Opera without prejudice

It's hard to believe, but a scant 50 years ago, persons of color weren't allowed to sing on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera. Roland Hayes and Dorothy Maynor are just a few of the great African-American concert singers of the last century who sang in many of the world's greatest opera houses — just not in the United States.

Two years ago, Sharon Willis, a musician, composer and choral director at Morris Brown College, wrote and produced an opera about the casting obstacles facing African-American singers even now. The Opera Singer debuted in Atlanta in 2000. The title role was sung by respected Atlanta soprano Jeanne Brown, who has since moved to New York, after finding that local venues were, for her and many others, increasingly circumscribed.

With the debut of The Opera Singer, a new company was formed: The Americolor Opera Alliance. Its goal is to meet the performing needs of the area's African-American singers and all those local singers who've been ignored or under-utilized by the few professional-caliber opera companies in the area.

"Opportunity has been limited here," Willis says. "That was the premise of The Opera Singer — to show how limited the profession is for people of color."

Willis has some firsthand knowledge of the obstacles. Her husband is Oliver Sueing, a concert tenor who often was tapped to do solo work for Robert Shaw. It was Shaw who first gave many of Atlanta's finest singers — Sueing, Sam Hagan, Jeanne Brown — their most consistent professional bookings. Shaw's death has, without question, created a void for local concert singers of all ethnicities.

Well aware that the void has yet to be filled, Willis is anxious to employ local singers of all races, offering them as many performing opportunities as possible. "The singers always want to be a part of the experience, because they know that African-American opera singers don't always get an opportunity to sing," Willis says. "I know so many opera singers who resign themselves to being part-time singers, or becoming jazz singers or teachers. It's very frustrating for them."

In its two-year history, the company has alternated performances of the two operas composed by Willis with excerpted versions of operas by Mozart and other classical composers. A visit to Atlanta's Herndon Home inspired Willis' latest effort, The Herndons: The Opera, an operatic biography of the life of the city's first African-American millionaire businessman. The work is now ready for its full-length world premiere this month.

"His story is magnificent," says Willis. "He was born a slave, and became a millionaire — by cutting hair."

But Willis says her opera "doesn't belabor the slave issue." "He overcame this obstacle," she adds. "What's so wonderful are the achievements."

Willis' next opera, already in the works, is the true story of the only person of color on the Titanic, who died on board after getting his wife and child into one of the liner's few lifeboats.

So far, the only funding for Americolor has come from ticket sales, though businessman Felix Burrows has stepped in to help in the fund-raising efforts. He hopes to attract interest from the business community in the form of endowments that could take the organization to the next level professionally.

For Willis and the singers who perform with Americolor, it's more about performing than making money — although in today's cultural climate, one is impossible without the other. But the troupe has been more than willing to make sacrifices, just to have the opportunity to sing.

"These singers came even when I could not pay them," Willis says. "They've come in with the understanding that we're growing together as a company."

The Herndons: The Opera runs Sat.-Sun., April 6-7, at the First Congregational United Church of Christ, 105 Courtland St. For more info, call 404-691-1004.??