Atlanta Opera highlights Black Baroque composer with ‘Anonymous Lover’

Previously overlooked 18th century artist from Paris is now in vogue.
Maria Todaro directs the Atlanta Opera's production of "The Anonymous Lover."
Courtesy of Atlanta Opera

Credit: Atlanta Opera

Credit: Atlanta Opera

Maria Todaro directs the Atlanta Opera's production of "The Anonymous Lover." Courtesy of Atlanta Opera

Composer Joseph Bologne is having a moment. If the Guadalupe-born, Paris-bred Black musical prodigy merited a mention at all in music history textbooks since his death 224 years ago, it was fleeting. But now Bologne is seemingly everywhere.

Cedille Records released in February a three-disc recording of his opera “L’Amant Anonyme” by Chicago-based Haymarket Opera company. On March 19, Toronto-based Voice Box: Opera in Concert presented the opera, which has also seen recent productions in Switzerland and Minnesota. The composer, who received the honorific Chevalier de Saint-Georges when he became an officer in King Louis XV’s court, is also getting the Hollywood treatment. “Chevalier,” by Fox Searchlight Pictures, is slated to hit theaters in April.

Atlanta Opera premieres a reworking of “L’Amant Anonyme” (“The Anonymous Lover”) at Morehouse College on March 31, with a free livestream on April 1. The production is directed by Maria Todaro. When she began looking into the Baroque composer’s life in the lead up to her staging of the work at the Minnesota Opera in 2022, she was startled by the breadth of what she found.

Bologne composed more than 200 works including a vast array of songs and two symphonies to add to his six operas. When not composing, he led his own Parisian orchestra, premiering Haydn’s Paris Symphonies in 1786. He was an accomplished violinist and fencer and led the Legion St. Georges, the first all Black regiment in Europe, during the French Revolution. (There’s a rumor he was the inspiration for Aramis in Alexandre Dumas’ “Three Musketeers.”)

“It was like, ‘What? He’s a superhero,’” said Todaro. “There’s so much about him, and by the same token, so little.”

Taking a few liberties with the story, Todaro added elements of Bologne’s life into the narrative of “The Anonymous Lover,” even bringing in new characters to do justice not just to the two-part opera but to the man behind the work.

The basic story of “Anonymous Lover” is straight out of a rom-com. Leontine (soprano Maria Valdes) has captured the heart of Valcour (tenor Frederick Ballentine) but instead of telling her how he feels, Valcour decides to write letters and send gifts — all anonymously.

His wingman, Ophemon (baritone Jonathan Bryan), helps arrange these pursuits because Valcour is certain Leontine wouldn’t appreciate a more direct approach so soon after the death of her husband. She, of course, discovers the true identity of the letter writer, unbeknownst to him. After some handwringing and identity unmasking, the story ends in a double wedding.

Costume design for the character of Leontine in "The Anonymous Lover."
Courtesy of Atlanta Opera

Credit: Atlanta Opera

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Credit: Atlanta Opera

Todaro’s biographical “play within a play” opens with Bologne discussing his latest composition (the opera in question) to the audience of a Parisian salon. The show then proceeds, but Todaro’s telling is full of meta references.

In the director’s notes for the Minnesota staging, Todaro wrote the idea behind her additions was to “invite the audience to travel not only to the time period of the composer, but beyond his life as a Frenchman and to the land of his origins.”

Todaro brought her creative team — Stephan Moravski on sets and costume designer Ari Fulton — with her from Minnesota. Emily Senturia will conduct the Atlanta performances.

In the title role, Maria Valdes sings once again in front of a hometown crowd. A native of Marietta, she found her first voice coaches in the Cobb County public school system and furthered her early study of opera at Georgia State University.

Valdes came to “Anonymous Lover” in 2020, watching a streaming performance by LA Opera. She had never heard of the composer, so she wanted to see what it was all about.

Atlantan Maria Valdes will sing the role of Leontine in the Atlanta Opera's production of "The Anonymous Lover." 
Courtesy of the Atlanta Opera

Credit: Atlanta Opera

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Credit: Atlanta Opera

“The music is gorgeous,” she said. “The story is beautiful and funny and has so many layers. And the singing is really virtuosic.”

While the story is relatable and the opera contains impressive singing, the music is very Baroque, which could sound anachronistic to contemporary audiences. Todaro leaned into that period feeling, allowing audiences to get lost in an 18th century world. Valdes said that while the music can sound old, it’s part of her job to make sure audiences get lost in the sounds of another era.

“What we do in the opera world is we make old things new by being true to the original intent,” Valdes said. “As far as storytelling goes, the stories are timeless. And the relationships between the characters are timeless.”

A renewed focus on diversity in classical music has certainly helped the world rediscover Bologne, but the music stands on its own, Mark Clague states in liner notes to the Cedille recording of “The Anonymous Lover.”

“It is the composer’s expressive and skillful handling of melody, harmony and rhythm that have sparked his successful ‘rediscovery,’” Clague wrote. “Often called the ‘The Black Mozart,’ this nickname tells us less about Bologne than about the surprise of 21st-century listeners when they discover the quality, charm, passion, inventiveness and sheer effectiveness of his unjustly neglected music.”

Both Todaro and Valdes felt the weight of this history and the importance of these performances while preparing for the Atlanta Opera run.

“It’s a great privilege to be doing this music and to be bringing this back into the classical music canon,” Valdes said. “There’s a lot of responsibility there to do the music with integrity and do it justice for the people who are hearing it for the first time,”

Opera Preview

Atlanta Opera’s “The Anonymous Lover” 8 p.m. March 31 and April 1. 3 p.m. April 2. $35-$55. Ray Charles Performing Arts Center at Morehouse College, 900 West End Ave. SW, Atlanta. 404-881-8885.