Tulsa Opera has removed a composer from its upcoming "Greenwood Overcomes" concert commemorating the Tulsa Race Massacre over a disagreement about the ending of his original piece.
The concert features Black composers and singers. Daniel Roumain wrote "They Still Want To Kill Us" for mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves. It's a telling of the events of the massacre and his perspective of it, ending with the lines, "God bless America. God damn America."
Graves, who sang Gene Scheer's "American Anthem" at U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's memorial in September, took issue with the lyrics.
"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," she said in a statement.
Tulsa Opera Artistic Director Tobias Picker said he suggested edits because of Graves' concerns.
"I told him it reminded me of Beethoven’s 'Moonlight Sonata' and that I said I thought if he could consider a couple of these suggestions that maybe Ms. Graves would be more comfortable with it," Picker said.
Roumain said he felt like concert co-curator Picker, who is white, was changing not only his words, but also his meaning.
"It hurt to have someone suggest things to you that are completely not about not only the incident that happened in 1921, but they really aren’t speaking to what happened on Jan. 6, what happened in Ferguson, what happened in Charlottesville — I only have to say the names now — what happened in Atlanta," Roumain said. "There’s actually a difference between us, and there’s a different life and there’s a different consequence."
"Greenwood Overcomes" co-curator Howard Watkins, who is Black, speculated on how the proposed edits were delivered. He said he's a friend of Roumain's from years back.
"One has to wonder, could it have been better received if the comments had come directly from Denyce or even from me?" Watkins said.
Watkins is an acclaimed pianist, assistant conductor at the Metropolitan Opera and faculty at Juilliard.
Roumain was told his work would no longer be part of the concert after declining to change his lyrics. Roumain said his closing line is partly inspired by James Baldwin’s concept of loving America so much, he insists on the right to criticize her perpetually.
"'God bless America' has to mean something more than just something Christian or Judeo-Christian, right? And it does," Roumain said. "And at the same time, what’s getting lost here is 'God damn America' means a lot of things, not just the literal. Of course not. It is in the spirit of, 'How can America be better?'"
Watkins and Picker said the meaning is clear.
"To have 'God damn America' is subject, verb, object, and I think also from what he expressed in his AP interview, it seems apparent that, that was the intention," Watkins said. "And I think that that’s certainly the way it would have been taken by anyone hearing it. It’s certainly the way I took it when I read it, and it’s certainly been the reaction of people I’ve read it to."
"We did talk with other singers about how they would feel about singing it on the program, and that wasn’t – they didn’t feel any differently," Picker said.
Roumain says he would welcome talking through the piece with Graves but believes the situation is part of a larger problem in opera.
"Without a doubt, opera is -- like a lot of institutions in this country -- opera is racist. Opera has far too many white males in charge, and this is an example," Roumain said. "I am not saying Tobias Picker is racist. I don't think he is. I don't know him. There's nothing about this, even, that is racist."
"By any metric, there's just not a whole lot of BIPOC people in positions of power who are holding purse strings, who are general managers, who are artistic directors, who are conductors, in the field. Now, at the same time, there are plenty of qualified, BIPOC administrators and musicians and singers and conductors ready to fill those roles," Roumain said.
Tulsa Opera paid Roumain his commission fee, and he retains ownership of the libretto, which he and a nonprofit tied to his management group that's dedicated to amplifying voices of underserved communities are trying to have produced.
"They Still Want To Kill Us" by Daniel Roumain
Black Wall Street
A young man
A younger woman
Stumbled upon one another
In that elevator everything changed
May 31, 1921
A white mob
Engulfed with white rage
Burn it down
Burn it all down
A white man runnin’ with red blood on his hands
Bring it down
Bring it all down
A school, the library, our hospital, my church
Burn it down
Burn it all down
My people, our Black children, our stores, our homes
They want to kill us
They still want to kill us
God Bless America
God Damn America