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A Lost Operatic Masterpiece Written By White Men For An All-Black Cast Was Found And Restored. Can It Be Produced Without Controversy?

Supporters say Blues Opera, authored by two Great American Songbook icons and reconstructed by the music adviser for Tár, should be staged in a post-George Floyd world.

John Mauceri devotes a good part of his busy career to restoring lost music. The American conductor and scholar, who recently served as the music adviser for the Academy Award-nominated Tár, uncovered and put back vital missing pieces of Leonard Bernstein’s operetta Candide. He reconstructed the overture to Ben-Hur, after MGM had inexplicably thrown away the sheet music of that classic film score, for a performance at the Hollywood Bowl with the ailing composer Miklós Rózsa onstage in a wheelchair. Mauceri jokingly calls himself a cross between Indiana Jones and Dr. Frankenstein, and depending on your point of view, he is either an excavator of rare artifacts or a man stitching up cadavers. Over the past two years, in collaboration with another conductor, Michael Gildin, he has been restoring a work ardently coveted by music aficionados but given up for dead: a lost opera written by two eminences of the Great American Songbook — composer Harold Arlen (“Over the Rainbow,” “Stormy Weather”) and lyricist Johnny Mercer (“Skylark,” “Moon River”).


The work is called Blues Opera. It took shape between 1954 and 1958 but was never performed as conceived by its creators. An adulterated version called Free and Easy, with a jazz band instead of an orchestra, opened under the music direction of Quincy Jones, then 26, in Amsterdam in late 1959 and closed in Paris in early 1960. Mauceri recalls once running into Jones at the former Staples Center and, familiar with the opera’s history, inquiring about the existence of a score. “Quincy told me the whole band played from memory, and that I would never find a score, because there was none,” Mauceri says.

Jones, who declined to be interviewed for this article, was mistaken. After considerable detective work by Gildin and Mauceri, assistance from librarians at special collections in U.S. cities all over the map and a good deal of luck, there is a complete piano vocal score of Blues Opera in Mauceri’s New York apartment. The opera lacks only a final step — orchestration — to be made ready for a debut that could take place as early as next year. G. Schirmer, the New York-based music publisher, has concluded a deal to publish the piano and orchestral scores. The few people who have been granted access to the reconstructed opera — including, on a recent morning, the author of this article — can attest that it is a superlative work, one that will fundamentally change the music world’s perception of Harold Arlen, today mostly remembered as the Hollywood tunesmith who wrote the songs for The Wizard of Oz. Mauceri is thrilled. “Blues Opera is the most important restoration I’ve done,” he says. “What a masterpiece we have unearthed and made viable.” As word gets out, certain music lovers may greet the restoration of Arlen and Mercer’s opera as the equivalent of an art scholar finding a lost Caravaggio. That excitement should have opera companies clamoring for the premiere.

There is, however, one problem. Blues Opera was written for an all-Black cast by two white men. At a time when movies are boycotted and book tours canceled over charges of “cultural appropriation,” this is no trifling matter.

In the case of Blues Opera, there may be enough mitigating factors to offset the objections that are likely to arise. Unlike George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, the opera to which it will unavoidably be compared, its source is not a novel and play by white Southerners, but rather a novel and theatrical adaptations by Black authors of the Harlem Renaissance. And unlike Porgy, its protagonists are not the illiterate paupers of Catfish Row, but rich, successful champagne-drinking members of late 19th century St. Louis society. For these reasons, even Garrett McQueen, the noted “classical agitator” and activist who co-hosts the acclaimed Trilloquy podcast and is a spokesman for the Black Opera Alliance, seems favorably disposed toward Blues Opera. “We could use more operas that don’t tell the same old story of the downtrodden, abused, oppressed Black person,” he says. “There’s more to the Black experience than pain.” Black soprano Angel Blue, one of opera’s greatest stars, wants to debut the lead role. “I haven’t heard the whole score, but what I have heard is stunning,” she tells Billboard.

Still, it would be naïve to think that the race issue won’t be raised. “Any way you slice it, there’s going to be pushback,” says McQueen. In May 2021, Mauceri and Gildin prudently added a third member to their restoration team, Black linguistics professor John McWhorter, who is also a columnist for The New York Times. The libretto, consistent with the Harlem Renaissance source material, uses vernacular Black English. “I was brought in to vet Blues Opera for Black English authenticity,” McWhorter says. To help head off the expected controversy, he wrote a column for the Times in August 2021 titled “Can White Men Write a Black Opera?” While McWhorter’s own answer is an emphatic yes, he does not presume that his approbation closes the subject. “There are going to be people who articulately insist this thing should be kept under wraps,” he says. “They should be heard from.”

Free and Easy
1959 Poster for “Free and Easy.” Courtesy Photo

Opera’s racial reckoning

If Blues Opera does set off a debate, it will be part of a larger discussion that began to gain momentum in recent years and accelerated after the murder of George Floyd. A racial reckoning in the world of opera has long been overdue. Until quite recently, opera stages in New York, Los Angeles, London and elsewhere were some of the last places where you might see actors in blackface or yellowface as an accepted norm. Hardly anyone thought twice about a Caucasian soprano made up with bat-wing eyeliner in the title role of Puccini’s Turandot, or a white tenor blacked up to sing the lead in Verdi’s Otello.

Naomi André, the Seattle Opera’s scholar-in-residence and adviser on matters of racial and gender equity, admits that for years even she accepted blackface and yellowface on opera stages as “something you just didn’t talk about.” In her award-winning book Black Opera: History, Power, Engagement, she tells of an afternoon in 2012 when she invited a colleague, like herself a Black woman, to a Metropolitan Opera Live in HD performance of Otello. André, raised in suburban New York, is a lifelong opera fan and a trained singer, with a Ph.D. in musicology from Harvard. Her guest was a South African language professor from a Zulu township. “I was excited to share this wonderful opera with my colleague,” she recalls, but her excitement turned to mortification. The singer who played Otello, Johan Botha, was not only a white tenor in blackface but even worse, an Afrikaner who had done compulsory military service for South Africa’s apartheid government. It was an epiphany. For having so long uncritically accepted the cultural conventions of opera, André says, “I hold myself accountable.”

