Opera Wiki: Julia Perry’s ‘The Symplegades’ – The Opera That Took 10 Years to WriteBy John Vandevert
Photo: David Lees/Getty Images
Among the many criminally unrecognized names in the American classical music canon, African-American female composer Julia Perry (1924-1979) represents the hidden aspect of the Black African-American compositional experience.
Alongside other composers like Florence Price, Margaret Bonds, Nora Holt, and male composers like William Grant Still, Vicente Lusitano, and “Black Mozart” Joseph Bologne, Perry’s contribution to America’s classical music history has not yet gotten its day in the sun.
As a composer, she looked towards neo-classicism for her aesthetic inspiration, drawing inspiration from traditional forms yet invigorating them in new and exploratory ways without ever sacrificing an innate sense of musical sophistication. Having been a teacher of Nadia Boulanger and Luigi Dallapiccola, Perry’s talent was not unrecognized nor ignored during her life thanks to her tasteful usage of modernist spices.
However, as an opera composer, she was not a one-and-done composer. Despite having finished four operas, her name has been essentially erased from operatic history thanks to numerous problems, including missing manuscripts, the infrequency of recordings and stagings, and the gradual passage of time, which gave rise to more household names.
When it comes to Perry’s operatic activities, her first opera, “The Bottle” (1953) had been finished during her study with Boulanger in Paris. This came after the publication of some of her first works, which demonstrated her adept usage of African-American spirituals.
Her next three operas were written in a span of ten years, during which her life took a major turn. In 1967, she took a job at the Florida Agricultural and Mechanical College and had just published one of her most famous works, Homunculus C.F. (1960). In 1951, her other famous work, “Stabat Mater,” became one of the works that were slowly developing her name. But her opera, “The Symplegades,” is a project mired in mystery to this day.
The work was three acts and based on the 17th-century witch trials, which other composers like Ashi Day (Waking the Witch, 2022) and, most famously, Robert Ward (The Crucible, 1962) have used as a theme. Unfortunately, Perry died at the age of 55, having never completed the work after nearly ten years of constant work.
Without more research, there is little hope that the work will be finished or even performed, as it is unknown if there is a manuscript of the opera left. The opera had come at a time when Perry’s name was beginning to gain traction among American audiences. In the 1970s, Perry had been publishing several vocal works, and by her death, she had written 12 symphonies.
Perhaps we will never know what the opera sounded like, but the knowledge of its existence can keep Perry’s legacy alive for future generations of musicological discoveries.