As part of its upcoming “Greenwood Overcomes” concert on Saturday, May 1st commemorating the centennial of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, Tulsa Opera commissioned four new pieces from contemporary Black composers.
All four of the composers were asked to write a piece for a specific singer and their voice type. Daniel Bernard Roumain was commissioned to compose a piece to be performed by mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves.
The piece that Mr. Roumain submitted, “They Still Want to Kill Us,” contained lyrics that Ms. Graves felt uneasy singing. Ms. Graves expressed her concerns to Mr. Roumain, and he was asked if he would consider altering his lyrics. He declined.
Ms. Graves said: “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.”
The concert program was designed by co-curators, Tulsa Opera Artistic Director Tobias Picker and Howard Watkins (Metropolitan Opera, The Juilliard School), so that each of the eight singers on the program would perform a world premiere, including the four commissioned works.
Mr. Roumain was subsequently informed that, as Ms. Graves was not comfortable performing his piece as written, and as he was unwilling to work to find a compromise, his work would no longer be part of the concert program. He will receive his full commissioning fee.
General Director & CEO of Tulsa Opera, Ken McConnell, says: “Tulsa Opera is proud to bring together 22 Black living composers and eight remarkable Black singers for the “Greenwood Overcomes” concert that is being presented as part of important city-wide centennial commemorative events. While disappointed that a compromise could not be reached on one of the commissioned works, the concert artists and Tulsa Opera remain committed to presenting a memorable civic event.”