An obscure and fascinating chapter of African-American history came vibrantly to life Saturday night, along with an obscure and fascinating example of 19th-century entertainment.
This dual exploration of the past was a result of an ambitious venture by the Music Center at Strathmore, which moved from its usual presenter mode into producer status with Free to Sing: The Story of the First African-American Opera Company.
Such a hefty title might arouse suspicions of stuffiness, but this sold-out multimedia presentation steered clear of a lecture-y tone.
On the first part of the program, a brisk narration, interspersed with musical selections, laid out the basic information about how a Catholic church choir in downtown Washington grew into the city's first opera company and the nation's first black opera company.
The rest of the evening was devoted to a concert version of the piece that this remarkable troupe performed to positive notices in D.C. and Philadelphia in 1873 -- The Doctor of Alcantara by German-born violinist and composer Julius Eichberg.
A few years before the start of the Civil War, Blessed Martin de Porres Chapel was established for free black Catholics. Later named St. Augustine's, the church developed a reputation for musical, as well as spiritual, assets, thanks to a gifted church choir. In 1868, John Esputa, a former Marine Band member and teacher of John Philip Sousa, was appointed the ensemble's director.
Esputa heard the potential in his singers to move outside the realm of sacred music, and, in 1869, helped create a showcase for them, the Colored American Opera Company. Soloists included a former slave who did sewing for Mary Todd Lincoln.
Although the company apparently folded soon after its successful performances of the Eichberg operetta, it raised enough money to start building a new church and school for St. Augustine's.
To illustrate the quality of Esputa's chorus Saturday, Free to Sing had the luxury of the Morgan State University Choir. The group, led by Eric Conway, demonstrated its customary polish and personality in spirituals, an excerpt from a Haydn Mass, and, most intriguingly, sacred works by Esputa and Sousa (his Te Deum, possibly written for the St. Augustine's choir, revealed a slight hint of "The March King").
The main event, though, was The Doctor of Alcantara, given such a breezy, enthusiastic performance that it was easy to understand why the work was once a favorite of American audiences.
Eichberg, who founded the Boston Conservatory of Music in 1867 (at his death in 1893, The New York Times called him "one of the greatest violin teachers in this country"), seems to have possessed an exceptional flair for melody. Much of Alcantara could be mistaken for something by Jacques Offenbach or even a young Johann Strauss, with lots of dancing rhythms and witty turns of phrase.
The plot involves typical operetta ingredients, including a pair of lovers temporarily thwarted, ultimately joined.
Although spoken dialogue was dispensed with here, noted actor David Emerson Toney did useful narrator duty with theatrical aplomb and also gamely sang a couple of small parts.
Awet Andemicael soared sweetly as Isabella. Carmen Balthrop offered exceptionally charming, stylish singing as the mother, Lucrezia. Millicent Scarlett romped through the role of the maid, Inez, with a juicy tone. Kenneth Gayle, as Isabella's intended, Carlos, sculpted his ballads sensitively. Gylchris Sprauve needed more tonal weight for the title role but revealed comic flair.
Despite the limitations of a concert format, director Scot Reese succeeded in generating plenty of engaging action from the cast.
Although the choral part in the operetta is small, the Morgan singers made each contribution count. The orchestra of the Post-Classical Ensemble played with an admirable sheen. Conductor Angel Gil-Ordonez brought to the score delightful rhythmic flexibility and lyrical nuance.
It was a thoroughly persuasive, classy performance that paid fitting tribute to the forgotten Eichberg and the little-known ensemble of black singers that made its bold mark with his music more than a century ago.