Inspired by Richard Wagner. Contemporary of Scott Joplin. Influencer of Black opera. Harry Lawrence Freeman (1869-1954) was a composer, conductor, impresario and teacher. He became the first African-American to write an opera (Epthalia, 1891) that was successfully produced; he also wrote the first opera in theU.S. to be produced by an all-Black production company (The Martyr, 1893).
Raised in Cleveland, Freeman was an assistant church organist at ten-years-old after teaching himself to play piano. Inspiration and purpose symphonically blended the night he attended a performance of Richard Wagner’s opera Tannhauser. That night Freeman decided to become a composer. He wrote his first piece, a waltz. He was only eighteen-years-old.
He founded the Freeman Grand Opera in Denver which debuted both his first opera, Epthalia (1891) and his second, The Martyr (1893) at the Deutsches Theater. The Martyr – the story of an Egyptian nobleman put to death for accepting the religion of Jehovah – was produced by his very own Freeman Grand Opera Company in Chicago and Cleveland, making it the first opera in the U.S produced by an all-Black production company.
“Eplethelia [sic], the opera in three acts by Harry L. Freeman, at Denver, Colo. was a grand success. This is the first opera ever written by a colored man and it should be appreciated.” (Kansas City American Citizen)
Despite his training and comparison to Johann Heinrich Beck (conductor of the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra), Freeman only found work in “race” music. He wrote and served as musical director for vaudeville and musical theater companies such as Ernest Hogan’s Musical Comedy Company, Cole-Johnson African-American Musical Theater Company and the John Larkins Musical Comedy Company. He was musical director and wrote additional work for the Hogan’s Musical Comedy Company’s production of Rufus Rastus, which premiered at the American Theatre in 1906, and wrote the music for the musical comedy Captain Rufus, which premiered in 1907 at the Harlem Music Hall. Freeman was guest conductor and composer/music director of the pageant, “O Sing a New Song” at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933.
Freeman’s best-known opera, Voodoo (1928), was the first opera by an African-American to be presented on Broadway and one of the earliest operas composed by an American to be broadcast on radio. Its score combines themes from spirituals, Southern melodies, jazz and traditional Italian opera. The New York Times called it “naive” and it was never performed again.
In his never-ending quest to promote the cause of African-American musical performance and production, Freeman opened the Salem School of Music (on Harlem’s famous 133rd Street) and the Negro Grand Opera Company in 1920. He received the Harmon Foundation Award for achievement in music in 1930. That same year he played at Carnegie Hall as well as at New York’s Steinway Hall.
Although many of his works were successful during his lifetime, he struggled during the latter part of his career to get any performances of his work on the stage. Almost all of his music was unpublished at the time of his death, and no recordings of his work have ever been released commercially. Twenty-one of his operas, as well as many of his other works, survive in Freeman’s own manuscripts, and are kept in a collection of his papers at Columbia University.
Inspiration is life-changing and life-making. It waters the seeds in our soul. When inspiration hits, especially in the middle of night when it makes no sense, don’t second guess. Let it lead you, carry you and keep you. Always be inspired to compose your art…and believe in your work. Especially when others don’t.