This story was originally published by ArtsATL.
“We need new stories.”
It’s a cry that has been heard repeatedly as the opera industry works to address long-neglected issues of diversity and equality on the stage.
For bass Morris Robinson, the artistic adviser to Atlanta Opera and its pivotal 96-Hour Opera Project, the phrase has become a mantra.
Robinson, who is 54 and an Atlanta native, first gained public attention as a three-time 1-AA All American offensive lineman at The Citadel in Charleston, S.C. Off the football field, he began to gain even more admiration for his singing.
He studied at the New England Conservatory of Music, at the Opera Institute of Boston University and finally at the Lindemann Young Artist Development Program at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, where his future was sealed.
Today, Robinson is one of the most celebrated bass singers in the industry.
Also a passionate advocate for social justice, Robinson has found a vehicle for his creative and moral sensibilities in the Atlanta Opera’s 96-Hour Opera Project, a competition for composers and librettists of color to write and present a 10-minute production.
The project pairs up a composer and librettist to bring a completed opera to Atlanta for four days of workshopping and rehearsals before showcasing it for both the public and judges. The second annual event begins Friday, June 9, and ends with a public performance on Monday, June 12, at the Ray Charles Performing Arts Center at Morehouse College. The winner earns a cash prize and a commission to create a new work for the Atlanta Opera.
The project started in 2021 when Atlanta Opera general and artistic director Tomer Zvulun realized that the vast majority of new composers who came to his attention were white. The idea for the 96-Hour Opera Project was born.
Six teams of finalists competed in June 2022. Composer Marcus Norris and librettist Adamma Ebo won for their mini-opera “Go On With That Wind.” The team’s commissioned opera, “Forsyth is Flooding (with the Joy of Lake Lanier),” is set to premiere at the Atlanta Opera in 2024.
This week, five teams of finalists will enter the competition with 10-minute operas based on the lives of three notable African Americans in Georgia history: Dr. Blanche Beatrice Saunders Thompson, one of the first Black surgeons in the state; Thomas Askew, a prominent Black photographer; and Carrie Steele Logan, a former slave and later a philanthropist who founded the oldest Black orphanage in the United States here in Atlanta.
ArtsATL caught up with Robinson between performances of Verdi’s Otello at Los Angeles Opera to discuss the 96-Hour Opera Project and the need for new stories.
Q: How did the Atlanta Opera 96-Hour Opera Project spring into life?
A: As we all know, there has always been a need for relevant materials to contemporary society. This project isn’t a “battle royale,” but there was really no pipeline in our industry for creatives who come from underserviced and underrecognized communities. We wanted to do something about that.
As a group, we came up with this idea to reach out and solicit talents that aren’t normally participating in this art form. We picked material that is relevant to the society in which we live: These are Atlanta stories and Georgia stories. They are stories that are written by, and about, people in this area.
We didn’t go to the conservatories and try to find the hottest composer. We went to the community and said we wanted them to submit something. Some of the material we got is absolutely mind-blowing. It was hard to determine who the finalists were going to be. And once we had that, it was really hard to decipher who the crowd favorite was and which creation we thought had the most legs.
Q: How did you go about choosing your composer/librettist teams?
A: We were looking for originality, of course, and authenticity. But also for relatability. What makes opera work and what makes good storytelling? Well, you have to keep the audience’s attention, and you must have music that is discernible, reachable and relatable.
We all brought different levels of expectations. But for me as a musician and singer, I like to walk away from a show humming something that sticks with me musically through the effective use of text or presentation, and then I want to hear it again. That was my part, but everyone brought something to the table.
Once we had our finalists, we assembled a panel of judges — artistic directors, managers and musicians from various high-powered companies in the industry. Then it became really tough. We had the presentations, then we locked ourselves in a room and battled it out. Some of the people who didn’t win last year created really wonderful work that we know will have legs and go somewhere else. But we can only take one.
It is amazing the talent we uncovered. And the level of that talent is unimaginable.
Credit: Courtesy of Atlanta Opera
Credit: Courtesy of Atlanta Opera
Q: The talent pool in Atlanta is extraordinary.
A: Oh God, yes. And Atlanta is known for being the birthplace of civil rights. There’s a lot of talent here, and a lot of that talent comes from association with the movement. Pain, liberty, moving forward and rising above — those things are just so much in the spirit of the people here that it comes out in every form of music.
Secondly, not only is the creativity of the librettists and composers mind-blowing, but we have people singing and playing that don’t normally pop up on the radar who are just great. The project was very successful last year, and this year it’s going the same way. It’s a fast turnaround and requires a level of skill. You have to be able to read music quickly, rehearse and sing it within 96 hours, so you need very bright people. But there is a serious amount of talent out there.
One of the issues about getting great work composed by people from underserved communities is there’s no pipeline. Well, we have found a wonderful way to create that pipeline and provide an opportunity for them to create music and literature that can hopefully bless the canon with its presence.
Q: Why are these new stories important?
A: We are a diverse society and there are so many different communities here. If we are going to be relatable in the community, we need to put literature on our stages that is relatable. We need literature that comes from people who look like the community that we serve, and who come from those backgrounds. We need stories that not only attract audiences but help everyone to understand that we are a part of them, and they are a part of us. That’s why it’s important.
This isn’t just about dollars and cents and putting butts in seats. It’s about doing the right thing for the community that we serve and making sure that, as an arts organization, we represent everyone in that community.
Q: The music industry has been wrestling with issues of inclusion. How are we doing?
A: We’re getting high marks here with Atlanta Opera because we’re addressing it head on. Cincinnati too. I call them our sister company because we are a similar size. I am also artistic advisor there.
Addressing it head on comes from having people like myself involved. Look at the Metropolitan Opera. They opened last season with a work created by a Black composer. That has never been done before. So, the conversation has started. Has that ameliorated the problem? Of course not. You can’t ameliorate a problem in a couple of years that has been in existence for centuries. But the conversation is happening. I am honored and blessed to be an integral part of the movement.
Q: What is most satisfying to you about the Atlanta Opera 96-Hour Opera Project?
A: The ability to look at myself in the mirror and know I did the right thing. I can live with that. I can sleep peacefully. My son can look me in my eye and know that his dad was somebody that stood up for the right thing. That’s my satisfaction. There is no kickback here, no under-the-table money. There is nothing but doing the right thing for all of us, for the community and for the art form.
Plus, we have found so much undiscovered talent in every way, from directors to choreographers to composers to librettists to soloists, you name it. Who knew? Think about that. How much incredible art have we missed out on because of the ostracization of certain segments of society? We’re enriching the art form by doing these types of things — by doing the right damn thing for the right reasons.
96-Hour Opera Project
7 p.m. Monday, June 12. $20, or $10 for students. Ray Charles Performing Arts Center at Morehouse College, 900 West End Ave. SW, Atlanta. 404-881-8885, atlantaopera.org.
Mark Thomas Ketterson is a Chicago-based arts critic and writer. He is the Chicago correspondent for Opera News and has also written for Playbill, the Chicago Tribune and other publications.
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