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Juneteenth opera lifts musicians that have been historically overlooked

Posted at 7:39 PM, Jun 29, 2021

BOSTON, Mass. — Fred VanNess is an opera singer for the North End Music and Performing Arts Center (NEMPAC) in Boston.

“The tide is turning, so to speak, and we’re gonna actually start seeing more equality on stage,” VanNess said.

NEMPAC is a nonprofit that provides accessible and affordable music education. Alexandra Dietrich is the artistic director.

“For our 10th season, we just performed ‘Juneteenth: Opera in the Key of Freedom,’ Dietrich said. "It was a concert and collection of works from four different Black composers than span as far back as 1750.”

Dietrich says she came up with the idea after Juneteenth was recognized as a state holiday in Massachusetts last year.

Now, it’s a national holiday.

Annette Gordon-Reed is an American historian and Carl M. Loeb University Professor at Harvard.

“Juneteenth commemorates June 19th, 1865, when U.S. army general Gordon Granger came to Galveston, Texas to take over the area in Texas for the Union army after the confederates had finally surrendered,” Gordon-Reed said.

Gordon-Reed says Juneteenth commemorates the emancipation of enslaved people in the US.

“It’s important for us to think about slavery and think about the legacies of slavery that continue to influence our lives today,” Gordon-Reed said.

Dietrich says it’s time Black composers, musicians, and artists are recognized in the U.S.

“That’s the kind of work that I want to bring to an audience," Dietrich said. "Something that has an impassioned message, something that highlights American poetry, American composition, but always centers the lived experience of the Black composer knowing how much the Black community has fought alongside the fight for freedom in America’s history and how frequently marginalized or uncentered that commitment of community has become.”

VanNess says he jumped on the opportunity to be a part of the Juneteenth opera performance.

“I got to sing in a program of majority Black singers," VanNess said. "Which doesn’t happen very often, so I got to do rehearsals with them, I got to perform on stage with them, and it was just so exciting to be in an artistic space with people who are from my community who have the same lived experience as I do.”

The virtual performance was filmed by The Loop Lab - a BIPOC-led nonprofit specializing in media arts internships and digital storytelling. Dietrich says music has long been a symbol of freedom.

“Singing was historically one of the few things that those enslaved in our country were able to do and not only pass messages through song to aid each other in the potential escape to the north to freedom," Dietrich said. "But to also instill hope, to instill a message of humanity, to maintain humanity when being treated so horrifically.”

The building where this performance was held has liberation tied to its history.

“Even though Massachusetts is one of the first places that we can trace that slavery was practiced and traded, it was also the first city where we started to have people speak out against slavery," Dietrich said. "So abolitionism was born in the downstairs of the African meeting house, and the African meeting house is where we filmed our concert.”

VanNess says he’s thrilled to see people paying more attention to lesser-known works.

He believes it’s due in part to the social justice movement in the U.S. right now.

“I’m hoping that this can spark other opera companies and other local organizations to do the same thing to let our voices be heard, let our voices be known, because there’s a ton of music out there by Black composers, indigenous composers, Latinx, Asian composers that’s just not done because it’s not part of the European Mozart, Beethoven, Puccini operas,” VanNess said.

As for Juneteenth, he says he’s excited to see it become a holiday for remembrance, celebration, and education all over the U.S.

To watch the concert, click here.