighborhood. I’m a jack-of-all-trades, but according to my master’s degree, I’m only a master of one. I like to experience as much as I can and spread things out.

“I’m also a storyteller. That’s what I’m doing in every medium I can grasp. If I can’t quite hold on to it, then I’ll get some help and we’ll hold on to it together. It’s really about new experiences and exposure, and trying to do it very publicly so there’s more examples for children from my neighborhood — especially young Black children — to see that you can do whatever you want. You can do so many things; just try. I’m here to try and fail and try again, as much as possible.”

When we spoke several weeks ago, Lemon was early into the rehearsal process. Singers were following MIDI files played by the stage manager via screen share as they struggled to sing in unison over the time delay. Nonetheless, Lemon said that he attempts to see obstacles as opportunities to find new solutions and try new things.

As we spoke, it became clear why the production will likely succeed. Beyond his boundless energy, Lemon seems to be one of those blessedly optimistic, go-with-the-flow spirits whose path is to spread light wherever he goes. Even a distanced hour with him made clear that the love he holds in his heart for art, people, and community is not easily suppressed.

“This isn’t the kind of piece that has much of a production history,” he acknowledged. “You can’t go to a store or online to download several versions of the music and prepare yourself. You can only find bits of it online. Oct. 22 was the first time I heard anyone sing live anywhere in months. So my first reaction was visceral, the familiar joy of live performance and a person making these sounds. This opera is such a beautiful change of pace; it has affected me the same way as a contemporary concert at Coachella.

“There’s an upside to a Zoom performance during lockdown. Live performance tends to be prohibitively expensive and keeps a lot of people out, especially the people we say we want in. The intimate delivery of this performance to people in the comfort of their own homes — people who may take it in during the broadcast or after the fact at their own time — opens a range of possibilities where it can be seen and used. It could be played in a classroom, or for yourself while you’re cleaning up your house. The more I think about how people take in media these days, the more it seems on your own schedule while doing other things. My hope is that our creation can exist in all those different parts of your life and enable you to take it in however you wish.”

Tickets are free at www.laopera.org/lover.

To quote the fabulous Naomi André, author of Black Opera: History, Power and Engagement and Professor in Women’s Studies, the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies, and the Residential College Arts and Ideas in the Humanities program at the University of Michigan — leave it to academia to concoct such a tongue-teasing title — “While we’ve gotten really good at figuring out how to talk about creativity in terms of gender, it’s hard to find information on both non-white composers and even non-American composers. In the 19th century, whether one had to go to Europe to become a bonafide composer was a big question. So we’re trying to figure out things in terms of race and ethnicity.[2]

“Much of what we know about Black composers comes from the 19th and 20th centuries, so we just need to forage out more. We’re still not doing a good job with our present times. Maybe in 30 years I can give you a better list of early Black composers. Which is why this performance is so important. We need to hear this opera.”


[1] Preparing the first critical edition of The Anonymous Lover including restoring missing information to an aria where characters were listed to sing with orchestral accompaniment but there was no music for them. Opera Ritrovata used words from the original source material — the play by Madame de Genlis — and the melody line in the instrumental parts to create the music. See https://operawire.com/restoring-a-classic-how-opera-ritrovata-created-a-critical-edition-for-joseph-bolognes-lamant-anonyme/.

[2] For more information, André points to the Black Opera Research Network (BORN) [http://blackoperaresearch.net/]. Under “Past Events,” there is a Vimeo link to BORN’s first public panel, on Aug. 21, 2000, entitled “Black experiences in opera: Perspectives from South Africa, Europe, and the US.” An annotated transcript of the talk is expected soon.

Correction: The article, as originally published, stated that the orchestra for this production would be performing live from Colburn’s Grand Rehearsal Hall. The orchestra’s performance from that space is, in fact, prerecorded.

Jason Victor Serinus regularly reviews music and audio for Stereophile, SFCV, Classical Voice North America, AudioStream, American Record Guide, and other publications. The whistling voice of Woodstock in She’s a Good Skate, Charlie Brown, the longtime Oakland resident now resides in Port Townsend, Washington.