This week’s column serves a double purpose in calling attention to both a long-forgotten film and to a nearly-forgotten pioneer in American culture.
The pioneer in question is William Grant Still (1895-1978), who was the first African-American to gain recognition as a creative force in modern classical music. During his lifetime, Still was praised by no less a figure as Leopold Stokowski and experienced breakthroughs both as a composer (most notably his 1930 masterwork “The Afro-African Symphony) and as an orchestra conductor. In many ways, Still was to classical music what Jackie Robinson was to professional baseball: the hero who brought opportunity to African-Americans in what had been a white-only world.
Alas, Still had less success integrating the world of opera. In his career, Still created seven operas. But he would’ve had more luck getting a menu at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in Charlotte, North Carolina, circa 1950 then he had seeing his compositions embraced by the opera world. To date, only three of the seven operas have ever seen productions – and even those were brief and limited engagements. No current opera company includes Still’s works in their repertory.
The problem is not with the music (the man was a genius), but with the subject matter. Still created operas that focused on global black diaspora – and for most of the 20th century, the opera world didn’t want to know about that subject. Outside of “Four Saints in Three Acts” and “Porgy and Bess,” operas featuring all-black casts were virtually non-existent (an operatic version of “The Emperor Jones” was initially staged in the 1930s using white actors in blackface).
In 1974, Still’s opera “A Bayou Legend” had its long overdue premiere. How long? He created it in 1941, with his Russian-born with Verna Arvey writing the libretto to accompany his inventive music. The work was staged by the ambitious Opera/South, a small company in Jackson, Mississippi, created by a pair of historically black colleges to offer opportunities in classical music to African-Americans. The production received national attention and was hailed as the discovery of a lost classic. “A Bayou Legend” was staged again in 1976 by Opera/South as part of Mississippi’s Bicentennial celebrations, and following that production it was decided to create a film version for broadcast on public television.
The film of “A Bayou Legend” was an ambitious collaboration between Opera/South (which was never involved in a film production) and the Mississippi Educational Television Authority (the state’s public broadcasting entity). Strangely, it was decided that the direction of the film would be handled by a Canadian, John Thomson, although it was not an entirely daft decision – he had experience helming operatic productions for the Canadian Broadcasting Company.
Thompson took a radical approach with “A Bayou Legend.” Rather than film the opera within a theatrical setting (as most made-for-TV opera productions are done), he opted to shoot it on location in a bayou-worthy location near Vicksburg, Mississippi. Even more curious was the decision on how it would be shot. Rather than have the cast lip-sync the arias (the common route for any music-on-film offering), Thomson had a piano track recorded and the performers sang their parts live on location; the orchestral score was added afterwards around the singing. Thomson wanted this to preserve an in-the-moment sense of performance. But it actually created unexpected problems later on.
The real problem, though, was the fact Thomson made poor use of the location. Most of the opera was shot in medium and close-ups, so the strange beauty of the bayou was barely captured on camera. Even worse, the outdoors settings made the film look cheap – not surprising, since it was shot on the cheap (in nine days). Had it been framed within its original theatrical setting, one could accept it as a filmed theatrical work. Having a low-budget opera film is another story (the film was made with a $130,000 grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting).
But even with these flaws, it demands to be seen. “A Bayou Legend” takes place in a small black village in the late 19th century. The film begins with an open-air sermon by the local preacher, who warns that consorting with spirits is a sin. Then we get to the heart of the story: the beautiful but deadly Clothilde loves Bazile, but he wants nothing to do with her. Her obsession is so strong that she even lies in claiming he fathered a soon-to-be-born child. Yet that doesn’t faze him. Instead, Bazile knows his true love exists somewhere beyond his limited world. But where?
