From Church to Stage: Black Opera Company Was The City's First
Saturday, February 24, 2007
The first opera company in Washington was organized in the 1870s by African Americans.
The long-forgotten story of the Colored American Opera Company is being unearthed by a network of scholars, musicians and archivists led by the Music Center at Strathmore. The effort is to culminate next February in a program at Strathmore of the company's music called "Free to Sing: The Story of the First African-American Opera Company."
At the center of the story is St. Augustine Roman Catholic Church and its predecessor, the parish of Blessed Martin de Porres.
Blessed Martin's chapel was founded in 1858, and drew members from the burgeoning black middle class. In 1862, parishioner George Coakley, an oyster supplier, got permission from President Abraham Lincoln to have the church's Fourth of July picnic next to the White House. (The event raised $1,000 for the Blessed Martin's school.)
By 1866, it had established a flourishing music program.
"They were self-sufficient, literate people who knew music," says Dena Grant, an archivist for St. Augustine's and a literature specialist at the Library of Congress. "We forget there were black people who knew classical music."
Birth of an Opera
Where the idea for an opera company came from is not entirely clear, but the group was organized by a barber, William T. Benjamin. The opera company came together in 1873 with John Esputa, a well-known white teacher, as its director.
He had worked with St. Augustine's since 1868, according to a church history written by Morris J. MacGregor in 1999. How the partnership happened is not entirely clear.
"What it looks like is that he lived in the Navy Yard neighborhood, and the parish priest at [the nearby] St. Peter's Catholic Church was the Rev. Felix Barotti. He became the priest at Blessed Martin's, and recruited Esputa as the music director," says Patrick Warfield, visiting assistant professor of music at Georgetown University.
Esputa had been an apprentice of the U.S. Marine Band, where his father played, and then joined the band himself. He and his father ran a music school near the Marine Barracks, and John Philip Sousa was one of their students. About the time Esputa began working with the black church, he became a music teacher for the Washington Colored Schools.
The parish choir, according to the MacGregor history, sang Haydn and Mozart at well-attended performances chronicled by the daily newspapers, as well as the Catholic Mirror. "On Easter Sunday in 1873, for example, the choir performed Haydn's 'Solemn Mass in Honor of the Blessed Virgin' and Antonio Diabelli's 'Gaudeamus' accompanied by a small orchestra of trumpets, horns and strings," wrote MacGregor.
By 1873, the opera company was a distinct part of the church's music program. In addition to Benjamin, who was a baritone, singers included Mary A.C. Coakley, a contralto and a former slave who sewed for first lady Mary Todd Lincoln; George Jackson, a baritone who fought in the Civil War; soprano Agnes Gray Smallwood; contralto Lena Miller; bass Thomas H. Williams and tenors Henry F. Grant and Richard Tompkins.