At the Metropolitan Opera, the largest performing arts organization in North America, the epiphany — or, more aptly, wakeup call — took three years longer. In 2015, the Met mailed a brochure to subscribers touting its upcoming season, which would open with director Bartlett Sher’s much-anticipated new production of Otello. On the cover was an image of Latvian tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko, looking, in the words of music writer Alison Kinney, “like he’d had a bronzer malfunction.” The backlash caught the Met off guard, and the opera company’s media-savvy GM, Peter Gelb, realized the time had come to abandon a tradition that had persisted since the Met’s premiere of Otello in 1891. No longer would Caucasian tenors at the Met be darkened to sing the Moor of Venice. “I will be white,” Antonenko told a New York Times reporter in his dressing room with a shrug.

Other major opera houses have eschewed blackface, but by no means all. Last July, photos from a production of Aida at the Arena di Verona in Italy circulated on social media, showing the Russian opera star Anna Netrebko and other members of the company in dark makeup. The 1871 opera concerns an Ethiopian princess enslaved by Egyptians, and well into the 21st century, opera houses, the Met included, routinely darkened the skin of white sopranos in the title role and did the same for other cast members portraying Ethiopians. Netrebko advocates the tradition; when she sang the role at the Met in 2018 and was advised of the new policy against dark makeup, she spent hours at a tanning salon. In Italy last summer she blacked up and posted photos of her darkened self on Instagram. It was all too much for soprano Angel Blue, who promptly withdrew from a production of La Traviata at the Arena di Verona, and in an online statement condemned the “offensive, humiliating and outright racist” use of blackface as “a deeply misguided practice” that had “no place in modern society.”

The dark makeup controversy is sometimes rendered moot by what André terms “true-to-color casting,” by which she principally means Black singers in Black roles. Many opera fans maintain the greatest Aida of the past century was the Black spinto-soprano Leontyne Price. No opera lover, André included, wants to ban white sopranos from singing Aida or, for that matter, thinks only Chinese sopranos should be cast as Turandot, or Japanese singers as Madama Butterfly. Indeed, one of the most acclaimed performers in recent years in the role of Butterfly is the Black soprano Latonia Moore. In opera, the voice, more than almost any other consideration, drives the casting decision.

Consequently, the opera world was decades ahead of the theater world in casting people of color in traditionally white roles, at least once the race barrier in opera began to lift in the mid-20th century. In 1956, when colorblind casting in theater was still a rarity, the Black baritone Robert McFerrin (father of Bobby McFerrin) sang the title role in Rigoletto at the Metropolitan Opera. In 1960, Black American tenor George Shirley portrayed Rodolfo, the leading man in Puccini’s La Bohème, at the Teatro Nuevo in Milan. The following year, at the Bayreuth Festival House in Germany, the theater built by Richard Wagner, the Black mezzo-soprano Grace Bumbry was cast as Venus in the composer’s Tannhäuser. Perhaps most striking was Leontyne Price’s performance in the title role of Tosca on national TV in the United States in 1955, opposite the white tenor David Poleri as her lover, Cavaradossi.

It would be spurious to suggest that these and other colorblind casting decisions were made in the cause of racial equality. Even as opera companies featured Black singers in notionally white parts, there was no push for diversity in the hiring of, say, stage directors. The takeaway is that opera lovers place a higher value on vocal excellence than other factors in a production. It helps explain why André herself barely paid heed to racially insensitive conventions in opera for so long. One of her vivid memories of operagoing was her first time at the Met, in 1985, when she got a standing room ticket to see Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier, with the Black soprano Kathleen Battle as Sophie, the young daughter of a wealthy bourgeois in 18th century Vienna. André thinks she remembers that the production also had a non-Black boy dancer with darkened skin in the silent role of Mohammed, a young Moorish servant in the Viennese court, but she isn’t sure. It did.

Makeup is not the only indelicate matter. The librettos of many standard operas teem with offending racial and gender tropes. “Oh, my God,” was the reaction of Alejandra Valarino Boyer, founder of BIPOC Arts, a database to promote diversity hiring in opera, when I brought up the subject of Monostatos, the Black comic villain driven by lust in Mozart’s The Magic Flute. “This is where I differ from some of my colleagues,” Boyer says. “They say, ‘This is the composer’s intention, and you can’t touch a note.’ I say redo it, so it makes sense for today, or make cuts.” Boyer does not suggest removing the opera from the repertoire, however.

Few would make such a suggestion, not only because The Magic Flute is ranked among the greatest operas ever written, but because it has a secure place in the small canon of operas that are routinely performed. Though the median age of operagoers may have declined since the pandemic, as a class they remain older, more musically conservative and have settled on a core repertory of around 100 works. The 18th century is represented largely by Mozart and Handel, and certain 20th century operas, such as Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes, which premiered in 1945, are solidly in the mainstream. By far, the most-performed operas, such as La Bohème, Carmen and La Traviata, are from the 19th century.

Nevertheless, opera companies delight in presenting works of living composers. Christina Scheppelmann, general director of the Seattle Opera, says it would constitute a failure if in 50 years opera companies were still largely museums of the 19th century canon. “We have to do new pieces, believe in them and repeat them,” she says. “Even pieces that right now would not fill the house.”

At the tail end of 2022, the Metropolitan Opera announced plans to double down on operas by living composers in future seasons, an unexpected turnabout for a company that historically has never been at the forefront of new music. That distinction has always belonged to the Met’s scrappy Lincoln Center neighbor, the New York City Opera, which in 1949 became the first major company in the world to stage an opera by a Black composer, William Grant Still’s Troubled Island. In 1986, the NYCO gave the formal world premiere of Black American composer Anthony Davis’ X, The Life and Times of Malcolm X.

