Tulsa Opera Removes Composer Daniel Roumain From Concert Commemorating Race Massacre Over One Word

By David Salazar

This is a developing story. It has been updated since its publication with additional statements from the Tulsa Opera, co-curator Howard Watkins, and Daniel Roumain. 

Composer Daniel Roumain has revealed that Tulsa Opera has fired him its upcoming “Greenwood Overcomes” due to creative differences. Roumain made the announcement on Sunday via social media.

In a follow-up statement he made to OperaWire, Roumain noted that he was hired to write a piece as part of the company’s program. He requested a librettist for the endeavor but was told “there wasn’t support for that.” It was suggested to Roumain by composer Tobias Picker, Tulsa Opera’s Artistic Director, that he locate a text or write his own.

“Because the deadline was so short, I decided to create my own text. Because the program was to mark the horrific Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921, I created a libretto that retold that story. I completed the work on time and then waited for a response.”

A few days later, Picker asked Roumain to change one line at the end of his text in which he writes “God Bless America” followed by “God Damn America.”

Per Roumain, Picker’s email stated that “some of the text shoots itself in its own foot” and suggested that repeating “God Bless America” twice would be “more poignant than the original and also makes your point in a more elegant way.” He also suggested “God Help America” as an alternate text.

“For me, the point being made is the hypocrisy of our country committing countless atrocities, time and again, in the name of country and under God. Indeed, many BIPOC humans in America have been treated in an inhumane manner, and it’s clear Picker cannot and will not ever be able to understand this and speak for us,” Roumain noted as to why he ultimately rejected the suggestion.

After his refusal, Roumain was removed from the program within a few hours and told that his work would not be performed. In the dismissal email, Picker does note that “Tulsa Opera will send your payment in full.”

Per Howard Watkins, the co-curator for the event who recommended Roumain for the concert (Roumain and Watkins have known each other since the mid-1990s), the composer’s response was very forceful and it became clear that there was no room for compromise or further collaboration.

“The framework of the event was that the composer would be writing a piece for a specific singer. In this case, Daniel was to write a piece for Denyce Graves,” Watkins told OperaWire, noting that Graves had sent Roumain texts that appealed to her to give him an idea of what would work. “She was uncomfortable with more than just the word ‘damn.’ It was the cursing of this country. If you know Denyce Grave’s work and what she’s known for, she performed at Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s funeral and other national events. This is reflective of her personal values and something like that was never going to work for her. Daniel didn’t show any evidence of being more flexible to the person he was creating the work for and that was the reason for the dismissal.”

In an official statement by the Tulsa Opera  Graves states, “as a Black woman I am a huge supporter of all Black Lives, Black expression, and creativity. I don’t have trouble with strong lyrics, but I felt that they did not line up with my personal values. I could not find an honest place to express the lyrics as they were presented.”

When asked about being contacted by Graves, Roumain noted that his only contact with the mezzo was via a single email from her in which she mentioned that the lyrics made her “bristle” and then requested an MP3 that she would be “grateful to have.” Per Roumain, there was never any additional conversation with Graves via any means of communication or any request from the singer to explicitly change the lyrics in the piece.

“The Tulsa Opera has revealed why the operatic field continues to be seen as racist and divisive. When a Black composer must endure the intrusions of a white composer—within a work and a festival built around the death and artistry of Black people—but insists on his words and his way, what are we to think and do? I say we don’t bend, or break, or subject ourselves to their ideas. The opera world is full of white stories and perspectives. This is the time for Black stories and our experiences to be on our stages,” Roumain added. “I also wanted to add that I don’t think asking a white man to be the Artistic Director around an event honoring the murder of hundreds of Black men, women, and children—by a mob of white men—was the right choice. There are so many exceptional BIPOC people in our field who could have handled this type of emotional program with more dignity and respect. When these types of poor administrative choices happen, they often times lead to these types of artistic and moral dilemmas.”

He noted his intention to attend the performance and draw attention to “not only my voice being silenced, but to the continued struggle of all BIPOC artists towards equity, the centering of our artistry, and the power of our person, embodied in our stories.”

Watkins emphasized that “the desire to change the text was not a race issue” and lauded Picker’s collaborative spirit in putting together the program “with great respect.”

The concert, which was co-curated by Picker and Watkins, is set to take place on May 1, 2021 to commemorate the centennial of the Tulsa Race Massacre. The concert is scheduled to include performances of music by Black composers by Black artists including Graves, Leah Hawkins, Leona Mitchell, Taylor Raven, Issachah Savage, Noah Stewart, Kevin Thompson, and Davóne Tines.

OperaWire has reached out to Picker for comment but has received no word as of this publication.

Roumain is a composer, violinist, and band-leader who has created works across a wide range of art forms and disciplines. In addition to several film scores, he composed the chamber opera “We Shall Not Be Moved,” which premiered at Opera Philadelphia in 2017.

Here is the full text of Roumain’s piece:

They Still Want To Kill Us
Black Wall Street
Black Oil
Green Money
A young man
Mr. Rowland
A younger woman
Ms. Page
Stumbled upon one another
In that elevator everything changed
May 31, 1921
18 hours
A white mob
Engulfed with white rage
Burn it down
Burn it all down
A white man runnin’ with red blood on his hands
Bring it down
Bring it all down
A school, the library, our hospital, my church
Burn it down
Burn it all down
My people, our Black children, our stores, our homes
They want to kill us
They still want to kill us
God Bless America
God Damn America