From a very young age, Deborah D.E.E.P. Mouton can remember writing poetry, drawn not only to words on a page but to speaking them aloud. It was something that stayed with her as she went on to become poet laureate emeritus of Houston, published a lauded book of poetry with another on the way in 2022 and was part of a Kennedy Center virtual performance.
So although she had never seen an opera, when she was approached by Houston Grand Opera's HGOco with an idea to do something "new and inventive" by turning renowned singer Marian Anderson's storyinto an opera, she agreed to the opportunity to blend her skills in spoken word with classic opera.
"I'd written small productions but nothing of this magnitude and definitely not an opera before this." She says however that she has always loved classical orchestral music so this was a good fit.
Mouton was paired with noted composer Damien Sneed (who has worked with Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross, Lawrence Brownlee and others) to tell the story of Anderson, the first Black American to sing at the Metropolitan Opera.
The resulting chamber opera Marian's Song made its world premiere at the Wortham Center in March 2020 right before the pandemic hit and closed down in-person performances. "To have the world shut down within days of the premiere really took me off guard," she says.
Now a newly filmed version of the production, complete with the HGOco Chorus, the HGO Orchestra and starring the original 2019-2020 season cast (including HGO Studio alumna Zoie Reams as Marian Anderson, second year HGO Studio artist Nicholas Newton as Billy King, Cynthia Clayton as Eleanor Roosevelt/Mrs. Roberts and Tina B as Neveah) is about to be available to audiences in Houston and beyond.
Taking on the story of the woman who sang "America" on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. in 1939 meant going far beyond that singular moment, Mouton says.
"We needed to know the context of who Marian Anderson was and what made her and who made her and the involvement the community played in her life and career."
To do this, the chamber opera begins with a Howard University student Nevaeh, in present day, who learned about Anderson from her grandmother. When she finds out the Philadelphia church where Anderson sang as a child is going to be demolished, she goes on a mission to try to save it. The story of both women — the historic figure and the modern day college student — are interwoven as the story unfolds.
Mouton created the libretto and handed it over to Sneed who spent the next six or seven months writing music to go with it, she says. "We worked in isolation from each other until a certain point in the process." They met for a workshop to make sure the music and book were jelling, she says.
She has seen segments of the filmed version and believes it is a wonderful way to reach people who are not going to feel comfortable sitting in a theater for a while. "Seeing the final product is something I get to enjoy along with audiences on April 30."
She also thinks it will stand as a template for other arts groups that might want to replicate the work. "Seeing as it so experimental with the spoken word and the voice, I think it is kind of good to have a platform that people are able to watch.
"I think that opera for a long time has has a struggle which in figuring out whose voice was acceptable and what stories to tell. I think there have been stories that were overlooked and not celebrated in the way they should be. I think this is a moment for us to capture one of those really great moments with Marian Anderson and her resilience and dedication."
The story also captures the importance of allies with people and organizations working together — "how Eleanor Roosevelt and the NAACP really helped to be able to worked alongside each other to move along the accessibility for artists of color."
"I think it also shows that we don't have to live in these artistic boxes," she says. " I doubt people would have put spoken word and opera together en masse prior to this. There's definitely a couple of examples , but this idea that our artistic forms are not so elite from each other, but that they all are ways to tell stories and that everyone should have a voice to tell their own story."
HGO Digital will present the filmed version of Marian's Song beginning at 7:30 p.m. Friday, April 30 and will continue for one month afterward. Stream the recital on your computer, tablet, or smartphone by logging into HGO.org or marquee.tv. For information, visit houstongrandopera.org. Free.