Well into the 21st century, the Met had yet to stage any work by a Black composer, an issue that drew more attention in September 2019 when the company opened its season with Porgy and Bess. A few days before the debut performance, The New York Times ran a not altogether approving article, noting, “The fact that the most-performed opera about the African-American experience is the work of an all-white team has not been lost on black composers who have struggled to get their music heard.” That same day, the Met announced plans for a production of Fire Shut Up in My Bones, an opera by Black composer Terence Blanchard. Based on Charles M. Blow’s trauma-narrative memoir, the opera tells the story of a young Black man from a Louisiana backwater struggling to overcome the wounds of poverty, parental neglect and sexual abuse. The Met vaguely promised to schedule the opera in “a coming season,” and was unclear about whether the staging would take place at its 3,800-seat opera house in Lincoln Center or at a smaller venue of a collaborative partner. No further information was forthcoming by early 2020, when opera companies worldwide began shutting down in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Then, in May 2020, a police officer knelt on George Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes, asphyxiating him. No corner of cultural life in America was unaffected, opera included.

Anna Netrebko
Anna Netrebko

“The inequities of our art form”

By the spring of 2021, the Metropolitan Opera was in financial peril. A Met season runs from September to June, and the pandemic had truncated one season, wiped out another entirely and erased an estimated $150 million in box-office revenue. Most of the company’s workforce had been furloughed without pay since April 2020. Negotiations with the stagehand union had broken down, and the workers who built sets found themselves locked out. In preparation for reopening in the fall, the Met turned to nonunion shops in Cardiff, Wales, and elsewhere to have sets constructed, drawing over 1,000 protesters, many with picket signs. In a statement, the company said it was “facing the worst economic crisis in the 137-year history of the Met and [we] must reduce our costs in order to survive.”

Peter Gelb, the GM, was vilified and called a union buster, but he held firm. Yet in the depths of the COVID-19 lockdown and amid the drastic cost-cutting, he added a senior management position that had not existed in the Met’s history: chief diversity officer. It went to Marcia Lynn Sells, dean of students at Harvard Law School. Gelb said her hiring was essential at “a time when social justice rightly demands that we address the inequities of our art form.”

When the Met finally emerged from the lockdown on Sept. 27, 2021, it reopened with Fire Shut Up in My Bones. In an interview with the Associated Press, Gelb made no secret of what had motivated that choice. “The earliest we thought we could schedule [Blanchard’s opera] was in the 23-24 season,” he said, but the opera was put on a fast track and made the season opener due to “the huge upheaval and social change that is taking place in America right now.” He saw fit to add that Blanchard was “a brilliant composer,” a sentiment echoed by many music critics. In 2023, the Met will stage two additional works by Black composers: Champion, a Blanchard opera from 2013 about boxer Emile Griffith, and X, The Life and Times of Malcolm X, some 37 years after X had its debut next door.

The upheaval referred to by Gelb hit home at other opera companies. In October 2020, the Seattle Opera published a three-year “Racial Equity Plan.” In language bordering on self-condemnation, the SO vowed to redirect itself “toward becoming an anti-racist and multicultural organization” bent on “the eradication of institutional racism in this art form.” In truth, compared with the Met, the Seattle Opera had been ahead of the curve. It had hired Naomi André as scholar-in-residence in 2019, and in February 2020, just before the pandemic stopped everything, gave the West Coast premiere of Charlie Parker’s Yardbird, an opera about the fabled jazzman, with a predominantly Black cast. In February 2022, the SO staged Blue, an opera in which the teenage son of a Black police officer is shot and killed by a white police officer. Commissioned in 2019 by the Glimmerglass Festival in upstate New York, Blue was regarded highly by music critics; The Wall Street Journal called it “wrenching and remarkably original.”

Charlie Parker’s Yardbird, Blue and Champion are interracial collaborations, the first two the work of a white composer and Black librettist, and the third the reverse. Last March, Emmett Till, an opera based on the true story of a 14-year-old Black boy lynched in Mississippi, with music by Black composer Mary D. Watkins and a libretto by white playwright Clare Coss, premiered at John Jay College in New York. Coss’ libretto included one invented character, a white schoolteacher who, she said, “represents white people who care but who remain silent.” The production drew on the talents of the largely Black creative team of Opera Noire International and the Harlem Chamber Players, and the conductor, like the composer, was a Black woman.

But this interracial collaboration was greeted with acrimony, because for some, a white librettist inserting a fictional white character into the story of Emmett Till, or dramatizing it at all, was a bridge too far. “We denounce the telling of this historic story by a white woman from a white vantage point,” the Black Opera Alliance proclaimed in a social media post. A petition to cancel the opera, started by a John Jay student who learned about it on TikTok, drew 12,000 signatures. Two scheduled performances of Emmett Till took place, but the opera’s creators, both women in their 80s, were clearly stunned by the condemnation of their work.

Eric Owens, Porgy And Bess, Metropolitan Opera
Eric Owens (as ‘Porgy’) performs at the final dress rehearsal prior to the premiere of the new Metropolitan Opera, Dutch National Opera, and English National Opera co-production of George and Ira Gershwin’s and DuBose and Dorothy Heyward’s ‘Porgy and Bess’ at the Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center, New York, New York on September 19, 2019. Jack Vartoogian/GI

True-to-color casting

The Metropolitan Opera’s Porgy and Bess production, by comparison, came off with less controversy than anticipated; at any rate, the loud approval seemed to drown out the faint censure. Angel Blue, who would later star in Fire Shut Up in My Bones, played Bess, opposite Eric Owens as Porgy. The New York Times review was sprinkled with adjectives such as “magnificent,” “overwhelming,” “authoritative” and “gripping.” The musicologist Gwynne Kuhner Brown, who wrote a Ph.D. dissertation on Porgy and Bess, found Angel Blue’s interpretation of the female lead revelatory. “Bess is a hard character to play,” Brown says. “She makes bad choices. Angel Blue had her making those choices consciously, knowing they are not the right ones, in a way that was plausible and very powerful.” Some critics wondered whether the title roles of Gershwin’s 1935 opera had ever been performed better.