The answer is in the bayou swamp. One night, Bazile is alone in the wilderness when he witnesses a strange but beautiful woman walking across the water. She is Aurore, who identifies herself as his lover from the dawn of time. Aurore explains she and Bazile have been separated over the centuries and will be reunited for eternity when he passes away. He pledges his love to her and she leaves just as Clothilde arrives with Leonce, who happens to be in love with Clothilde despite her rejection of his advances. Clothilde heard Aurore’s voice but did not see her, and threatens to denounce Bazile to the community for breaking the religious taboo of consorting with spirits. She demands that he marry her and then declares she will hold an engagement party for them the following night at her home.
The party is a success, full of dance and music, but Bazile does not show up. Furious, she publicly accuses Bazile of being in association with the spirit world. A mob gathers Bazile and brings him to a tree, where a noose is knotted to a high limb. Bazile does not protest his fate and actually accepts it, knowing he will be reunited with Aurore.
Clothilde does not watch the hanging, but Leonce arrives to report a miracle: the mob who hanged Bazile saw his soul leave his body and join with Aurore. Clothilde, realizing her evil destroyed her chance to be in union with Bazile, vainly tries to enchant Leonce. But he condemns her to live out her life without knowing or experiencing love.
Let’s face it, there aren’t many all-black occult operas out there, and even by the standards of opera “A Bayou Legend” is pretty weird. But it is a wonderfully weird creation. It is fairly compact (running a mere 75 minutes) and does not have any fat to it (no pun intended, in case the chubby-chasing opera queens are wondering). Indeed, those who always claim they hate opera will probably love “A Bayou Legend.”
“A Bayou Legend” soars due to its cast, who bring Still’s vision to full dimensional beauty. Raeschelle Potter is deliriously sexy and wonderfully dangerous as the vicious Clothilde, Gary Burgess is a sublime mix of anguish and hope as Bazile, Carmen Balthrop is a vision of ethereal glory as Aurore, Peter Lightfoot brings sincerity and depth to his role as Leonce, Cullen Maiden epitomizes religious dogma as the preacher, and the trio of Francois Clemmons, Irwin Reese and Ben Holt provide witty commentary and antics as a chorus known by the moniker the Three Blades. The one flaw here, sadly, is the weak dance interlude in which students from Utica Junior College barely stay in step while hopping about to Still’s glorious Acadian-flavored ballet.
“A Bayou Legend” was shot in September and October 1979. Post-production dragged on longer than expected, due to the aforementioned experiment in sound recording, and the finished work created a major problem for Donald Dorr and Dolored Ardoyno, the couple who ran Opera/South. They cited 29 technical errors in the film and demanded these problems be corrected prior to broadcast. When Thomson refused, under the claim the film was over budget and behind schedule, Dorr and Ardoyno resigned from Opera/South in August 1980. This proved to be a fatal blow to Opera/South and also to the Still legacy, as the couple planned to stage another of the composer’s never-before-seen operas, “Costaso,” at their company. Opera/South closed shortly after Dorr and Ardoyno’s defection; ‘Costaso” was never staged and remains unperformed to this day.
“A Bayou Legend” had its PBS premiere on June 15, 1981. Reviews were overwhelmingly positive and the production received notice from both the music and cinema media. And then, it vanished. To date, “A Bayou Legend” has never been broadcast again and has never been issued on home video. Not unlike its ghostly lovers, it literally disappeared into thin air.
Why is “A Bayou Legend” missing? I contacted the Mississippi Public Broadcasting offices, but never received any answer. Most likely there are issues regarding music rights and performance rights that would need to be cleared for home video release. Plus, the film would need major restoration to be ready for today’s digital era (it was shot on video in 1981, when video production was anything but cutting-edge).
Anyone who wishes to view “A Bayou Legend” today would need to get in touch with private collectors who had the wisdom to videotape its PBS broadcast from 25 years ago. It is not easy to find, but it is worth the hunt.
I would also strongly recommend seeking out Beverly A. Soll’s 2005 book “I Dream a World: The Operas of William Grant Still,” which offers extraordinary insight to the creative mind of the master composer. The research for this article came from Soll, who graciously shared a collection of archival material on the production’s history as the background source data for this article.
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Posted on February 17, 2006 in Features by Phil Hall
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