The Lyric Opera of Chicago’s World Premiere of Amistad

Chicago History Museum

Cover of the Amistad Opera Program (November 1997) by Lyric Opera of ChicagoChicago History Museum

In late 1997, the renowned Lyric Opera of Chicago company debuted the very first opera of its kind—a work especially commissioned to retell the 1839 story of the slave ship, La Amistad, whose captives revolted and changed the course of history. In Chicago, the opera served as a catalyst for educational and community engagement with the difficult history of the global slave trade.

Silhouetted Scene of Capture in the Amistad Opera (November 1997) by Lyric Opera of ChicagoChicago History Museum

The story of the Amistad

The opera was based on an actual incident in the nation's history.

February 1839: capture and middle passage

In early 1839—many years after the international slave trade was banned—slave hunters abducted a large group of West Africans from the Mendeland region (modern day Sierra Leone). These 53 people—49 men, 1 boy, and 3 girls—were carted with 500 others across the Atlantic in the hull of a Portuguese slave ship to Havana, Cuba. They spent a month chained to one another in a space that was impossible to stand in—as many as one-third of the human cargo died on the trip.

Cinque Assumes Command of the Ship in the Amistad Opera (November 1997) by Lyric Opera of ChicagoChicago History Museum

July 1, 1839: revolt and command

In Havana, a group of Spanish slavers illegally purchased the 53 Mende slaves, falsifying documents about their birthplaces, and shackled them onboard La Amistad (Spanish for “friendship”). They set sail on June 28, 1839, for what was supposed to be a brief three-day trip along the coast of Cuba. On the final night of the voyage, Singbe Pieh, also known as Joseph Cinque, led a revolt and took command of the ship.

Navigator and Cinque struggle (November 1997) by Lyric Opera of ChicagoChicago History Museum

Cinque freed himself and the rest with a nail to pick the locks. They then armed themselves with machetes from the ship’s cargo, killed the captain and his cook, and ordered the two remaining Spaniards to sail in the direction whence they came, toward the rising sun, or east toward Africa.

US Naval Commander Seizes the Ship in the Amistad Opera (November 1997) by Lyric Opera of ChicagoChicago History Museum

August 26, 1839: captured, again

At night, when the sun could not help the Africans navigate, the Spaniards instead pointed the ship northward toward the United States. During the day, the Amistad snaked along the East Coast for months until it ran aground on Long Island, New York.

Two Captives on the Slave Ship in the Amistad Opera (November 1997) by Lyric Opera of ChicagoChicago History Museum

In the meantime, the story had spread to the nation’s papers and leaflets. In New England the ship and the now 43 Mende survivors were captured by the US Navy. It would be up to the US justice system to determine whether these captives were enslaved or free.

The captives held in a New Haven jail (November 1997) by Lyric Opera of ChicagoChicago History Museum

April 1841: return home after two years in American captivity

Once in US custody, the African captives were placed in a New Haven, Connecticut, jail. White gawkers could pay 12.5 cents to tour the jailhouse and see them in captivity. A media firestorm kicked up around these individuals, who were neither slave nor free.

Abolitionist Lewis Tappan and John Quincy Adams in the Amistad Opera (November 1997) by Lyric Opera of ChicagoChicago History Museum

Months of work by famous abolitionists, students, and former president John Quincy Adams led to a Supreme Court opinion that declared the survivors of La Amistad illegally traded and therefore free.

Three Captives Testify During the Amistad Opera (November 1997) by Lyric Opera of ChicagoChicago History Museum

Several of the captives were able to testify at their trial with the assistance of a black American translator on the horrors of the slave trade.

The captives after being freed (November 1997) by Lyric Opera of ChicagoChicago History Museum

Two years after their revolt, the 35 surviving Mende people finally returned home.

Rehearsing the Trial Scene of the Amistad Opera (September 1997) by Lyric Opera of ChicagoChicago History Museum

Building an opera from the ground up

How did the Lyric Opera of Chicago put all the necessary pieces together for Amistad's world premiere?

Commissioning and underwriting an opera’s development from idea to the stage takes years and many partners. Before Amistad, no major opera company had performed, let alone commissioned, a work with the African slave trade at its core.

