April 2, 2016 (Washington, DC)
Tom Cipullo (b.1956-)
Tom Cipullo (b.1956-)
Sung in English with English supertitles
Opera Running Time: 35 MINUTES | Ballet Running Time: 25 MINUTES (no intermission)
Tom Cipullo’s composition is for solo soprano, with a chamber group of just five instruments: flute, clarinet, violin, cello, and piano – an orchestration that the composer has said was a choice of simple pragmatism. Yet, with this sparest of canvases, Cipullo paints a vivid picture of a life lived on a grand scale.
In this extended, single scene opera, we learn about the performer’s life from her own lips — and often in her own words. Cipullo’s libretto liberally quotes from public remarks and interviews, in an effort to portray its central figure with unflinching truth. The ultimate effect is the likeness of an icon whose own life was a study in contradictions: often turbulent even as it was triumphant.
We find Josephine Baker backstage before a rehearsal for her final stage performance. Ever the coy and flirtatious diva, she welcomes an interviewer into her private dressing room for an interview — dropping names of celebrities and luminaries with whom she’s rubbed shoulders: an eager author of her own mystique.
In a clever narrative convention, we the audience play the stand-in for her questioner: the eager press writing on behalf of her adoring public. Baker addresses her interrogator directly, in response to implied (but silent) questions. As such, we are invited into the opera as participants as much as observers — tacitly asking for, and receiving, her story.
She sings of the secret to her success (“change!”), likening her many reinventions to so many costume changes in one of her fanciful revues. By the time this imagined interview would take place in 1975, Josephine Baker had indeed cycled through an astonishing number of identities: impoverished housemaid in St. Louis, vaudeville dancer, Broadway star, singer, Parisian It-Girl, movie star, World War II spy, Civil Rights activist, mother.
She frequently refers, with fondness and frustration, to her signature number J’ai Deux Amours, which translates to “I have two loves” — overtly about the two nations of America and France [but also thought perhaps to be a winking reference to Baker’s known bisexuality].
As the interview progresses, punctuated by occasional interruptions from a beleaguered Stage Manager futilely summoning Baker to rehearsal, she begins to delve into more sobering topics of colorism and racism. Baker describes her “Rainbow Tribe”: her twelve adopted children of various races, ethnicities, and countries of origin. The libretto takes an ambiguous stance on whether there is any hint of artifice in this very public-facing spectacle of familial interracial harmony. As in real life, Baker recounts her wish — but ultimate inability — to adopt an Israeli child in order to further diversify the group.
However, at the mere suggestion of exploitation, the opera’s Baker turns chilly. Initially professing herself an avid admirer of the writer interviewing her, once the questioning becomes mildly confrontational, she claims to have never heard of the writer’s publication.
Shaking off this moment, she continues by telling her own origin story, which itself requires a degree of mythologizing (including her unknown paternity). From humble beginnings in St. Louis, Baker ascended to the heights of fame in Paris, where she found relative refuge from racist barriers to success. Still, her fame and fortune did little to shield her from the ugly experiences of American racism. She recalls being denied service at Manhattan’s most exclusive hotel on the basis of her race — her by-then global renown notwithstanding.
In the opera’s rawest moments, Baker recounts witnessing the East St. Louis riots (1917), a racial massacre in which — precipitated by rising fears of Black workers usurping jobs and undercutting unionized wages — large groups of white men targeted the Black neighborhood of East St. Louis, leaving an unknown number dead, and rendering thousands homeless via arson. Like Josephine and her mother, many sought refuge across the river in St. Louis via the Eads Bridge. This brutal event is often cited as a formative experience in Baker’s early life at the age of eleven.
The opera concludes with an excerpt of Josephine Baker’s speech at the 1963 March on Washington. She was one of one of two women to speak at the event and as heard here, passionately wishes to be seen merely as a person: as herself, in her singularity and totality.
In a fitting tribute to Baker’s multi-hyphenate status, this piece is paired with a dance premiere by the Marigny Opera ballet with choreography inspired by Baker’s work.