Opera Philadelphia

Published2 Feb 2021

Countertenor John Holiday sings the world premiere of Tyshawn Sorey’s Save the Boys on the Opera Philadelphia Channel

Named one of February’s top concerts to stream by the New York Times, the performance debuts on Friday, Feb. 12

Galvanized by 2020’s protests against racism and police brutality, Opera Philadelphia Composer in Residence Tyshawn Sorey began writing new works for voice about race in America, to serve as an extension of, and in some ways a departure from, Cycles of My Being, his 2018 song cycle exploring the realities of life as a Black man in America today. He found inspiration in “Save the Boys,” an 1887 poem by abolitionist, writer, and Black women’s rights activist Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (1825-1911). Sorey’s 20-minute piece based on the poem, which he composed for renowned countertenor John Holiday and pianist Grant Loehnig, premieres on Friday, Feb. 12, on the Opera Philadelphia Channel, launching a series of four digital commissions set to debut on the channel in 2021.

Sorey says Harper’s text spoke to him in the wake of the increase of recent murders of Black men and women across the United States and serves as a testament to the ongoing plight of Black America. “‘Save the Boys’ was as relevant during the Reconstruction Era as it is during the present time,” Sorey says. “It reflects our daily life experiences as Black Americans and the day-to-day precarity in which we continue to live.”

“There are experiences that I have had, as a young African-American boy and as an adult, which speak directly to this text and the importance of saving our boys…saving our girls…saving our children,” Holiday said in a recent interview. “Because of those experiences, I would like to think that helps me to bring this poignant text to life.”

For Holiday, the world premiere marks a return to opera following an adventurous 2020 after COVID-19 shut down many of the world’s opera stages. Known to Philadelphia audiences for creating the role of John Blue in 2017’s hit world premiere We Shall Not Be Moved, the 35-year-old Texas native impressed television audiences worldwide as a member of John Legend’s team on NBC’s “The Voice,” reaching the finals while lending his incredible range to songs like Ella Fitzgerald’s “Misty,” Stevie Wonder’s “Summer Soft,” and Eric Carmen’s “All By Myself.”

Save the Boys is the first of four digital works commissioned for the Opera Philadelphia Channel in 2021. Additional commissions, composed by Courtney BryanAngélica Negrón, and Caroline Shaw, will premiere between February and April 2021. Each work will be available for seven-day rentals for $10 or unlimited on-demand viewing for $99 Season Pass holders through May 31, 2021. A four-work bundle is also available for $25. Visit operaphila.tv for details.

About the artists

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper
(1825-1911) was an abolitionist, suffragist, poet, teacher, public speaker, and writer. She was one of the first African American women to be published in the United States. Born free in Baltimore, Maryland, Harper had a long and prolific career, publishing her first book of poetry, Forest Leaves, in 1845 at the age of 20. The delivery of her public speech, "Education and the Elevation of the Colored Race," resulted in a two-year lecture tour for the Anti-Slavery Society. In 1895, she cofounded the National Association of Colored Women with Ida Wells-Barnett, Harriet Tubman, and several others. The organization sought to improve the lives and advance the rights of African American women. She died in Philadelphia in 1911 and was buried in Philadelphia’s Eden Cemetery, next to her daughter Mary.

Tyshawn Sorey is described as “a composer of radical and seemingly boundless ideas” (The Wall Street Journal). He began his residency with Opera Philadelphia in November 2019 and is currently Presidential Assistant Professor of Music at the University of Pennsylvania. He collaborated with lyricist Terrance Hayes on a song cycle for tenor Lawrence Brownlee, Cycles of My Being, which premiered at Opera Philadelphia in February 2018 and received its digital premiere in a new filmed performance on the Opera Philadelphia Channel in November 2020. Sorey has performed nationally and internationally with his own ensembles, as well as artists such as John Zorn, Vijay Iyer, Roscoe Mitchell, Muhal Richard Abrams, Wadada Leo Smith, Marilyn Crispell, George Lewis, Claire Chase, Steve Lehman, Jason Moran, Evan Parker, Anthony Braxton, and Myra Melford, among many others.

Countertenor John Holiday, winner of the 2017 Marian Anderson Vocal Award, made his Opera Philadelphia debut in the 2017 world premiere of We Shall Not Be Moved by Daniel Bernard Roumain and Marc Bamuthi Joseph, creating the role of John Blue to great critical and audience acclaim. He has quickly established himself as “one of the finest countertenors of his generation” (Los Angeles Times). His voice has been praised as “a thing of astonishing beauty” (New Yorker), “arrestingly powerful, secure and dramatically high” (Wall Street Journal), “exceptional [and] strong…even in its highest range” (The New York Times) and “timeless” (Washington Post).

Grant Loehnig collaborates with many of today’s most renowned musical artists as a pianist, vocal coach, and administrator. He serves as head of music staff at Opera Philadelphia and Wolf Trap Opera, where he is also the music director of the Studio Artist program. He works regularly as music staff for Lyric Opera of Chicago and master opera coach at the Curtis Institute of Music.

About the Opera Philadelphia Channel

The Opera Philadelphia Channel creates a digital space in which artists can perform and explore, through a series of new commissions by visionary composers and dynamic performances produced for the screen. Season subscriptions priced at $99 are offered along with pay-per-view rental options for individual performances. The channel is available for viewing on computers and mobile devices, and on TV screens via Chromecast and the Opera Philadelphia Channel app on AppleTV, Android TV, Roku, and Amazon FireTV.

The Opera Philadelphia Channel has been made possible by the Disosway Foundation, Inc., and by Wyncote Foundation at the recommendation of Frederick R. Haas and Rafael Gomez. Major Support has been provided by Ms. Robin Angly, Maureen Craig and Glenn Goldberg, Joel and Sharon Koppelman, and Ellen Steiner. Additional Support has been provided by Mr. Jeffrey P. Cunard and Ms. Mariko Ikehara, Katie Adams Schaeffer and Tony Schaeffer, the Howard and Sarah D. Solomon Foundation, and Laura A. Williamson.

For more information, visit operaphila.tv.

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