Thulani Davis and Anthony Davis Working on the Amistad Opera (September 1997) by Lyric Opera of ChicagoChicago History Museum

Writing the opera

In 1991, Lyric Opera general director Ardis Krainik agreed to commission Amistad as one of three new operas in Lyric’s “Toward the 21st Century” artistic initiative. Composer Anthony Davis, on his fourth opera and known for incorporating jazz elements, had started writing the music in the early 1980s. Soon after the opera was commissioned, he brought his cousin Thulani Davis, a poet and novelist, onboard to write the text, or libretto.

Thulani would later comment to the Chicago Tribune, “I have never done a new work with this level of support from an arts institution and the larger community.”

Opening of the Second Scene of the Amistad Opera (November 1997) by Lyric Opera of ChicagoChicago History Museum

Researching the story

Throughout the early 1990s, Thulani Davis conducted archival research on the Amistad case at Tulane (home to the Amistad Research Center) and Yale Universities. She learned important but little known details about the circus-like atmosphere that surrounded the captives while they were in New England.

Captives paraded through New Haven (November 1997) by Lyric Opera of ChicagoChicago History Museum

Davis's research was the source of three key scenes in the opera in which reporters and locals gather to see the Africans paraded through town, put on display in jail, and measured by a phrenologist with calipers to “prove” their inferiority.

Phrenologist measures a captive (November 1997) by Lyric Opera of ChicagoChicago History Museum

Now known as a pseudoscience, phrenology was the practice of measuring skulls to predict mental capacities and was often used to justify racial discrimination.

The Trickster God and Cinque in the Amistad Opera (November 1997) by Lyric Opera of ChicagoChicago History Museum

Inventing symbolic characters

The cast of the Amistad opera includes two gods, both derived from traditional African folklore, to enhance the dramatic quality of the historical tale.

The Goddess of the Waters in the Amistad Opera (November 1997) by Lyric Opera of ChicagoChicago History Museum

The Goddess of the Waters, played by Florence Quivar, gives voice to the voiceless as she sings of the horrors of the Middle Passage across the Atlantic Ocean on a slave ship.

The Trickster God in the Amistad Opera (November 1997) by Lyric Opera of ChicagoChicago History Museum

The Trickster God, played by Thomas Young, embodies deception and mischief and plays a crucial role in Cinque’s revolt onboard.

The Amistad Opera Creative Team (September 1997) by Lyric Opera of ChicagoChicago History Museum

The artistic team

In 1994, celebrated Broadway stage director George C. Wolfe joined the cousins and worked with them to help sharpen the dramatic rhythms of the opera and make it come alive on stage. Seasoned conductor Dennis Russell Davies steered the musical production, while choreographer Hope Clarke directed the acting. The design team consisted of Riccardo Hernandez (sets), Toni-Leslie James (costumes), and Paul Gallo (lighting).

Composer and Conductor Work with an Amistad Opera Cast Member (September 1997) by Lyric Opera of ChicagoChicago History Museum

Here, Thomas Young, who played the Trickster God, consults with the composer Anthony Davis (left) and conductor Dennis Russell Davies (right) during rehearsal.

Conductor and Cast Member at a Rehearsal for the Amistad Opera (September 1997) by Lyric Opera of ChicagoChicago History Museum

A cast member gets guidance from conductor Dennis Russell Davies (left) during a day of rehearsal for the cast, crew, and principals.

Choreographer with cast members (September 1997) by Lyric Opera of ChicagoChicago History Museum

Choreographer Hope Clarke (center) gives direction to two cast members playing reporters on how to smoke while acting during a rehearsal.

Choreographer of the Amistad Opera with Cast Members (September 1997) by Lyric Opera of ChicagoChicago History Museum

Here, cast members playing reporters continue to work on their scene with choreographer Hope Clarke (left).

The Lyric Opera Stage During Rehearsal for Amistad (September 1997) by Lyric Opera of ChicagoChicago History Museum

Set design

Riccardo Hernandez’s set designs made judicious use of symbols of American freedom and justice. These choices raise questions of liberty and truth above the fray of the characters’ lives.

The set of John Quincy Adams's home (November 1997) by Lyric Opera of ChicagoChicago History Museum

Note the bald eagle, the United States' national bird, spreading its wings above John Quincy Adams and Lewis Tappan in Adams’s study during act I, scene 4 of the opera.