It was the Met’s first production of Porgy and Bess since 1990, and it broke box-office records. The opera company uses dynamic ticket pricing, and demand so exceeded supply that one performance took in 113% of projected revenue. The Met had never in its modern history extended the scheduled run of an opera; for Porgy and Bess, it added three more performances. The Live in HD presentation of the opera set attendance records for the cinema series.

The Met production made a strong case for knocking down the idea that Porgy and Bess is an overblown Broadway musical by a Tin Pan Alley composer, rather than a legitimate opera — a persistent claim that the late James Levine, who conducted the Met debut of Porgy in 1985, called “utter nonsense.” Gershwin always had classical aspirations, wrote many concert works — Rhapsody in Blue and Concerto in F among them — and enjoyed the friendship and reciprocal admiration of Maurice Ravel and Arnold Schoenberg. He probably did himself no favors by designating Porgy and Bess a “folk opera,” on the grounds that his work was an original folk tale set to original folk music “in operatic form.”

The story of the beggar who wins the heart of the woman of ill repute began as a 1925 novel, Porgy, by white Southerner DuBose Heyward. The author and his wife, Dorothy, adapted the novel two years later as a hit play that ran on Broadway for 367 performances. The Heywards wrote the libretto of the 1935 opera, with additional lyrics by Ira Gershwin, the composer’s brother and longtime collaborator. The setting of the novel, play, and opera is Catfish Row, a Black ghetto based on a Gullah community that once existed near DuBose Heyward’s birthplace in Charleston, S.C.

Many jazz greats have mined the opera’s melodic riches, from numbers such as “Summertime,” “My Man’s Gone Now,” “I Loves You, Porgy,” “It Ain’t Necessarily So” and the love duet “Bess, You Is My Woman Now.” Miles Davis devoted an album to Porgy and Bess, as did Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, Oscar Peterson (twice), Joe Henderson, Ray Charles and Cleo Laine, and the Modern Jazz Quartet. Nina Simone’s iconic recording of “I Loves You, Porgy” was her first hit and helped establish her career. In her book Black Opera, Naomi André writes that the music of Porgy and Bess “touches us and gets under our skin in such a way that it feels like a part of us. And this,” she adds, “is what makes Gershwin’s opera so easy to love and so difficult to stay mad at.”

The “mad at” reference needs no explanation to anyone familiar with what many consider the opera’s degrading depiction of people of color. In the opening scene, the men of Catfish Row shoot craps until Crown, a brutal stevedore, stabs another gambler to death with a cotton hook, then leaves Bess, his lover, to fend for herself. Bess calms her nerves by snorting “happy dust,” which she buys from Sportin’ Life, a dope dealer. Later, Porgy recoils in superstitious fear when a buzzard flies overhead. Anne Brown, who played Bess in the original production, recounted in a 1995 interview that her physician father attended the premiere and was “very disappointed and very sad that Negroes had been pictured in the usual clichés, as ignorant and dope peddlers and users and criminals and superstitious — all those things. He said, ‘We’ve had enough of that.’”

Brown herself was a strong supporter of the opera, not in small part because of her collegial relationship with George Gershwin, who treated her with deference. When Gershwin cast her, Brown was a 22-year-old Juilliard graduate who had auditioned for the composer with a Massenet aria in French and art songs in German and English. Still completing his score, Gershwin consistently turned to Brown for help in tailoring his vocal lines to fit the ranges of his singers, Brown included. “I even made a few changes in ‘I Loves You, Porgy,’ notes which fit my voice better, and he would say, ‘That’s good, let’s use that,’” Brown recalled in 1995.

Gershwin further endeared himself to his cast by forbidding any blackface in his opera. Al Jolson, a big box-office star, had wanted to play Porgy; Gershwin would not consider it. To this day, the Gershwin estate insists on — but cannot enforce — true-to-color casting for every performer, including chorus members, in all productions of Porgy and Bess. (At the Metropolitan Opera in 1985, a union representative for the Met chorus objected, in vain, to the exclusion of white singers.) There are five white characters in Porgy and Bess, ranging from unlikeable to contemptible, and none sing; indeed, the moment any white person sets foot onstage, the music stops. In 1935, Gershwin’s insistence on race-conscious casting meant that no American opera house was amenable to staging his work. Two years earlier, the Met had debuted Louis Gruenberg’s The Emperor Jones, with Lawrence Tibbett in the lead role — in blackface.

Porgy and Bess instead opened at the Alvin Theater on Broadway on Oct. 10, 1935. It ran there for only 124 performances and lost its entire $70,000 investment, about $1.5 million in today’s money. Two years after the premiere, Gershwin, 38, died of a brain tumor, believing his opera a failure. Porgy fared better in a 1942 Broadway revival, for which it was drastically cut down to a musical play.

In 1952, theatrical producer Robert Breen co-founded the Everyman Opera Company, originally with one mission, to restage Porgy and Bess as an opera. A successful world tour followed. Breen then fixed on the idea of commissioning a new work to be performed in repertory with Porgy — an American opera as accessible as Gershwin’s. As Breen later told the story, he compiled a list of eight songs, among them “Stormy Weather” and “Blues in the Night,” conveying the mood and idiom he was seeking, then showed the list to Cab Calloway, who played Sportin’ Life in the touring production. The jazz singer pronounced all eight songs the work of a single composer: Harold Arlen. Calloway knew Arlen from the Cotton Club in Harlem where, in the 1930s, he was a performer and Arlen a songwriter. Breen was familiar with the music but not its creator.

Harold Arlen, Johnny Mercer
Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer at Carol’s apartment party prior to going into rehearsals for “Saratoga,” in 1959. Everett Collection

“The Negro-ist white man I have ever known”

To this day and in his own lifetime, Harold Arlen has never been as famous as his songs. He once took a crosstown ride in a New York taxi and heard the driver whistling “Stormy Weather.” Arlen asked the driver if he knew who had written the tune. “Sure,” the cabbie said. “Irving Berlin.”

