Evaluation | An impresaria rediscovered in ‘The Ardour of Mary Caldwell Dawson’

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The very best elements of “The Ardour of Mary Caldwell Dawson” — introduced Friday on the Kennedy Heart Terrace Theater by Washington Nationwide Opera — are when the strains blur between its topic and its star, mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves.

Graves could also be a much more acquainted identify than her titular character on this “play with music,” created by Kennedy Heart composer-in-residence Carlos Simon and playwright Sandra Seaton, however Dawson’s time within the highlight is lengthy overdue.

Mary Lucinda Cardwell Dawson was a singer, pianist, educator and founder-director of the Nationwide Negro Opera Firm, which was lively between 1941 and 1961. Born in 1894 in North Carolina, raised in Pittsburgh and educated at New England Conservatory of Music, Dawson’s life with intertwined with music and fully invested within the push to make room on the stage for Black artists.

She established the Cardwell Dawson Faculty of Music and the Nationwide Opera Home upstairs from her husband Walter’s electrical firm of their Pittsburgh dwelling — the Queen Anne-style mansion at 7101 Apple St., now the topic of an in depth preservation effort. The corporate staged bold productions of works like “Aida” and “La Traviata” in Chicago, Pittsburgh, New York and Washington (on the out of doors Watergate Floating Stage)

She additionally based the Cardwell Dawson Choir, mentored dozens of younger Black singers and championed the staging of works by Black composers, together with R. Nathaniel Dett’s 1932 oratorio “The Ordering of Moses” and Clarence Cameron White’s “Ouanga.”

Singers like Robert McFerrin, Camilla Williams, La Julia Rhea, Lillian Evanti, Minto Cato, Muriel Rahn, William Franklin, Joseph Lipscomb and Napoleon Reed all contributed to the corporate’s 20-year run and still-unmeasured legacy. (And, although they have been an impartial group, Dawson’s firm technically counts as the primary to current work by a Black composer on the Metropolitan Opera stage.)

President John F. Kennedy appointed Dawson to the Nationwide Music Committee in 1961, a yr earlier than her dying from a coronary heart assault.

“The Ardour of Mary Caldwell Dawson,” which repeats twice on Sunday, is an try to deal with the obvious omission of Dawson’s contributions from the annals of American opera historical past. Together with “Constructing the Stage,” a companion exhibit of photographs and costumes from the corporate on view within the Corridor of States till Feb. 1, the “play with music” tries to fill in some historic blanks whereas infusing the story with sufficient music to maintain the present from turning into a didactic diorama.

For probably the most half, it succeeds. Set in a sparsely appointed D.C. rehearsal studio outfitted with a piano (the place pianist-organist Marvin Mills held clean, skillful courtroom), Dawson and a trio of her proteges put together a manufacturing of “Carmen” — certain by contract and threatened by an impending thunderstorm. Determined to stage the efficiency however staunchly against accepting a neighborhood corridor’s provide to accommodate the corporate with “coloured” seating, Dawson toggles between pissed off soliloquies, one-sided phone calls and (the actual deal with) singing classes.

Graves first performed the position of Dawson when the preliminary iteration of the present premiered on the 2021 Glimmerglass Competition in New York. Dawson’s story was the impetus behind the launch of the Denyce Graves Basis, devoted to “championing the hidden musical figures of the previous whereas uplifting younger artists of world-class expertise from all backgrounds.”

As a member of the voice school of the Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins College, Graves effortlessly adopts the proverbial tenor of a trainer onstage — reprimanding her Don Jose (tenor Jonathan Pierce Rhodes) on his inadequate innocence with just a little slap, chanting “tempo! tempo! tempo” as soprano Amber R. Monroe’s Isabelle works by way of an aria. All three college students earn excessive marks, however soprano Taylor-Alexis Dupont is very superb as Dawson’s “Carmen”-in-training, Phoebe: her voice fantastically wealthy and spirited, well-suited to the duty of singing a singer studying to sing.

Musically, the present has the simple, casual delight of a cabaret, shifting breezily between spoken stretches and arias from “Carmen” — We hear “Parle-moi de ma mere,” the “Seguidilla,” “La fleur que tu m’avais jetee” and, after all, the “Habanera” — every enhanced by a sure meta-charm. (It’s unimaginable to not see Graves’s Dawson flip proper again to Graves when she’s displaying her college students the way it’s completed.)

Simon’s unique music lends an extra emotional luster — Mills’s lonely piano hints at Debussian interludes within the opening “Divided Soul.” And Seaton’s textual content finds potent echoes to string by way of Simon’s music — poetically capturing Dawson’s ambition, grit and style. Their nearer “She Steps Onto a Floating Stage” is very lovely, and left me questioning how a lot richer a realization this may be with the incorporation of a chamber orchestra.

However as with Dawson and her college students, there’s a lot of room for progress right here. Director Kimille Howard skillfully wrangles focus and lends a mythic high quality to Dawson’s spartan studio, however there are frequent useless zones and some too many loops and lapses within the script.

Unexplored are the tales of any of Dawson’s college students, whose frustrations appear solely (and unconvincingly) confined to the studio. A lot of Graves’s dialogue is suffocatingly expository — a mandatory method when there’s a lot ‘splainin to do, however one that may really feel perilously animatronic. And there wasn’t a lot subtlety to the stakes: “The live performance has acquired to go on!” Graves laments because the sky darkens over the stage, “Or the Nationwide Negro Opera Firm will stop to exist!”

Nonetheless, on this “play with music,” the relative dryness of the dialogue maybe inadvertently makes the musical departures that rather more refreshing. If future iterations of “The Ardour of Mary Caldwell Dawson” can devise methods to extra seamlessly incorporate the historic significance of this unfairly forgotten queen of American opera with the wonder and immediacy of the music to which she devoted her life, we might have a breakthrough work on our palms.

For now, it’s no small deal with to pay attention and be taught as this present finds its voice.

“The Ardour of Mary Caldwell Dawson” repeats on the Kennedy Heart’s Terrace Theater on Sunday at 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. www.kennedy-center.org.

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