When composer Daniel Roumain was commissioned to create an original work for “Greenwood Overcomes,” a celebration led by the Tulsa Opera to recognize the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre, I’m sure he never thought one lyric would be enough to lose him the commission. Unfortunately, it was.
As Vulture reports, Roumain composed an aria inspired by the horrific details of the massacre titled They Still Want to Kill Us, with the last two lines reading: “God bless America/God damn America.” But when mezzo-soprano singer Denyce Graves, who was set to perform the aforementioned song, expressed concerns over those lines—Tulsa Opera asked Roumain if he would consider changing the lyrics. He said no, and now, both Roumain and his work are now no longer a part of the celebration.
“@TulsaOpera just DEcommissioned me,” Roumain wrote in a tweet. “I was asked to create a new work for them. I composed the words and music for a new aria, and the last 2 lines are, “God Bless America; God Damn America!” They asked me to omit “Damn”. I refused. They fired me. Life in Black America.”
In response to his tweet, Tulsa Opera put out a statement on their website in an effort to shed more light on what actually led to his firing. The official statement in full via Tulsa Opera:
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.
The statement added: “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.’”
However, during a recent interview with OperaWire, Roumain revealed it was more than just Graves’ discomfort with the lyrics that played a role in his refusal to change the lyrics and subsequent firing. In an email exchange between himself and Picker, who happens to be white, Roumain was told that “some of the text shoots itself in its own foot” and that repeating “God Bless America” twice instead would be “more poignant than the original and also makes your point in a more elegant way.”
Further explaining his refusal to change the lyrics, Roumain told OperaWire: “For me, the point being made is the hypocrisy of our country committing countless atrocities, time and again, in the name of country and under God. Indeed, many BIPOC humans in America have been treated in an inhumane manner, and it’s clear Picker cannot and will not ever be able to understand this and speak for us.” He added:
“The Tulsa Opera has revealed why the operatic field continues to be seen as racist and divisive. When a Black composer must endure the intrusions of a white composer—within a work and a festival built around the death and artistry of Black people—but insists on his words and his way, what are we to think and do? I say we don’t bend, or break, or subject ourselves to their ideas. The opera world is full of white stories and perspectives. This is the time for Black stories and our experiences to be on our stages. I also wanted to add that I don’t think asking a white man to be the Artistic Director around an event honoring the murder of hundreds of Black men, women, and children—by a mob of white men—was the right choice. There are so many exceptional BIPOC people in our field who could have handled this type of emotional program with more dignity and respect. When these types of poor administrative choices happen, they often times lead to these types of artistic and moral dilemmas.”
Roumain will still attend the event in support of the other Black creatives who are a part of the celebration and is planning to develop They Still Want to Kill Us into a pocket opera and short film. He’s also created a website where folks can download the entire score for whatever fee they can afford with a portion of the proceeds going towards Black, Indigenous, and people of color opera artists.