New grant to help Cincinnati Opera debut more Black stories

CINCINNATI – Morris Robinson has a booming voice on and off the stage. 

A renowned opera singer, Robinson’s distinct bass voice has earned him featured roles on some of the world’s biggest stages – The Metropolitan Opera at New York’s Carnegie Hall; La Scala in Milan, Italy; the Sydney Opera House in Australia; and many others.

What You Need To Know

  • Opera singer Morris Robinson has long advocated for their to be more Black stories told on stage
  • A new $1.3 million grant will help Cincinnati Opera do just that 
  • The opera company plans to commission three new works over the next few years in addition to other new works planned for this summer
  • The grant will also help fund young musical talent through a collaboration with the University of Cincinnati-Conservatory of Music

​The Atlanta native serves as artistic advisor for Cincinnati Opera, a role he’s held since 2017. He’s also appeared in several opera productions at Cincinnati Music Hall in recent years.

Back in 2019, he was performing with Cincinnati Opera in “Porgy and Bess.” Robinson, who is African American, played the eponymous character of Porgy, a role he debuted in Milan in 2016.

The Gershwins’ opera from the mid-1930s features a cast of classically trained African-American singers — a daring artistic choice at the time it appeared on Broadway in New York City.

Morris Robinson on the stage of Cincinnati Music Hall. (Provided: Cincinnati Opera/Philip Groshong)

To this day, it remains one of the most prominent operas featuring an all-Black cast and telling a uniquely Black story. But Robinson and others have long wanted to change that narrative.

During the local run of “Porgy and Bess,” Robinson recalls having a chat with castmates and Cincinnati Opera leadership following rehearsal for an upcoming show.

“(My fellow cast members and I) asked, ‘What would it take to develop more grand operas about Black people, written by Black people, that are positive and uplifting?’ It felt like a huge artistic opportunity,’” Robinson said.

Cincinnati Opera, the second-oldest opera company in the United States, has long been committed to supporting new works and new voices. The effort includes looking for ways to expand the diversity both onstage and off.

Those efforts took a step forward this week with the announcement of a $1.3 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

In its announcement, Cincinnati Opera said the funding will enable the commission of three new operas from “composers and/or librettists of color that focus on racially and ethnically diverse characters and narratives, with primary emphasis on Black stories.”

The projects will take time to commission, program and then stage.

The first work is scheduled to premiere during the 2025 Summer Festival. Cincinnati Opera said they’re looking to produce a “large-scale, grand opera for full cast and orchestra by a Black composer/librettist team.”

Cincinnati Opera said it wants to develop a work that presents a “positive and uplifting reflection of the Black American experience.”

Two additional operas are currently planned to premiere during the company’s 2026 and 2027 seasons, respectively. They plan to release more details in the future.

Evans Mirageas, Cincinnati Opera’s artistic director, said the company is in the process of identifying creators to develop its three new works.

“We’ve had several exploratory conversations and are also initiating a nationwide call for writers and composers of color to submit ideas for consideration,” he said. Inquiries may be submitted to [email protected]

For its upcoming 2022 Summer Festival, Cincinnati Opera will include two world-premiere operas from Black creators that focus on Black characters: 

  • “Castor and Patience,” by composer Gregory Spears with a libretto by former U.S. poet laureate Tracy K. Smith
  • “Fierce,” by composer William Menefield and librettist Sheila Williams

“Our industry is experiencing an urgent need to expand the narratives presented on our stages,” Mirageas added. “Through conversations with our artistic partners and community members, we’ve learned that there is a particular need for new operas that center on positive Black stories. We’re thrilled to be able to provide the creative space for these inspiring voices to be heard.”

Cincinnati Opera plans to use other elements of the Mellon Foundation gift to support the continuation of another program that aims to bring unique voices to the opera world – Opera Fusion: New Works. The nationally recognized partnership is a collaboration between Cincinnati Opera and the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music (CCM). 

Under the program, co-directed by Mirageas and CCM professor Robin Guarino, composers and librettists get to workshop their operas in progress. They’ll work with staff from both organizations as well as musicians, artistic talent and production personnel.

Since 2011, the program has produced workshops for 19 operas and many of these works have subsequently received their world premieres on professional stages across the U.S., including Cincinnati Opera, the Metropolitan Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Opera Theatre of St. Louis, and Minnesota Opera.

The current gift from the Mellon Foundation provides support for Opera Fusion through 2024, with the next workshop taking place in May 2022.

Stanley E. Romanstein, dean of CCM, said the program’s emphasis on the creation of new operas allows them to “tell bold stories from diverse perspectives and explore themes that are vitally important to contemporary audiences.” 

And it allows the next generation of composers, singers, musicians and artists to play an active role in the “evolution of the art form,” he added.

To learn more, visit cincinnatiopera.org.