Arlen was born in Buffalo, N.Y., on Valentine’s Day in 1905 to Jewish immigrant parents from Vilna, Poland. His father, Samuel, was a cantor. Harold had little formal musical training but was a natural singer and pianist. He began performing in jazz bands as a teen, and by 1925 he was gigging in New York, where he befriended the bandleader Fletcher Henderson. Four years later, Henderson asked Arlen to sub for him as the rehearsal pianist for a trouble-plagued Broadway show. While improvising at the piano in a moment of boredom, Arlen hit on the tune that became his first successful song, “Get Happy,” with lyrics by Ted Koehler.

By the following year, Arlen was a staff songwriter at the Cotton Club, working with Koehler. The alchemy of Arlen’s musical influences — Black American idioms and his father’s freeform cantorial chant — had made him, in Gershwin’s words, “the most original of us all.” The Arlen songbook abounds with “tapeworms,” songs exceeding the standard thirty-two bars, and his melodies are free and improvisatory. It was Gershwin who pointed out to him that the first eight bars of “Stormy Weather” contain not a single repeated phrase. Arlen was bemused. “I never gave it a thought,” he said.

If there is a distinguishing element in Arlen’s songwriting, it is the genre of the blues. Though there are Arlen tunes outside the genre — such as “My Shining Hour” and “Let’s Fall in Love” — his songbook is markedly bluesier than that of his non-Black peers. In the early 1930s, when Gershwin was tailoring songs for Ethel Merman and Ginger Rodgers, Arlen was at the Cotton Club, writing “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea” for Aida Ward, “Ill Wind” for Adelaide Hall and “As Long as I Live” for Avon Long and a teenage newcomer, Lena Horne. On the night of April 6, 1933, when Ethel Waters debuted “Stormy Weather,” the audience demanded 12 encores. Waters called Arlen “the Negro-ist white man I have ever known.”

In 1938, MGM hired Arlen and lyricist E.Y. “Yip” Harburg to write the songs for The Wizard of Oz. Since Arlen’s inspiration came at unpredictable moments, he always carried music paper to notate his “jots” — kernels of melodies that popped into his head. One afternoon while riding in a car on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles with his wife at the wheel, he yelled for her to pull over, and wrote down the jot for “Over the Rainbow.”

Arlen’s next movie project, in 1941, paired him with Johnny Mercer, a lyricist the studio, Warner Bros., had under contract. Tentatively called Hot Nocturne, the movie had a provocative theme, whether white people could be authentic jazz and blues musicians. Arlen and Mercer were mirror images — a Polish immigrants’ son from the industrial North and a Savannah, Ga., gentleman whose great-great-grandfather had fought in the Revolutionary War — but as a songwriting team they were ideally matched. The movie’s signature song was an instant classic, an earthy blues that starts traditionally and then shifts into uncharted territory. Warner Bros. renamed the picture for the song: Blues in the Night.

Arlen, who had settled in Los Angeles, had composed for Broadway musicals, but none with a memorable score. He was not done trying, and a Broadway project offered to him in 1945 caught his fancy. The producer Edward Gross had come across a play called St. Louis Woman, written by two men known chiefly as poets, Harlem Renaissance authors Arna Bontemps and Countee Cullen, with uncredited assistance from Bontemps’ closest friend, the poet Langston Hughes. Based on a Bontemps novel called God Sends Sunday, the play concerns a late 19th century athletic star, a Black jockey named Augie Rivers, modeled on Bontemps’ great uncle, Joe Ward. Augie’s love interest, Della Green, the play’s title character, is what the 19th century French called a demimonde, a glamorous courtesan in the fashion of Alexandre Dumas’ Lady of the Camelias.

Gross believed the play, set in a bustling Black community at a time when horse racing was America’s most popular sport and everyone connected with it had money and style, was ideal material for a musical. He signed Arlen and Mercer to write the songs, and Bontemps and Cullen to write the book of the musical, which, like the play, would be called St. Louis Woman. Gross hoped to get Lena Horne, who had become an MGM movie star, for Della.

Bontemps, in letters he exchanged with Hughes, charted the project’s highs and lows. A serious low point was a racial controversy, aimed not at Arlen and Mercer but at Bontemps and Cullen. In mid-1945, the NAACP condemned the musical, still in progress, for “offering roles that detract from the dignity of our race.” The actress and civil rights activist Fredi Washington became a harsh critic of St. Louis Woman, and Horne withdrew from consideration. Bontemps, Cullen and Hughes furiously disputed the criticism. In a letter to Hughes dated Aug. 16, 1945, Bontemps fumed that the critics were prejudging a book none of them had read and attributed the attack from “the highly moral Fredi” to “sour grapes” — Cullen had informed him that “she had hoped to play Della in St. Louis Woman herself!” Cullen, who suffered from high blood pressure, died of uremic poisoning of the kidneys in January 1946, before the start of rehearsals, and Bontemps blamed the racial controversy for hastening his death.

St. Louis Woman opened at the Martin Beck Theatre in New York on March 30, 1946. It starred Ruby Hill as Della, Harold Nicholas as Augie and the scene-stealing Pearl Bailey in the comedic role of Butterfly. In years to come, the original cast album would become a collector’s item; with numbers such as “Come Rain or Come Shine,” “Any Place I Hang My Hat Is Home” and “I Had Myself a True Love,” St. Louis Woman is recognized as Arlen’s best Broadway score, containing some of Mercer’s finest lyrics. The show’s undoing was the book, which lacked cohesion, and made the bond between the lead characters more transactional than romantic — Augie prevents Della from leaving him by winning the climactic horse race. The show closed after 113 performances.

