Lucy Caplan GRD ’20 is both a musician and a scholar. Currently an American Studies doctoral candidate writing a dissertation on African-American opera in the early 20th century, Caplan studied history and literature, with a minor in music, at Harvard as an undergrad. She is now juggling writing the first chapter of her four-chapter dissertation, playing the viola in chamber music groups at Yale, and reviewing opera for publications. I met with her the morning after she attended a modern opera— for which she was to write a review—in Brooklyn.
Q: Can you talk a bit about your thesis?
A: I like to tell people that the project is looking at everything before Marian Anderson rose to fame in the 1930s. We often think of that as a starting point for black participation in this art form, but I am looking at a prehistory. I am looking at how performers navigate entering primarily white spaces. For instance, I am working on a chapter about the opera “Aida,” and the first black woman to sing that role. I am also looking at the critics, so the black press and how the arts critics treated the art form.
Q: How was the press coverage?
A: It was more substantial than I expected. For example the Chicago Defender, which was one of the biggest African-American newspapers, had a weekly column on classical music and opera. They would cover the Chicago Symphony, the Chicago Opera Company and also smaller African-American groups performing around the city. They had black female music critics in the 19th century, way earlier than we might expect to happen.
Q: So, how did you decide on this specific dissertation topic?
A: It actually came directly out of the archives and the primary source material that I found. When I was in my first year here I was working on a master’s project with Jonathan Holloway, who was my adviser at the time. I was reading about a writer name Pauline Hopkins, and one of the things she did was run a magazine called the Colored American Magazine. As I was reading, I found a guy who wrote a lot of articles on opera. Apparently, he was an unknown figure who started an opera company in New York in 1900 that performed major repertoire with a full African-American cast.
Q: Was African-American opera in any way different from how white opera was at the time?
A: First of all the institutional structure around it is different. Big companies like the MET would only hire white singers, composers and directors. They didn’t hire African-American singers until 1955. They had a lot of resources to put up the shows, because opera has many moving parts and is very expensive. So, black companies had to do with fewer institutional resources, which in some ways led to very innovative and interesting productions. They just had to be creative with what they had.
Q: What is one of the most interesting works you have encountered?
A: One of my favorite works is this opera called Tom-Tom, which was written by Shirley Graham. She became later known as an activist because she was married to W.E.B. Du Bois, but before that she wrote this opera that was produced in Cleveland. It was a narrative of black history from prehistoric Africa — as she calls it — though the 1920s. It hasn’t been produced since it premiered in 1933, but one of my dreams is to get it out there into the world. I want to do a production of it.
Q: Have you been involved with opera before?
A: Yes, when I was an undergrad at Harvard I was part of the undergraduate opera company. They were performed in a dining hall in one of the colleges, so we had to set up the stage and take it down every night. It was insane, but it was a bonding experience.
Q: Do you think opera today is better in terms of diversity?
A: A lot of the biggest and best funded institutions are lacking behind other art forms. For instance, the MET this year performed an opera by a woman for the second time in their history. The last one was over 100 years ago. But on the other hand, there are a lot of other, smaller companies doing much better. I was actually in New York last night watching a world premiere of one.
Q: One does not think of opera as something still being written …
A: I guess that is because of what big companies produce and how that influences the cultural imagination.
Q: Can you talk a little bit about your career as a music critic?
A: I attended the Rubin Institute in October in San Francisco. You do this reality-show type thing where you go to concerts together for four consecutive night, you write a review for the next morning and workshop it. I was very honored to win the Rubin Prize at the end of the institute, which gave me a lot of opportunities — such as a reviewing gig at San Francisco Classical Voice.
Q: What do you focus on when you write your reviews?
A: I try to make them not too technical — it doesn’t necessarily tell you much about the bigger cultural atmosphere things are taking place in. In choosing what to review, you can have a lot of influence — such as focusing on works that are not traditionally reviewed as much. I have been working with my editor to try to review works mostly by women and people of color.
Q: What is then the reason that mainstream opera feels so repetitive?
A: Especially because we have very little public arts funding, companies rely on private donors. So they don’t take risks, and people who don’t already listen to opera don’t understand why they should start because there isn’t anything new. So there is a vicious cycle of lack of innovation. So hopefully by reviewing works that are outside that box I can draw people’s attention to the fact that there’s a lot more happening.