More than 1,500 school children‹including 5th, 6th, 7th and 8th graders from Harlem and Brooklyn Schools‹came to Columbia's campus on Dec 6th and 7th, to hear the world-renowned tenor, George I. Shirley, perform in a theatre/opera piece that reexamines the origins of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin.
The creator and impresario of this event was Darnel Jones, a graduate acting student in the theatre arts division of the School of the Arts. Darnel not only composed the music and wrote the book for the piece, entitled Transcendent Voices, but produced it and performed in it as well.
He signed on considerable talent: in addition to former Metropolitan Opera star Shirley, he enlisted Kristin Linklater, chair of the theatre arts division, to perform the role of Harriet Beecher Stowe, singer and voice teacher Betty Allen of the Manhattan School of Music and Harlem School of the Arts to serve as music advisor, and director-choreographer Eleo Pomare to direct a talented multicultural cast of professional singers and dancers. All contributed their work and talents on a pro bono basis.
The seed for this ambitious project was planted four years ago when Jones first encountered the voice of Shirley in a private opera history class given by two Boston opera critics in their home. "They played a recording of Beethoven's Fidelio and when I asked who that beautiful voice belonged to I found out it was George Shirley."
Jones further learned that Shirley had been the first African-American tenor to join the Metropolitan Opera and that he had retired at the early age of 38 to embark on a highly successful international concert career. "He speaks incomparable German and French and perfect Italian," Jones noted.
Jones looked up Shirley on the Internet and discovered he was chair of the voice department at the University of Michigan. He met the singer in person for the first time last summer when Shirley was performing a Monteverdi opera at Glimmerglass. "I wasn't sure what the reception would be," said Jones, "but I asked if he'd be willing to sing music written for his voice." Shirley was open to the idea, and referred Jones to composer Hale Smith for advice.
Up to this point, Jones had never composed music. His musical experience consisted of playing trombone in his high school band of Paris, Ky., and tuba in the Central Kentucky Youth Orchestra. His main experience was as an actor and public speaker. "Composition was work, work, work," said Jones. "Schönberg's composition book was my Bible."
"What people have always said to me is 'Darnel has the best teachers,'" said Jones. "I seek them out, which was what brought me to Columbia University. It looked as though Columbia was the place to come to develop my ideas."
Jones had had a highly positive perception of Columbia growing up because it was the alma mater of Paul Robeson. People sometimes told Jones he reminded them of Robeson. "I knew he was a graduate of Columbia, that he was an actor and had been a human rights leader, but I didn't know he could sing so well. When I heard his basso voice I thought, 'I don't know if that's a comparison I want to live up to.'" Jones himself is a bari tenor or spinto tenor (a tenor with a lot of color to his voice).
Jones then discovered that director Andrei Serban taught in the theatre arts program at Columbia, along with acting teacher Nikki Wolcz and voice teacher Kristin Linklater.
Jones says that Transcendent Voices is rooted in historical theatre conventions of the dithyramb and of Dionysian festivals. He hopes that it likewise allows the audience members to experience a euphoric state as a way to heighten their consciousness.
Jones's work reexamines the fiction of Uncle Tom's Cabin by comparing it with the nonfiction of real-life Josiah Henson. "Many people have forgotten about Reverend Henson, who was a great man and an autodidact," said Jones.
A slave who escaped to Dresden, Ontario, Henson established the Freeman's Institute and then returned to the American South to help free more than 120 slaves. Traveling much of the distance on foot with a price on his head, Henson related many of his adventures in an autobiography, Father Henson's Stories, that became the inspiration for Harriet Stowe's famous novel.
Henson's book hasn't been reprinted since 1858, with only four copies extant today. Jones said his opera/theatre work utilizes music and dance to negotiate these two stories in an effort to reexamine history and promote historical discourse among his Columbia peers.
"I wanted to see this piece done‹I was so inspired when I heard Professor Shirley sing, it helped me believe things were possible that I hadn't believed before‹if that happened for me when I was an adult what would be the result of young people‹5th, 6th, 7th and 8th graders having that kind of encounter in their formative years?" said Jones.
The entire student body of Brooklyn Friends School attended Transcendent Voices, along with students from school districts 5 and 6 in Harlem. In addition, the audiences included some first and second graders from P.S. 36 who had studied opera at the Manhattan School of Music. "They were very knowledgeable," commented Jones.
Many of the children who came to the performances stayed afterward to discuss what they had seen. In one of these sessions, Shirley raised the concern that the term Uncle Tom has taken on a negative connotation when in fact the character was based on a very positive role model, Josiah Henson.
Transcendent Voices came about through the collaboration and help of many people. Norman Sweeney donated the use of West African masks from his private collection. The project was supported with an initial grant of $1,000 from the School of the Arts theatre division, $843 from the President and Provost's Student Initiative Fund, $750 from the Chaplain's office and Sacred Music Fund, and $200 from the Patriot Finance Corporation. The rest, the majority of the budget, was self-financed by Jones. "I mainly raised the money by working, and as soon as I graduate, I'm going to really need a job," he said. He hopes to mount the production again, and to include some material that was cut from the school performances.
Linklater commented, "It is an extraordinary accomplishment: to have had the inspiration, the idea, and then to have the determination to make it happen. Darnel has a kind of genius in his ability to get people involved. He is doing something that is really worth developing further." She added, "It was a joy to be part of the performance‹he created a very warm and positive atmosphere."