It was the beginning of the end. The time is 1764-1789, and the place is Saint-Domingue [now, Haiti], a French Caribbean slave colony. The clash of two very strong cultures – African and French –and the constant struggle of the former for equality and independence, inevitably, led to the end of French rule in all three Caribbean slave colonies (Guadeloupe, Martinique, and Saint-Domingue). However, one of the most significant events to emerge during this volatile period has been hailed as a major historical breakthrough– the end of the color barrier in opera performance.
Is it possible that the color barrier in opera was broken over two centuries ago—and in a slave colony? The concept is quite amazing, for how and why did such a phenomenon occur in a place in which the institution of slavery was such a thriving enterprise? (David M. Powers, From Plantation to Paradise? Cultural Politics and Musical Theatre in French Slave Colonies, 1764-1789, May 2014), p.1)
Further, HOW and WHY did music–especially opera–occupy such a prominent space in these colonies?
February, Black History Month, is that very appropriate time to celebrate the achievements of all persons of African descent–whether in the United States, the Caribbean, or in other countries. Let us celebrate the exceptional careers of young slave musicians (primarily, violinists) and singers in the French Caribbean colonies who appeared in several concerts and operas and were heralded as the best instrumentalists and voices in colonial opera. (From Plantation to Paradise?…. pp. 85-126) Nevertheless, they were constantly reminded of their “inferior” status and their place in colonial society. We should heap praise on these artists and celebrate their many achievements; for in spite of the constant barge of negativisms they received, these highly talented musicians and singers continued to hone their craft. (From Plantation to Paradise?…. pp. 99-104, 124-126) We should celebrate their remarkable participation in the huge operatic repertoire–even as the texts supported colonialism and racial stereotypes. (From Plantation to Paradise?…. pp. 94-95, 99, 105-111)
To discover that a strong bond between two such disparate entities (opera and slavery) had actually existed – and flourished – was, indeed, mind boggling. The degree of African influence, socially as well as economically, on colonial lifestyles, became very apparent. Everyone (blacks, whites, the enslaved, and the freed) was impacted. There was an elaborate system of social casting in this society—not found in any colonies ruled by other European powers; and the lavish productions of French operas embodied the accepted racial and social hierarchies.
In sum, the strong bonds between art and society become very apparent in operas performed in the colonies when one follows their exceptional careers (From Plantation to Paradise?…. pp. 85-126) and focuses on the level of participation of black artists (free and enslaved), the conditions under which they were allowed to perform, and the enormous contributions of these artists to one of the most fascinating trends in the history of music in the Americas. Through their hard work and perseverance, these artists excelled on the concert and opera stages—despite being born into and living in an environment consumed by the deplorable institution of human bondage.
David M. Powers, Ph.D., musicologist, music professor (retired), and author of the unique study, From Plantation to Paradise? Cultural Politics and Musical Theatre in French Slave Colonies, 1764-1789 (May 2014), has written several articles on the relationship between musical theatre (especially opera) and French society in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Dr. Powers has presented papers, nationally and internationally, at many prestigious conferences and has received several awards for her work.
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