Q &A: Lucy Caplan on Shirley Graham Du Bois’ ‘Tom-Tom’ & Importance of Black Composers

By Francisco Salazar
(Credit: Harold Shapiro)

On July 9, the Caramoor Festival will present a Livestream event entitled “Listening to Tom-Tom.”

The event will be an in-depth exploration of Shirley Graham Du Bois’ opera, “Tom-Tom,” the first opera written and staged by an African American woman. The work has not been produced since its initial run in 1932 and all that survives of the score is an incomplete piano-vocal reduction.

Harvard lecturer Lucy Caplan, who originally produced this event at Harvard in 2018, is an interdisciplinary historian of music and culture in the United States, with particular interests in African American music, opera, cultural criticism, and the relationship between music and intellectual history. She wrote the book High Culture on the Lower Frequencies: African Americans and Opera, 1900-1933,” and has also written for the Boston Lyric Opera, The New Yorker, and the National Sawdust Log.
OperaWire spoke to Lucy Caplan about the event, Shirley Graham Du Bois, and the importance of Black opera in the classical music world.

OperaWire: You originally produced the event at Harvard. Tell me about this opera and why it is so important for people to discover it?

Lucy Caplan: Shirley Graham’s “Tom-Tom” was the first opera by an African American woman to be produced by a major company in the United States. The premiere took place at a lakefront baseball stadium in Cleveland in 1932, and it made a splash: tens of thousands of people came to see the opera, and countless more listened to a live radio broadcast.

Not only was the premiere an unprecedented event in U.S. music history, but “Tom-Tom” itself was also an exceptionally ambitious work. The opera tells a story of Black diasporic history over multiple centuries and continents, and it uses an enormous variety of musical genres and styles to do so. Despite its initial success and epic design, however, “Tom-Tom” has not been performed in full since its premiere.

Over the past few years, I’ve collaborated with a number of fantastic performers and with the American Modern Opera Company (AMOC) to present excerpts from the opera and facilitate discussions of the work.

Tom-Tom” doesn’t need to be “discovered” by today’s audiences – over the years, scholars, archivists, and Graham Du Bois’s family have taken care to preserve it in various ways– but it does merit renewed interest and wider attention.

I think it’s important for contemporary audiences to listen to and engage with this opera for three reasons: first, because it’s a rich, intricate, and beautiful musical work; and second, because of its clear historical significance (and that of its remarkable composer, who became an influential activist and intellectual). Third, the opera’s trajectory prompts important questions about how factors like race and gender shape the genre of opera as we know it today, and how the longstanding exclusion of non-white and non-male composers has limited the art form’s social impact and imaginative scope.

OW: Tell me about the Shirley Graham Du Bois’s music and what you have found from your research that makes her such an important voice in opera and in African American opera? 

LC: The music of “Tom-Tom” is fantastically varied and heterogeneous. Graham was deeply interested in black music history – she wrote a master’s thesis at Oberlin titled “The Survivals of Africanism in Modern Music” – and “Tom-Tom” reflects her interest in tracing the development of black music across time and space. She also drew upon her own diverse musical background, which included childhood piano lessons, immersion in the music of the black church, and formal study at the Institute of Musical Arts (now Juilliard), Howard University, the Sorbonne, and Oberlin.

Each act draws upon a unique array of musical materials. The first act, which takes place in West Africa, is scored almost entirely for percussion and draws upon West African folk songs, some of which Graham learned by way of her brother’s work as a missionary in Liberia. The second act, set on a plantation in the U.S. South in 1865, features choral arrangements of African American spirituals as well as music that invokes the European operatic canon. And the third act, set in the “Harlem of today,” includes cabaret song and other modernistic touches. Graham’s kaleidoscopic style is part of what makes her voice so distinctive.

Yet it is also an overtly collective voice: she is as interested in bringing together an array of existing musical styles as she is in developing something entirely new.

OW: The music for “Tom-Tom” has been described as a merge between jazz and classical music. Can you explain how Graham Du Bois does this in the opera?

LC: It’s a common misconception that opera by Black composers necessarily merges jazz and classical traditions. While there are some jazz harmonies in “Tom-Tom,” I wouldn’t say that jazz is central to the score; when Graham does draw upon popular and folk traditions, she tends to focus more on cabaret song, spirituals, folksong, and gospel.

What’s especially interesting to me is how she layers these sonic traditions in a way that emphasizes their fundamental interconnectedness. For example, in Act three, one can hear the percussive beat of the tom-tom, a chorus singing spirituals, and the blare of a taxi horn all at the same time.

It’s a fascinating texture that is a musical representation of the opera’s narrative emphasis on how African heritage (i.e., the tom-tom) shapes culture across the African diaspora.

OW: When did you first come across this work and when you did, what drew you to it?

LC: I first came across “Tom-Tom” as an undergraduate at Harvard College, where I studied History and Literature. While seeking a topic for a research essay, I found out that the manuscript was located at Harvard’s Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, where it was part of a major collection of Graham Du Bois’s papers. I made an appointment to view the materials at the library, and I was hooked!

I was completely intrigued by Shirley Graham’s life story and by this opera, which was unlike anything I had seen or learned about before. And I was also curious about why Graham and “Tom-Tom” were excluded from most narratives of U.S. music history. It’s now been almost a decade since I first became acquainted with the opera, and my appreciation for Graham’s brilliant work and curiosity about her legacy have only increased.

OW: The work is incomplete. Has it been reconstructed or are there plans to do so?

LC: In order for a full production of “Tom-Tom” to take place, elements of the score will need to be reconstructed and reimagined. I think that a collective effort at reconstructing the opera will be very much in line with Graham’s compositional ethos. She was deeply committed to collaboration and collective work, particularly within Black artistic communities.

In program notes for the opera, she downplayed her individual role in composing the piece, and she also involved a huge variety of artists, scholars, and performers in the original production. I’m eager to see how today’s efforts to reconstruct the opera draw upon that facet of its history.

OW: Why do think Black composers have been ignored for so long in the Opera world?

LC: Most major arts organizations in the United States, including most opera companies, have a long history of centering white male voices and excluding everyone else. Due to this institutional and structural racism, Black composers have been devalued and ignored.

At the same time, it’s important to recognize the ways that Black composers and Black communities have flourished in other musical spaces and created alternative opportunities for performance despite this history of exclusion. Examples include groups like the Theodore Drury Grand Opera Company, founded in New York in 1900 (which had a Black director, Theodore Drury, and featured mostly Black performers in its productions of canonical operatic repertoire); the National Negro Opera Company, founded in Pittsburgh in 1941; and contemporary companies including OperaCréole in New Orleans and trilogy: An Opera Company in Newark.

The scholar Naomi André, whose recent book “Black Opera: History, Power, Engagement” is a must-read, describes this tradition as the “shadow culture” of Black opera: one that works both in parallel to and in tension with more mainstream, canonical traditions.

OW: Do you believe events like these can educate audiences and rediscover such historical composers?

LC: Absolutely! It’s always fantastic to create opportunities for collaboration between academics and artists, and it’s especially relevant with respect to “Tom-Tom,” I think, given that Shirley Graham Du Bois was herself both a scholar and a musician. It’s also wonderful to learn from and with audience members, whose questions and comments open up new ways of thinking about “Tom-Tom” and its place in opera history.


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