Opera Profile: William Grant Still’s Historic ‘Troubled Island’

By David Salazar

William Grant Still’s “Troubled Island” is a historic opera.

The work, which includes a libretto by Langston Hughes and Verna Arvey, had its world premiere on March 31, 1949, at the New York City Opera making it the first opera composed by a Black composer to be produced by a major opera company in the United States.

While the opera was greeted with 22 curtain calls at its premiere performance, it received mixed reviews. It was subsequently lost from the repertory with very few performances since.

The work requires eight vocal soloists, chorus, ballet, and full orchestra.

Short Synopsis

The opera is set in Haiti in 1791 and centers on a group of slaves preparing a rebellion against their White tormentors. The slaves are led by Dessalines, who laments, alongside his wife Azelia, the challenges of being in love in his state of bondage. His friend Martel laments the fate of the Black man as a slave.

A voodoo priest and priestess tell the slaves that it is time to strike for freedom. Dessalines rips off his shirt, bares his scars from the whips of the white men, and makes a stand for freedom.

In the second act, Dessalines is now Emperor. He dictates letters to Vuval, who opposes his regime and laughs at him for wanting schools and other nonsense. Dessalines drives Vuval away.

Dessalines comments on the heavy burden he carries to Martel and his desire to have just land where black people can be separate from white people. Martel, however, tells him that Haiti must be a land of equality for all people. Meanwhile, Dessalines’ new Empress Claire plots with Vuval to overthrow Dessalines.

Azelia goes looking for Dessalines to warn him of a coming counter-revolution. But she turned away twice. In the midst of this, Dessalines and his court attend a feast that ultimately ends with the realization that there is a revolt taking place led by the mulattos. Dessalines runs off to defend his empire against the rebels.

In Act three, now a crazed old woman enters a market and gets laughed at by the others around her. Stenio and Vuval enter prepared to set a trap for Dessalines, who is looking for his traitorous generals. When he arrives, Stenio orders the troops to seize him. But no one obliges. Instead, Dessalines and Stenio engage in a duel. Just as Dessalines strikes Stenio’s sword away from him, Vuval shoots Dessalines in the back.

His corpse is left in the town square where a few Ragamuffins start to strip him of his gear. Azelia stops them and as the opera draws to a close, she holds him in her arms, kissing the scars on his back.

Watch and Listen

Here is a recording of the work.