Eight years later, when Robert Breen of the Everyman Opera Company was searching for a companion piece to Porgy and Bess, he proposed that Arlen and Mercer expand St. Louis Woman into an opera, with recitative replacing the dialogue. The work, to be called Blues Opera, would be sung through, effectively making Mercer the librettist, using characters and plotlines created by Bontemps, Cullen and Hughes. For Bontemps, the endeavor seemed the rightful apotheosis of a story that had originated with his novel. “Certainly it would be poetic justice if at this date a true blues opera could evolve from it,” he wrote in a 1954 letter to Breen associate Warner Watson.

Work progressed slowly. Arlen was in poor health, in and out of the hospital with a stomach ulcer so severe he dubbed 1954 “the Year of Transfusion.” A piano was wheeled into his hospital room. When Arlen was too weak to get out of bed, the conductor Samuel Matlowsky wrote down melodies Arlen hummed to him. Amid pages of new music, Arlen embellished his score with songs from St. Louis Woman, along with blues numbers he had written with Mercer for various movies, including “That Old Black Magic,” “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive” and “Blues in the Night.” To Mercer’s displeasure, Arlen also interpolated “Ill Wind” and “I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues,” songs he had written with Ted Koehler for the Cotton Club.

After several delays, Blues Opera was given a preview at the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair and officially opened at the Royal Theater Carré in Amsterdam on Dec. 14, 1959. By then it was no longer Blues Opera. Breen had lost a power struggle with his co-producer, Stanley Chase, who renamed the work Free and Easy and staged it as a musical with dialogue, using a jazz band instead of an orchestra. The bandleader, Quincy Jones, was told the production would tour Europe for several months, then open on Broadway, with Sammy Davis Jr. as Augie. Instead, after a brief run in Paris in January 1960 — French classical composer Francis Poulenc reportedly attended a performance — Free and Easy shut down, stranding the cast, crew and musicians, some of whom needed to borrow money to get home. In a preface for a photobook memorializing the ill-fated production, Jones called the tour “one of the darkest periods of my life.”

Arlen never got to hear Blues Opera performed as classically conceived, apart from a 25-minute instrumental extract. In 1957, at the invitation of conductor Andre Kostelanetz, Arlen created a symphonic suite of melodies from his opera, which was then orchestrated, under his supervision, by Samuel Matlowsky. On Nov. 2, Kostelanetz, leading the New York Philharmonic, conducted the Blues Opera Suite at Carnegie Hall, with Arlen in attendance. Arlen was awed to see his name in a concert program alongside those of Berlioz, Prokofiev, Villa Lobos and Rachmaninoff — something Gershwin would have taken for granted.

Over the years, the suite has turned up on concert programs. John Mauceri, conducting the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, recorded it for Philips in 1996. Mauceri did not know much about the opera at the time except that it was considered lost, a word that always piques his interest. “When someone says, ‘You’ll never find it,’ it brings out my inner Indiana Jones,” Mauceri says. “My reaction is, you just don’t know where to look.”

John Mauceri, John McWhorter, Gilden
John Mauceri, John McWhorter and Michael Gildin Betty Mauceri

The Indiana Jones of lost music

At 77, Mauceri is animated and youthful, with a full head of hair neatly swept back. He was a Leonard Bernstein protégé and counts as an achievement the time he got Bernstein, always the funniest person in the room, to roar with laughter. Tom Wolfe once dubbed Bernstein “the Village Explainer,” a man who turned every conversation into a symposium. Like his mentor, Mauceri writes books and has been known to wear down the listener with his broad knowledge of subjects that include 20th century architecture, French literature, psychology and religion — not to mention music. “Mauceri’s grasp of the history of Western music-making is breathtaking,” concluded Gramophone in a review of his book The War on Music, published last year by Yale University Press. The book turns on a tantalizing question: “Why, if the Nazis lost the war, do we still not play the music Hitler banned?”

The archeologist in Mauceri, his inner Indiana Jones, makes it hard for him to accept that any worthwhile music should be neglected or lost. In the 1990s, he recorded several albums for Decca of music banned by the Third Reich as entartete, or degenerate, mostly because its composers, such as Erich Wolfgang Korngold, were Jews. He helped put together a complete score of Marc Blitzstein’s Regina from the composer’s manuscripts, prompting a reevaluation of the work as a significant American opera. Fans of Broadway musicals are indebted to him for prized studio cast albums of the Gershwins’ Strike Up the Band and Rodgers and Hart’s On Your Toes. Along the way, Mauceri has won an Emmy, a Tony and multiple Grammys, lacking only an Oscar to join the exclusive EGOT club.

In 2019, Mauceri was introduced to conductor Michael Gildin, then 28, by an archivist for the Rodgers and Hammerstein estate. “Michael knows more than anyone I have ever met about the American musical theater,” Mauceri says. The two men began discussing possible restoration projects, if their busy schedules ever permitted it.

Then the pandemic hit. “In March of 2020, Michael is conducting a bus and truck national tour of Fiddler on the Roof, nine shows a week,” Mauceri says. “I’m packing my bags to make a recording in Berlin. And what happens? The sound of screeching brakes. Full stop. Everything is canceled.”

Gildin, a Columbia University graduate, had studied there with Walter Frisch, an authority on Harold Arlen. “One day,” Mauceri says, “Michael shows up with a score he got from Frisch,” a patched together piano vocal score of Blues Opera, copyrighted in 1955 by the Everyman Opera Company. It was a photocopy of a photocopy and barely legible. “You can’t tell if a note has a sharp or a double flat. But you can see that it starts with the overture and ends with the finale.” The two men got down to work.

They located a cleaner copy of the score, and then came an even bigger discovery. Harold Arlen and Robert Breen owned reel-to-reel tape recorders and between them had recorded most of the opera, in bits and pieces. On some tapes, Arlen sang while he or Matlowsky played the piano; other recordings contained the voices of opera singers, still unidentified but probably members of Breen’s Porgy and Bess troupe. There were also tapes of rehearsals of the Free and Easy company in Amsterdam and Paris. Gildin doggedly tracked down recordings scattered across special collections at Ohio State, George Mason University in Washington D.C., and the University of California, Los Angeles. “I’m always hounding librarians to look under every stone,” Gildin says.

