Soon a major film.
No, not the production Minnesota Opera will premiere on Saturday as it returns to live performances at the Ordway Music Theater after two years. We talk about the fascinating life of the composer who created this opera, Joseph Bologne, alias “Le Chevalier de St.-Georges”.
Born the son of a slave on a Caribbean island, he became one of the most famous French citizens of the second half of the 18th century. He was a master swordsman, a brilliant musician and a figure in the French Revolution.
It’s his musicianship that brings Bologna our way this week, as Minnesota Opera presents its only surviving complete opera, “The Anonymous Lover.” It is a romantic comedy with a plot that fits well with Bologna’s bright and lively musical style, which has much in common with his contemporaries Mozart and Joseph Haydn, both of whom he knew.
But please don’t call him “the black Mozart”, as some writers have done. For one thing, Bologna was far more popular and successful during his lifetime than Mozart was, though his fame stemmed far more from his talents as a violinist and musical director (and fencer) than as a composer.
Alas, his music mostly faded away until a recent resurgence of interest from classical music broadcasters seeking to bring more racial equity to their programming.
“Musicologists, and the music world in general, ignored Joseph Bologna until the riots that followed the murder of George Floyd,” said Karen Painter, professor of music at the University of Minnesota. “To this day, most of what you find about Bologna is from amateur fans, not trained scholars. I hope universities and music schools across the country, including mine, rethink the way music history is taught. As academics correct the injustice of the past, perhaps we should call Mozart ‘White Bologna’.”
Hollywood could help spread the word — Disney-owned Searchlight Pictures is planning a movie with a screenplay by Stefani Robinson, Emmy-nominated writer/producer for “Atlanta” and “What We Do in the Shadows.” The director is Stephen Williams, known for his work on the “Watchmen”, “The Walking Dead” and “Westworld” series.
And what a story they have to tell. It could be a swordsman full of wondrous music, sword fights, cameos from major historical figures, conflicts rooted in racial tensions, political intrigue, and revolution.
It could start on the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe, the French colony where Bologna was born, his father a wealthy white landowner, his mother a Senegal-born slave. But soon we would leave for France, where Joseph and his mother moved with his father, George Bologna, as well as the wife and the eldest daughter of Bologna the eldest.
It was certainly an atypical arrangement for 1759, especially when young Joseph was enrolled in the schools favored by the aristocracy.
Joseph Bologne maintained that he was born on Christmas Day 1748, so he was only 10 years old when he arrived in France. Still, his fencing skills were already obviously something to write home about. In fact, some of his classmates did, leaving their admiration on the historical record.
Although it is not known who introduced him to the violin, it would have been natural, with prominent French composers writing concertos for him at the age of 16.
At the age of 20, he was solo violin (or first violin) of the Concert des Amateurs, an orchestra known for its musical know-how and its enormity: its 76 musicians including 40 violinists. At 24, Bologna became its musical director, adding conducting to his vast skills. He introduced the Parisian public to Haydn’s symphonies and probably crossed paths with Mozart, who was living in Paris in 1778.
“We’ve played both of his symphonies now, and we especially enjoyed playing the second earlier this season,” said Kyu-Young Kim, violinist and artistic director of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. “It’s sparkling and charming, and we had fun imagining what a virtuoso like Bologna must have done to embellish the slow movement.
“It is clear from his violin concertos and duets that he was a tremendous violinist and a charismatic performer, and it is no wonder that he won the respect and admiration of Mozart and Haydn during their trips to Paris.
Bologna’s next career step could have been artistic director of the Royal Academy of Music at the Paris Opera, but two of the company’s star sopranos torpedoed her candidacy, saying they would refuse to work for a “mulatto “. But he found his place in opera as a composer. His first, “Ernestine”, ended after one performance, but “The Anonymous Lover” found some success a year later.
In 1781 he founded an even larger Parisian orchestra, the Concert de la Loge Olympique, an ensemble known not only for its exceptional playing but its flamboyant attire, the musicians festooned in bright blue lace-ruffled coats, swords akimbo . The queen, Marie Antoinette, was a huge fan, even enlisting Bologna for music lessons.
It was with this group that Bologna strengthened its ties with Haydn, visited the composer in Austria and commissioned the six “Parisian” symphonies that the Bologna orchestra premiered.
A visit to England in the late 1780s may have helped spark an interest in progressive politics, as Bologna almost certainly encountered abolitionists eager to end slavery. Upon his return to France, he was intrigued by the rallying cry of the French Revolution “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité”, especially the equality part, and he offered his services to the Revolutionary Army.
But his idealism seems to have faded in the face of segregation within the army. As a colonel, he was the commander of a corps composed entirely of colored men. And the bloodlust of the new French government obviously did not suit him. Soon he was denounced for “non-revolutionary behavior”, relieved of his command and imprisoned for 18 months, somehow avoiding the guillotine.
Upon his release, his disillusionment grew on a return trip to the Caribbean of his youth. The island of Santo Domingo – today the home of Haiti and the Dominican Republic – was embroiled in a civil war centered on the issue of the reintroduction of slavery. His return to France made music much lower profile than his career peak, mainly small provincial chamber music tours. He contracted a bladder disease and died in 1799 at the age of 50.
“Bologna’s music is beautiful,” said Lee Bynum, Minnesota Opera’s vice president of impact. “‘The Anonymous Lover’ gives Minnesota Opera the opportunity to present the work of a black composer that is imbued with joy, which the public has longed for.”
Hopefully the opera is as intriguing as the life of the man who wrote it.
“The Anonymous Lover”
Which: Composed by Joseph Bologna. Driven by Christopher Franklin. Directed by Maria Todaro.
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, February 10 and 12; 2 p.m. Feb. 13.
Or: Ordway Music Theatre, 345 Washington St., St. Paul.
Tickets: $25 to $225, 612-333-6669 or mnopera.org
Rob Hubbard is a classical music writer from Twin Cities. [email protected]