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Johnson: De Organizer (Excerpts); The Dreamy Kid (Excerpts)

Johnson: De Organizer (Excerpts); The Dreamy Kid (Excerpts)

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Learn more about these operas on the Naxos Classical Spotlight podcast!

James P. Johnson is renowned as the father of stride piano but he also flourished as a composer of opera and of show tunes in the 1920s and 1930s. The Dreamy Kid and De Organizer offer contrasting stories of African American life at that time, set to an eclectic and powerful mixture of jazz, swing, blues and ragtime. These two works were reconstructed by the renowned musicologist, composer and bandleader, James Dapogny, before his untimely death in 2019. The Dreamy Kid is a world premiere recording.

REVIEW:

Both works are one act operas. De Organizer is labelled a ‘Blues opera’ and is, moreover, a choral opera, where there is, apart from a few longer solo portions, constant dialogue between the chorus and individual solo voices. The story takes place on a plantation in the South in the 1930s, i.e. contemporaneous to when the opera was written. A group of Afro-American sharecroppers are waiting for a union organizer and his companion is handing out leaflets. De Organizer appears and explains the advantages of forming a union. Then the Overseer interferes, threatening, with a whip in hand, but the croppers overpower him and the union is formed.

The opera is compact, just over thirty minutes, and packed with drama. The music is permeated with jazz rhythms and blues feeling – it is really A Swingin’ Affair! OK, If I want to be pernickety, there is a great deal of over-vibrant solo singing and some wobbly choristers, but this is easy to wink at in view of their enthusiasm, conviction and vitality, and the chorus Plantin’, plowin’, hoein’! just a couple of minutes into the opera is very moving. Though the score is divided into numbers, it is performed continuously and the whole opera is only one track.

The Dreamy Kid is quite different. It is a chamber play with no chorus and only four characters, and structured more in the European tradition, but musically with an American twist. While the orchestra in De Organizer is a jazz combo, here we have a traditional symphony orchestra. Even though this also is a one-act-opera, it is a bit longer – by how much I don’t know, as we get only seven excerpts, and they amount to 34 minutes. The libretto is an adaptation of an existing play by O’Neill about an old Afro-American woman lying on her deathbed, and her grandson, Dreamy, who has killed a white man in a quarrel. The police are on his heels but he risks his life to visit his grandma, persisting in spite of the knowledge that they could turn up any time. This, too, is a tightly knit drama, but there are several good solo arias. In the first scene (track 2), Irene, Dreamy’s woman, has a long solo and further on Mammy sings a beautiful, tender song to Dreamy. There are also lots of highly dramatic quarrels, including one which turns into a love duet between Dreamy and Irene – though the police’s arrival at any moment is constant threat. I only wish the opera had been recorded complete.

It should be mentioned that both operas had been reconstructed by James Dapogny, who unfortunately didn’t live long enough to experience the issue of this CD, but was present at the recordings and the staged performances back in 2006. In the notes, he writes at length about his extensive restoration work, without which we wouldn’t have been able to hear this music and the world would have been much poorer.

So, dear reader, grab the opportunity and give this disc a listen. Whether you like it or not is less important than that you should be made to think about to what degree the world for African-Americans has since changed

-- MusicWeb International

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  • Release Specifications

    • Number of Discs: 1
    • Release Date:
    • Label: Naxos Regular CD
    • UPC/Barcode: 730099904179
    • Item Number: 8669041