When he first heard the recordings, Gildin says, “it was like my birthday and Christmas rolled into one. It’s still surreal when I think about it. If it weren’t for us having this crazy idea and digging into this, who would have known these recordings existed? These are invaluable treasures and pieces of our collective history.”

Meanwhile, Frisch provided manuscripts of nine additional arias written for Blues Opera that were not included in the Everyman Opera score — unpublished Arlen and Mercer songs that, to date, few people have heard, with titles such as “Many Kinds of Love,” “Snake Eyes” and “Blow the Whistle.”

Assembling the recordings into a complete opera meant piecing together the libretto, in some ways the most daunting challenge. A good deal of Blues Opera is instrumental music to accompany pantomime, a convention in opera (think of the wordless seven-minute opening of Act III of Der Rosenkavalier). The score didn’t contain any stage directions. Mauceri and Gildin gathered all the source material they could find, including several versions of the St. Louis Woman play and notes from the Breen archive written in pencil or typed on onion skin. It was clear the opera had been given a radically different ending than the musical, one in which Augie loses the race but gets Della. “In losing, he wins,” Mauceri says. Contrasting Della Green with the vain and mercenary Manon Lescaut, the heroine of operas by Massenet and Puccini, he adds, “Della is a Manon who learns that diamonds and gold are not what life is about. Manon dies feeling sorry for herself. In Blues Opera, these characters grow up in front of us.”

Mauceri and Gildin knew they needed a third member of the team. “It was essential to have a Black voice in our editing work,” Mauceri says. There are only two white characters in Blues Opera — police officers — who do not even speak. In May 2019, Mauceri watched Real Time With Bill Maher on HBO and became convinced that one of Maher’s guests, Columbia University linguistics professor John McWhorter, was the expert the project needed. In 2017, McWhorter had written Talking Back, Talking Black, a book in which he makes the case for Black English as a “culturally rich” American dialect.

Mauceri obtained an email address for McWhorter and was cautioned not to expect a speedy reply, since the professor had to sift through hundreds of messages daily. McWhorter wrote back almost immediately, saying he would be delighted to work on Blues Opera. Mauceri did not know it, but McWhorter is a self-styled “showtune geek,” with a vast collection of cast albums. He is also a talented pianist and singer who a decade ago hosted and performed in a cabaret series at the Cornelia Street Café in New York, including one show devoted to Johnny Mercer. When McWhorter flew to Los Angeles to appear on Real Time, he was listening to Mauceri’s recording of On Your Toes. “It’s as if this was meant to be,” McWhorter says.

The Black English of Blues Opera is consistent with the vernacular used by Bontemps, Cullen and Hughes. McWhorter cites, as an example, this line of Della’s: “Until that day, Monsieur Augie, you in the back row.” He defends this as dialectically accurate and not demeaning. Blues Opera avoids the “dis” and “dat” of Porgy and Bess.

Blues Opera has one notable commonality with Porgy and Bess — a love triangle. In Gershwin’s opera, Bess must choose between the bully Crown and the sensitive Porgy. In Blues Opera, Della falls for the sensitive Augie and throws over the loutish Biglow, who manages the Rocking Horse Social Club in St. Louis, where much of the action takes place. All similarity ends there. Bess is drug-addicted and weak and allows Crown to seduce her after she has declared her love for Porgy. Della is clearheaded and empowered. “I’m a card-playing woman, and I don’t use a joker,” she says. When Biglow gets too rough with her, she decks him with a haymaker, a moment likely to have the audience cheering.

Blues Opera is set in 1889. It is the centenary of the French Revolution, and Della has spent a month in Paris enjoying the World’s Fair and the opening of the Eiffel Tower. The Rocking Horse crowd reads in the newspaper that today’s the day Della Green comes back to St. Louis with “trunks and trunks” of stylish French clothes. This is a world of affluence. “They pour champagne just like it was rain,” Della sings in the wistful aria “I Wonder What Became of Me,” her lament that luxury has not brought fulfillment. We are a long way from the squalor of Porgy and Bess.

Mauceri was delighted when the opera star Angel Blue recently confirmed to him by email her desire to debut the role of Della. Last October she portrayed Violetta — the Lady of the Camelias — in Verdi’s La Traviata at the Houston Grand Opera, and she is quick to point out the differences between the two courtesans, Violetta and Della. Violetta’s jealous lover, Alfredo, is abusive — in some productions, like the one in Houston, he hurls her to the floor. Violetta takes it. “I imagine Della and I are quite similar in that if someone were to hit me, I’m going to come back at them,” Blue says. “Knowing that Della is a woman who is not going to be taken advantage of, that’s wonderful.”

Last fall, for a New York Times virtual event co-hosted by McWhorter, Blue and pianist Bryan Wagorn made a video of “I Wonder What Became of Me.” (See the video here.)She found the occasion inspiring. “My father was a pastor and a gospel singer, and I got to incorporate that into Della’s aria,” she says. “That allowed me to bring in things from my childhood, from my roots. I don’t often get to do that in the standard opera repertoire.”

Blue admits that when Mauceri first told her about Blues Opera in late 2020, the name Harold Arlen was not familiar to her, though she had previously sung “Over the Rainbow” and “Come Rain and Come Shine.” She now recalls that when she was 10, watching The Nutty Professor on TV, her father walked in during the scene in which Jerry Lewis, as Buddy Love, sings “That Old Black Magic.” “I remember my dad saying, ‘Harold Arlen.’ And I was like, ‘Who is that?’”

Apart from the opera itself, Blue is drawn to the project because of Mauceri. “I’m honored John thought of me for Blues Opera, and I trust him a lot,” she says. “Sometimes I think John knows my voice better than I do.” In 2017, Mauceri conducted the London Philharmonic in Richard Strauss’ Four Last Songs, with Blue as the soloist. “There was a phrase I worked so hard to sing in one breath,” she recalls, but kept falling short by two bars. “He leaned over and said, ‘If you need a breath, you can take a quick one right here.’ And I thought, ‘This man is impeccable. He knows singing.’”