The Navigator on Trial in the Amistad Opera (November 1997) by Lyric Opera of ChicagoChicago History Museum

Note the high elevation of the judges in the courtroom during act II, scene 2 of the opera.

Cast and crew consider props (September 1997) by Lyric Opera of ChicagoChicago History Museum

Costume design

Toni-Leslie James’s costume designs included details and a variety of style options that lent a sense of realism to the opera singers’ transformation into antebellum characters. Here, the use of chains is being discussed during opera preparations.

Costume designs for the Africans (1997) by Toni-Leslie JamesChicago History Museum

James drew these costume sketches for the African men and women. They came to life on Eugene Perry as Antonio and Kimberly Jones as Margu.

Eugene Perry as Antonio (November 1997) by Lyric Opera of ChicagoChicago History Museum

Kimberly Jones as Margu in the Amistad Opera (November 1997) by Lyric Opera of ChicagoChicago History Museum

Costume designs for the North American men (1997) by Toni-Leslie JamesChicago History Museum

James's costume designs included different styles of 19th century Western men's dress, from the abolitionist lawyers and a southern senator to a US Naval lieutenant and ship navigators, like the Navigator costume worn by Mark Baker.

Mark Baker as the Navigator in the Amistad Opera (November 1997) by Lyric Opera of ChicagoChicago History Museum

Costume designs for the North American women (1997) by Toni-Leslie JamesChicago History Museum

James's costumes for the women of New Haven, Connecticut, and their servants can be seen come to life in the crowd scenes of the opera.

New Haven abuzz with the captives' arrival (November 1997) by Lyric Opera of ChicagoChicago History Museum

Costume designs for the Reporters (1997) by Toni-Leslie JamesChicago History Museum

The reporters converging in New Haven, Connecticut, had a distinct style designed by James.

Margu Accosted by Reporters in the Amistad Opera (November 1997) by Lyric Opera of ChicagoChicago History Museum

Cast Members During Rehearsal for the Amistad Opera (September 1997) by Lyric Opera of ChicagoChicago History Museum

Casting challenges

The cast of Amistad consisted of more African American singers than any previous production performed by the Lyric Opera of Chicago. In order to fill out a cast of 75, 35 of whom were black, music administrator Julie Griffin-Meadors “left no stone unturned” in her effort to overcome long-standing underrepresentation of black singers in the opera—few operas are written specifically with black characters.

Cast Members During Rehearsal for the Amistad Opera (September 1997) by Lyric Opera of ChicagoChicago History Museum

The standing Lyric Opera chorus contained five black members in 1996. Traditional recruiting methods yielded twelve more singers. For the remaining needed 16 cast members, Griffin-Meadors put out calls to local churches and community choirs, university music departments, and alumni of the Chicago Children’s Choir.

Inside Panel of the Lyric Opera's Invitation to Amistad (October 1997) by Lyric Opera of ChicagoChicago History Museum

An opera beyond the house

An unprecedented number of educational and community outreach programs complemented the many other never done before aspects of Amistad the opera. 

The Lyric Opera's Invitation to Amistad (October 1997) by Lyric Opera of ChicagoChicago History Museum

The broader Chicago area community—including students, churches, and other cultural institutions—was enriched by focusing on this important but painful milestone in US history.

The Lyric Opera of Chicago organized a day-long academic symposium to engage with questions about freedom, history, and the operatic tradition at the Field Museum. Chicago Public Schools benefitted from teacher training, Amistad classroom materials, and two matinee performances for students.

Inside Panel of the Lyric Opera's Invitation to Amistad (October 1997) by Lyric Opera of ChicagoChicago History Museum

An additional benefit performance was added in coordination with the Community Renewal Society, a United Church of Christ organization that traces its roots back to the abolitionists who advocated for the Amistad captives.

The most enduring consequence of the public programming around Amistad was an immersive exhibition at the DuSable Museum of African American History and Culture, located in Chicago’s Washington Park. The exhibition included a sculpture by Chicagoan Renee Townsend of the four children who were part of the group, which remains part of the DuSable Museum’s permanent exhibition.

Credits: Story

Special thanks to the following individuals who made this Google Arts & Culture exhibit possible:

Ina Cox
Julie Wroblewski
Julius Jones
The Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation
Timothy Paton
Katie Levi
Heidi Samuelson

Credits: All media
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