An opera lost … and found

During an epoch of intense labor organizing in the late 1930s, two giants of the Harlem Renaissance, jazz pianist and composer James P. Johnson and poet/novelist Langston Hughes, collaborated on the creation of a one-act opera, “De Organizer.”

A blues opera about organizing sharecroppers, “De Organizer” was performed once at Carnegie Hall in New York City in 1940 during a convention of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. And then it disappeared.

Now, working from a rediscovered partial score, music Prof. James Dapogny has restored the one-act opera, and it will be performed Dec. 3 at Detroit’s Orchestra Hall and Dec. 11 in Ann Arbor at the Power Center.

Dapogny, a composer, jazz pianist, scholar and leader of his own Chicago Jazz Band, was long familiar with Johnson … known as the “father of the stride piano” … and with the existence of his missing opera. The libretto, however, had survived in Hughes’ papers. Dapogny began searching for the music in 1989 while he was head of the American Music Institute. “I called people who knew the whole story and I heard the same message over and over. ‘Forget about it. Everyone’s looked for it. It’s gone,'” Dapogny says. The sense of loss was deepened by the quality of the sole surviving piece, “Hungry Blues,” a distinctive lament about the intersection of race and poverty.

But in 1997, Dapogny chanced on a partial score of the opera right on the U-M campus, materials that even Johnson’s heirs were unaware existed.

The score was among papers given years before to the University’s Black Music Student Association by Eva Jessye, a professional choral director who had prepared the chorus for the original performance of “Porgy and Bess.” As Dapogny examined the pages in the African American Music Collection, he found notes indicating that Jessye, also the choral director for the single performance of “De Organizer,” probably had used this very copy in her work.

Supported by a grant from the U-M Institute for the Humanities, Dapogny spent the academic year 1999–2000 creating the basics of a restoration that is authentic and faithful to Johnson’s style.

“It has been my method and goal to be faithful to Johnson’s work,” Dapogny says. “Whenever Johnson’s material remained, I used it. And whenever his intentions were clear, I carried them out.”

The score he unearthed contained only the sung notes without accompaniment, and in that state it was not performable. But it provided the structure and sequence of the work, and was supplemented by sketches and notes held by the jazz legend’s grandson, Barry Glover Jr., executive director of the James P. Johnson Foundation. Johnson’s papers yielded sketches for about a quarter of the opera, additional material that helped Dapogny compose the missing instrumental music and orchestrate it. He also unraveled a series of conflicting clues about the makeup of the orchestra, eventually discovering in Johnson’s notes specifications of a 45-piece orchestraessentially a jazz band within an orchestra.

“Part of this project has been detective work, finding out everything I have been able to about the composer’s intentions, and part is the technical work of composing the missing music, carrying out those intentions,” Dapogny says.

“The music ranges in style from a near-folk style to jazz,” Dapogny says. “The chorus is the main character, with the principal solo roles being a woman, the organizer’s woman, an old woman, Brother Dosher, Brother Bates, the organizer and the overseer.”

The Detroit performance is 8 p.m. Dec. 3 in Orchestra Hall. Tickets are free and available only from the Orchestra Hall ticket office. The U-M performance is 8 p.m. Dec. 11 at the Power Center. Tickets are not required.


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