Opera Tells How Georgia Racism Backfired
Thursday, April 19, 2007; 3:01 PM
STATESBORO, Ga. -- At the end of Act One, the tenor wearing a white suit and trademark red suspenders clutches his fat cigar in a smoldering rage.
"I'm not gonna put up with any social equality in this state as long as I'm governor," he sings in a dark, resonant voice. "We don't need no Negroes and white people taught together."
The segregationist Gov. Eugene Talmadge, still one of Georgia's most theatrical political figures 60 years after his death, is taking center stage again _ this time as the villain in an opera.
"A Scholar Under Siege," composed by Georgia Southern University music professor Michael Braz, tells the true story of how Talmadge in 1941 fired the college's president amid suspicions that he supported integrating the school.
The opera, which opens on campus Friday and runs through the weekend, was written for the university's 100th anniversary celebration this year.
"I'm not an opera fanatic, but to me opera is not a bad way to tell a story," Braz said. "Some of the characters in question were so operatic themselves, so flamboyant. Talmadge could range from being suave and debonair to absolutely manic and prone to rage."
Talmadge ruled Georgia politics in the 1930s and early 1940s with a style that mixed profanity-laced stump speeches, pocketbook populism and unabashed racism. He typified the Southern demagogue long before it could be stereotyped.
But Talmadge's racist politics backfired on the three-term governor in 1941 when he orchestrated the firings of Marvin Pittman, president of Georgia Teachers College, which later became Georgia Southern, along with Walter Cocking, dean of education at the University of Georgia.
The firings caused Georgia's 10 white colleges to lose their accreditation _ making their degrees practically worthless. Outraged voters ousted Talmadge when he sought re-election in 1942.
Braz dug into history books, biographies, magazines and newspapers to research his opera. All but one of the 23 singing roles are real people _ from Atlanta Constitution editor Ralph McGill to Mose Bass, a black custodian at the Statesboro college.
The libretto contains many actual quotations from the characters, with a major exception. The composer axed the "N-word," though the real Talmadge never hesitated to speak it.
"I don't use it and I'm offended by it," Braz said. "And I felt that it's a cheap way of getting publicity."