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Opera Philadelphia and The Apollo announce a partnership to support the creation of new Black operas

Daniel Bernard Roumain's chamber opera 'We Shall Not Be Moved' had its premiere at Opera Philadelphia in 2017, as a co-commission with the Apollo Theater.
Opera Philadelphia
Daniel Bernard Roumain's chamber opera 'We Shall Not Be Moved' had its premiere at Opera Philadelphia in 2017, as a co-commission with the Apollo Theater.

Opera Philadelphia and The Apollo have announced a new multi-year partnership to create new operatic work by Black artists. This is an especially welcome development for fans of the recently-suspended Festival O series, as the two companies plan to work together over the next five years to bring new music to Philadelphia as well as New York, and then the rest of the world.

The two companies first teamed up in 2016, when The Apollo planned to bring Charlie Parker’s Yardbird to New York, but the initial opera company on the project, Gotham Chamber Opera, had to close down. As Opera Philadelphia had co-commissioned the work with Gotham and premiered it the previous year, they were the natural choice to bring the production to The Apollo. The following year they teamed up again for Daniel Bernard Roumain’s We Shall Not Be Moved, which premiered in Philadelphia and then moved on to New York. Similar projects are sure to follow through this new partnership: the goal, Opera Philadelphia General Director and President David B. Devan says in a press statement, is “to create a new American canon of work that challenges, reflects, and is in dialogue with the most pressing issues within our communities.”

This new canon will be built on a longstanding concept. “This is a reaffirmation of Black artists and their classical voice, a tradition that has always been a major part of the Black music vernacular,” Kamilah Forbes, Executive Producer of The Apollo, tells WRTI. “Consider the classical voices heard in the Black church throughout history — it's a vital part of culture.”

The Apollo has been especially focused on new works by Black artists since 2020, when they launched their New Works Initiative. Opera Philadelphia has been committed to a similar ideal, presenting innovative programming relevant to the multicultural experience that broadens and diversifies the opera audience.

Kamilah Forbes, Executive Producer of The Apollo
Shahar Azran
courtesy of The Apollo Theater
Kamilah Forbes, Executive Producer of The Apollo

“It's an exciting moment because organizations are championing diverse voices across disciplines,” says Forbes. “It's an opportunity to bring in voices from other genres that are pushing the form forward and Opera Philadelphia is certainly one of the organizations leading the way.”

The implications will resonate even further, according to Devan. “The partnership doesn't just impact the art form; it serves as a model for cross-cultural exchange and celebration,” he tells WRTI. “It demonstrates a commitment to uplifting historically marginalized voices and fostering greater inclusivity and understanding within the arts world.”

The Apollo echoes that sentiment of going beyond opera. “What excites us about the collaboration between Opera Philadelphia and The Apollo is our shared commitment to innovation and culture,” says Forbes. “Whether exploring new realms of Black music or pushing the boundaries of opera, we are united in our pursuit to try to find those ways across aesthetics.”

Sarah Williams, Opera Philadelphia’s Director of New Works and Creative Producer, attests to nearly a decade of collaboration with The Apollo. “Our joint efforts and goals have centered Black creative artists, stories, and artistry in an art form in which that is not often the case,” she says in a press statement. “An authentic partnership of this magnitude is what dreams are made of and how we create a wonderland of opportunities and experiences. I look forward to expanding upon the foundation we have already built and celebrating what’s to come.”

Devan was there for as early a project as the 2008 program known as Hip H’opera, which led to the works presented during the company’s previous collaboration with Apollo. “This isn’t a trend for us,” he says. “It's central to our identity. Our dedication to diverse programming promises a future where opera is more vibrant, relevant, and welcoming than ever before.”

John T.K. Scherch (JohnTK@wrti.org) shares the morning’s musical and other offerings weekdays on WRTI 90.1. Previously, he was the first new host on WBJC in Baltimore in nearly 20 years, hosting the evening, Sunday afternoon, and request programs, and he is also an alumnus of U92, the college radio station of West Virginia University and a consecutive national Station of the Year winner.