Harry Lawrence Freeman
Harry Lawrence Freeman (
October 9, 1869, Cleveland, Ohio— March 21, 1954, New York City) was a United Statesopera composer, conductor, impresario and teacher. He was the first African-American to write an opera ("Epthelia", 1893) that was successfully produced.
Born in Cleveland in 1869, Lawrence Freeman learned to play the piano and was an assistant church organist by the age of 12. As a young man, he lived in Denver, and in March 1891 in that city he attended a performance of
Richard Wagner's opera " Tannhäuser". This experience inspired him to become a composer. He awoke in the middle of that same night and wrote his first piece, a waltz.
In December 1892 he began composing his first opera, "Epthelia". It premiered at the Deutsches Theater in Denver on
February 9, 1893with a cast of 60. His second opera, "The Martyr" premiered at the same theater on August 16, 1893. It was produced by the Freeman Opera Company, and concerned an Egyptian nobleman put to death for accepting the religion of Jehovah. The same company presented "The Martyr" in Chicago in October 1893 and in Cleveland in 1894. This was the first opera produced by an all-Black production company, Freeman's own.
In several of his opera productions, Freeman's wife Carlotta and his son Valdo, a baritone, sang principal roles.
Freeman studied theory under
J.H. Beck, conductor of the Cleveland Symphony, and piano with I. Schonert and Carlos Sobrino. He was director of the music program at Wilberforce University in 1902 and 1903. In 1920, he opened the Salem School of Music on 133rd Street in Harlem, and later the Freeman School of Music on 136th Street. Also in 1920, he founded the Negro Grand Opera Company.
During the 1920s and 1930s he received numerous awards, including the prestigious Harmon Foundation Award in 1929 for achievement in music.
In addition to grand opera, Freeman wrote stage music and served as musical director for
vaudevilleand musical theater companies in the early 1900s. These included Ernest Hogan's Musical Comedy Company, of which Carlotta Freeman was the prima donna; the Cole-Johnson African-American musical theater company; the stock company at the Pekin Theatrein Chicago, the first legitimate black theater in the United States, which also featured the team of "Miller and Lyles"; and the John Larkins Musical Comedy Company. He was guest conductor and music director of the pageant "O Sing a New Song" at the Chicago World's Fair in 1933.
"Voodoo" (1928) is perhaps his best known work. It deals with the cult of that name in Louisiana. It premiered on New York radio station WGBS, and later was presented, with an all African-American cast of 30, in a tent theater at Palm Garden in New York's Broadway district. It was the first opera by an African-American to be presented on Broadway. Its score combines themes from spirituals, Southern melodies, jazz, and traditional Italian opera.
"The Tryst" tells the tragic story of two Native American lovers in Michigan who aim to meet in the woods while pursued by white settlers. Lone Star is trying to find Wampum. When he hears a movement in the underbrush he throws his knife at the source of the sound, only to discover that he has killed his beloved.
At New York's Steinway Hall in 1930, Freeman accompanied at the piano a performance of excerpts from "The Martyr", "The Prophecy", "The Octoroon", "Plantation", "Vendetta" and "Voodoo".
He was musical director and wrote additional music for the Broadway extravaganza "Rufus Rastus", which premiered on
January 29, 1906at the American Theatre. He also wrote the music for the musical comedy "Captain Rufus", which premiered August 12, 1907at the Harlem Music Hall.
Freeman died of a heart ailment at his home at 214 West 127th Street, New York City on
March 24, 1954.
His wife, Carlotta Thomas Freeman, died three months later. She was born in
Charleston, South Carolina. She entered show business in 1905 with a road company, and made her first stage appearance in 1912 as one of the first African-American women in the legitimate theater. She starred in "Vendetta", "Voodoo" and "The Martyr", as well as other operas by her husband. Their son Valdo (1900-72) had his own opera company, the Valdo Freeman Grand Opera Company, based in New York, in the 1920s. Valdo Freeman died in New York in 1972.
List of works
*"Epthelia", opera. (
February 9, 1893, Deutsches Theater, Denver)
*"The Martyr", opera in two acts, libretto by the composer. (
August 16, 1893, Freeman Grand Opera Company, Deutsches Theater, Denver)
*"Nada", opera in three acts, libretto by the composer. (1898; unperformed)
*"Zuluki" (revision of "Nada") (scenes performed by the Cleveland Symphony in 1900)
*"An African Kraal", opera in one act, libretto by the composer (1903; student production at Wilberforce University)
*"The Octoroon", opera in four acts with prologue, libretto by the composer. (1904; unperformed)
*"Valdo", opera in one act with intermezzo, libretto by the composer. (May 1906, Freeman Grand Opera Company, Weisgerber's Hall, Cleveland)
*"Captain Rufus", musical comedy. (
August 12, 1907, Harlem Music Hall, New York City)
*"The Tryst", opera in one act, libretto by the composer. (May 1911; Freeman Operatic Duo, Crescent Theater, N.Y. Wampum: Carlotta Freeman; Lone Star: Hugo Williams)
*"The Prophecy", opera in one act, libretto by the composer. (1911; unperformed)
*"Voodoo", opera in three acts, libretto by the composer. (composed c. 1914; premiered by the Negro Grand Opera Company on New York radio station WGBS on
May 20, 1948, and later presented in a tent theater at Palm Garden in New York's Broadway district.)
*"The Plantation", opera in three (or four) acts, libretto by the composer (1915; performed at Carnegie Hall 1930)
*"Athalia", opera in three acts with prologue, libretto by the composer. (1916; unperformed)
*"Vendetta", opera in three acts, libretto by the composer. (
November 12, 1923, Negro Grand Opera Company, Inc., Lafayette Theater, Harlem)
*"American Romance", jazz opera. (1927)
*"The Flapper", jazz grand opera in four acts, libretto by the composer. (
September 10, 1928, 52nd Street Theater, New York; Lolo, the Voodoo Queen: Carlotta Freeman; Cleota: Doris Trotman; Mando: Ray Yates; the composer conducting)
*"Leah Kleschna". Libretto by the composer, after the play of
C.M.S. McClellan. (1931; unperformed)
*"Nada the Lily", opera, based on
H. Rider Haggard's novel of the same name. (1944)
*"Allah", opera, based on H. Rider Haggard's novels. (1947)
*"The Zulu King", opera, based on H. Rider Haggard's novels. (1934)
*"The Slave", symphonic poem. (1932)
Although many of his works were successful during his lifetime, they are not played today. He achieved many firsts by Black Americans in the field of classical and popular music.
Scott Joplinprobably met him. [http://www.musicweb-international.com/RiseandFall/4.htm]
African American musical theater
*Hipsher, Edward Ellsworth, "American Opera and Its Composers", Da Capo Press, 1978. ISBN 0-306-77516-6
* [http://operapronto.home.comcast.net/coloradoans.html#Harry_Lawrence_Freeman Short biography]
* [http://www.usopera.com/composers/freeman.shtml List of works]
* [http://www.ibdb.com/person.asp?id=383284 His page] at the
Internet Broadway Database
* [http://www.allmusic.com/cg/amg.dll?p=amg&token=&sql=42:479362 "The Tryst"] at
Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.
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