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Inspired by Black excellence, Opera on Tap plumbs music, poetry of Harlem Renaissance

Celina Colby
Celina Colby is an arts and travel reporter with a fondness for Russian novels.... VIEW BIO
Inspired by Black excellence, Opera on Tap plumbs music, poetry of Harlem Renaissance
A previous Opera on Tap performance. The organization introduces opera to new audiences by bringing live shows to unconventional venues ranging from public parks to bars. PHOTO: COURTESTY OPERA ON TAP

Poet and playwright Langston Hughes
was a prominent artist of the Harlem
Renaissance. PHOTO: CARL VAN VECHTEN

The operatic art form gets a diverse and educational spin in “Celebrating Black Excellence: Opera, Art Song, and the Harlem Renaissance,” a program produced by Opera on Tap. Part performance, part history lesson, the program highlights Harlem Renaissance artists and artists inspired by that time period, like Langston Hughes, Leslie Morgan Collins, Robert Owens, Florence Price and William Grant Still.

Nina Evelyn, soprano, Opera on Tap PHOTO: COURTESY OPERA ON TAP

Soprano Nina Evelyn and Opera on Tap board member Melynda Davis pioneered this event. Evelyn is making her debut with Opera on Tap, and she’s doing it with a splash. Armed with a master’s degree and a Professional Studies Certificate candidacy at Boston Conservatory at Berklee, Evelyn brought up the idea of highlighting the Harlem Renaissance specifically, while the Celebrating Black Excellence series has previously given a more general overview of Black musical history.

“I’ve done a lot of musical settings of [Langston Hughes’] poetry. And it’s been really interesting to see how many people were inspired by not only his words, but also other poets of that time period,” says Evelyn. “It speaks to a lot of composers, a lot of writers, and I wanted to show the breadth of repertoire that that poetry covers.”


Melynda Davis, soprano and board member, Opera on Tap PHOTO: COURTESY OPERA ON TAP

Each of the eight performers chose their own songs and poetry selections based on their interests and previous performance experience. That guarantees that not only have the artists mastered the material, they’re passionate about it. Before each song, performers will give historical background about the piece and explain their personal connection to the music.

That educational piece is a key part of Opera on Tap’s inclusivity and accessibility mission. The organization’s primary goal is to bring opera to diverse audiences, breaking down the barriers to and misconceptions of the genre.

Fred C. VanNess Jr., tenor, Opera on Tap PHOTO: COURTESY OPERA ON TAP

“We like to give a little, we call it Twitter-sized, blurb before each piece, because sometimes our audience has not been exposed to opera before or classical music,” says Davis. “So we do whatever we can to tie in some familiarity with the music.”

There are two upcoming opportunities to see the “Celebrating Black Excellence” program. On Feb. 24, the full program will run at City Winery, where attendees can order brunch while they enjoy the music. On Feb. 29, an abbreviated version of the program will be performed for free at the Cambridge Public Library.

This concert was designed for Black History Month, but Evelyn and Davis hope to see more Black composers included in opera and classical music lineups year-round.

“These composers wrote all this rich repertoire, and it never really got to the point of being known in the canon,” says Evelyn. “I hope some of the composers will stick with the audience. I hope this is kind of a spark.”

arts, Harlem Renaissance, Langston Hughes, music, Opera on Tap, poetry