Blue also finds Mauceri’s loquaciousness more charming than off-putting. “When he starts talking, I’m like, ‘OK, pay attention, here it comes, a history lesson of everything,’” she says, laughing. “The amount of information in his brain is wild.”

Angel Blue, Will Liverman, Fire Shut Up in My Bones, Metropolitan Opera
Angel Blue (right) and Will Liverman (left) perform a scene during a rehearsal for Terence Blanchard’s “Fire Shut Up in My Bones,” at the Metropolitan Opera on September 24, 2021 in New York. Timothy A. Clary/AFP via GI

“This must be heard”

By the end of August 2022, representatives of the Arlen and Mercer estates had signed contracts granting Blues Opera House LLC, the corporate entity for the reconstructed opera, all the necessary rights. Separate agreements were negotiated with the estates of Bontemps and Cullen. The libretto was completed Sept. 11.

Two weeks later, I was invited to Mauceri’s apartment in New York to hear a recording of the complete work, which he had assembled from the digitized reel-to-reel tapes and orchestral selections from the Blues Opera Suite. Mauceri considers Matlowsky’s orchestration of the suite, which Arlen supervised, a “Rosetta Stone” model to guide whoever is ultimately chosen to orchestrate the full opera.

Michael Gildin and John McWhorter were on hand that day. I confess to some trepidation. Mauceri had previously sent me a 20-minute sampler of excerpts from the opera, and though the music was beautiful it was largely familiar, replete with songs such as “That Old Black Magic” and “Come Rain or Come Shine.” I wondered: Will this turn out to be some sort of jukebox opera?

Decidedly not. Blues Opera is everything Mauceri claims it is, a sung-through work of two-and-three-quarter hours with perhaps eight minutes of dialogue, filled with music of striking originality and ingenuity. Arlen’s recitatives are unlike any I have ever heard. Two extended recitatives, “Then Suddenly” and “Rainbow,” are seamless strings of Arlen “jots” — each individual phrase could have been turned into a song. “Little Angel Face,” a blues lullaby Augie sings to a young boy, melts Della, and may have a similar effect on some listeners. “I cannot hear it without crying,” Mauceri says.

Even the familiar songs take on a new vitality in the context of the opera. Encountering “Blues in the Night” as it is used in Blues Opera is akin to hearing “Alabama Song” in Kurt Weill’s opera Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagony after having previously known only the cover versions recorded by The Doors and David Bowie.

“Who thought Arlen could do this?” Mauceri says. “Imagine Gershwin without Porgy and Bess — that’s where we are now with Arlen. Most people just think of him, if they know his name at all, as the man who wrote ‘Over the Rainbow.’ I believe this work will transform our evaluation of Arlen, and Mercer, too.”

Of the three-man restoration team, McWhorter seems the most concerned about Blues Opera being passed over for a production because of its white authorship. “You think to yourself, ‘This must be heard,’” he says. “And it scares me to death to imagine somebody saying, ‘No, this is Blackness filtered through a white sensibility.’ There comes a time when you have to tell the person who says that, ‘No, you are taking this too far. Let art breathe.’”

McWhorter acknowledges he is not the ideal ambassador for Blues Opera, because some of his views on race are controversial. In his 2021 book, Woke Racism, he inveighs against what he sees as a “misimpression” in some people of color that “what makes us interesting, what makes us matter, is a curated persona as eternally victimized souls.” McWhorter says he is viewed as a traitor by some in the Black community. His fellow New York Times columnist, Charles M. Blow, whose memoir is the basis of the opera Fire Shut Up in My Bones, “studiously avoids engaging me beyond polite greeting,” he says.

Blues Opera seems destined to become a test case for the issue raised by the movie Blues in the Night, though in 1941 the term for it was not yet in vogue — cultural appropriation. A Washington Post article on the controversial Emmett Till opera was headlined “Whose Song Is This to Sing?” McWhorter frowns upon that question. In an opinion piece published in the Times on Sept. 16, 2022, he wrote: “I think the idea that only Black people should depict Black people in art and fiction is less antiracist than anti-human.”

Arnold Rampersad, author of the two-volume The Life of Langston Hughes, agrees with McWhorter. “The idea of banning whites from writing about Blacks is offensive,” he says. He notes that when composer Kurt Weill and playwright Elmer Rice needed a lyricist for their opera Street Scene, a drama dealing almost exclusively with white people, they passed up “scores of veteran white lyricists” in favor of Hughes. “There’s no doubt which side Hughes would be on regarding Blues Opera,” Rampersad says. “He would look forward to seeing it, and he’d be there to applaud it.”

Naomi André says of Blues Opera, “It absolutely should be performed. I want to see it. I want to hear what it says. Is ‘Black opera’ only for Black composers, Black librettists, Black people singing Black stories? My feeling is no, it’s more capacious than that.” She adds, “Another thing I like about Blues Opera is that it’s not the typical trauma drama. You get to see upper-class Black people for a change. And that’s nice.”

This last point has not been lost on Garrett McQueen, spokesman for the Black Opera Alliance, which led the charge against Emmett Till. “We have to celebrate happiness and not just boil everything down to trauma and pain, as so many Black operas have in the past,” he says. “Think about what happens in Porgy and Bess, even in Fire Shut Up in My Bones.” Blues Opera appeals to McQueen because “we need more stories of joy in our art spaces about Black folks.”

McQueen also considers it “a big deal” for Blue to be championing the project. “Angel Blue is an artist who really put her neck out there and stood against operatic blackface,” he says. Her involvement “gives the creative team a lot of credit.”

He does, however, sound a note of caution about a production of Blues Opera. “I would hope that top-level decisions are made not only by people who are Black, but people with some sort of historical, academic and cultural connection to the communities that this music is supposed to be about,” he says. “If that’s not happening, I think there’s going to be more room for more people to have an issue with it.”