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Afrofuturist opera `Lalovavi’ to premiere in Cincinnati on Juneteenth 2025

The Cincinnati Opera will present an Afrofuturist-themed production next year that commemorates the Juneteenth holiday and would mark the first of three commissions from the company to all-Black creative teams.

“Lalovavi” is composed by Kevin Day with Tifara Brown writing the libretto and Kimille Howard set to direct the staging at Cincinnati Music Hall, the company said Thursday in announcing the opening presentation of its Black Opera Project. It will premiere on June 19, 2025.

“Lalovavi” means “love” in the Tut language created by enslaved Black Americans, and the three-act work is set in the year 2119. Discussions began in 2019 when Morris Robinson, a noted bass opera singer, starred in the Cincinnati Opera’s production of “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess” and told company artistic director Evans Mirageas there were not any operas reflecting Black American culture.

“It was about the same time that `Black Panther’ had come out and I started comparing,” said Robinson, who is Black American. “There’s got to be a better way to present us on stage than what we’re seeing now. This can’t be it.”

Mirageas, a former recording executive who has been the Cincinnati Opera’s artistic head since 2005, convened a meeting a few days later that included soprano Janai Brugger and Indra Thomas, who also were in the “Porgy” cast. Mirageas committed to creating an opera on Black joy with a Black composer, librettist and director. Black joy is a term used to highlight acts and experiences of joy in its culture.

The opera company had a relationship with the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which had helped fund a series of chamber operas and pitched the idea of a Black operas commission to Susan Feder, then the foundation’s program officer for arts and culture. A $1.3 million grant was announced in February 2022 that included $750,000 for three Black operas.

Robinson performed with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra on July 4, 2021, in a program that included Day’s “Lightspeed — Fanfare for Orchestra,” and he contacted Day on Instagram a few days later to ask whether he would be interested in composing an opera.

Day, who writes works rooted in contemporary classical and jazz upbringings, responded within a half hour asking if they could have a conversation. He asked to be paired with Brown, whom he met when she spoke in 2021 at her alma mater, the University of Georgia. Mirageas was impressed when he read Brown’s poem collection “Honeysuckle” and added her to the team.

The pair didn’t immediately come up with the idea for “Lalovavi.” Day and Brown discarded their first two ideas — a teenager with a family from the South readying for high school graduation and two brothers during the coronavirus pandemic — before settling last year on Afrofuturism at the spark of a comment by Howard, who is their dramaturg, or opera expert.

To prepare, Brown read Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa’s libretti for Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” and “La Bohème,” and Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy’s text for Bizet’s “Carmen.”

She chose the story’s setting in the year 2119 because she wanted to push the action a century into the future and incorporate the date of Juneteenth. Her story follows Persephone — the name taken from the daughter of Zeus and Demeter in Greek mythology — and her search for a gene needed for immortality and uncovering a hidden past. There are warriors and beasts in the work, which is primarily in English with some Tut.

“My Persephone has to run, so she is not taken against her will,” Brown said. ”She gets wind that if she does not move, that she will be taken, and so she has to make the choice — a split-second decision — whether to allow this to happen or give herself a chance at freedom and agency over her own life.”

Day took the libretto with him and composed it on a Steinway baby grand piano at MacDowell, the artists’ residency program in Peterborough, New Hampshire, where he had a fellowship. He completed the piano-vocal score in December.

“It was a chance to really get off of the internet and disconnect from the world and have my own little cabin to work in day and night,” he said.

The company’s second opera in the project will focus on the life of U.S. Rep. John Lewis, a civil rights icon who died in 2020 after serving more than three decades in Congress. It is aimed to debut in 2026 with composer Maria Thompson Corley collaborating with librettist Diana Solomon-Glover and director Timothy Douglas.

Robinson said he hopes the new creations will provide a different audience experience.

“I love `Porgy and Bess’ — has great music, and it’s a great story and it’s done a lot for the African-American community as far as giving us chances to perform,” he said. “There’s performers that have sent their kids to college and paid their mortgage off of that thing for years. But also in the first 10 minutes, there’s alcoholism, drugism, there’s police violence, there’s a murder.”

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