Black composer ‘decommissioned’ by Tulsa Opera for refusing to amend one word in massacre commemoration

23 March 2021, 14:36 | Updated: 29 March 2021, 08:26

Daniel Bernard Roumain ‘decommissioned’ over one controversial word in opera lyrics
Daniel Bernard Roumain ‘decommissioned’ over one controversial word in opera lyrics. Picture: Bethanie Hines

By Rosie Pentreath

Daniel Bernard Roumain claims Tulsa Opera cancelled the premiere of his new work intended to mark the centenary of the 1921 Tulsa ‘Greenwood’ Massacre, when he refused to amend one word.

A Black composer has claimed he was ‘decommissioned’ by Tulsa opera for refusing to change one word in the lyrics of a new work.

On 19 March, composer and violinist Daniel Bernard Roumain tweeted, “Tulsa Opera just DEcommissoned me. I was asked to create a new work for them.

“I composed the words and music for a new aria, and the last two lines are, ‘God Bless America; God Damn America!’ They asked me to omit ‘Damn’. I refused. They fired me. Life in Black America.”

The aria was originally commissioned as part of Tulsa Opera’s ‘Greenwood Outcomes’ concert, which commemorates the Tulsa Race Massacre, also known as the ‘Greenwood Masacre’, which took place 100 years ago.

Read more: ‘Classical music has a long way to go’ - clarinettist Anthony McGill performs powerful tribute to Black lives >

Composer Daniel Bernard Roumain: “I composed the words and music for a new aria, and the last two lines are, ‘God Bless America; God Damn America!’ They asked me to omit ‘Damn’. I refused.”
Composer Daniel Bernard Roumain: “I composed the words and music for a new aria, and the last two lines are, ‘God Bless America; God Damn America!’ They asked me to omit ‘Damn’. I refused.”. Picture: Bethanie Hines

Tulsa opera has since released a statement responding to Roumain’s tweet, writing, “All four of the composers were asked to write a piece for a specific singer and their voice type. Daniel Bernard Roumain was commissioned to compose a piece to be performed by mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves.

“The piece that Mr. Roumain submitted, [entitled] They Still Want to Kill Us, contained lyrics that Ms. Graves felt uneasy singing. Ms. Graves expressed her concerns to Mr. Roumain, and he was asked if he would consider altering his lyrics. He declined.”

The statement also includes an explanation from Graves herself, who has said, “As a Black woman I am a huge supporter of all Black Lives, Black expression, and creativity. I don’t have trouble with strong lyrics, but I felt that they did not line up with my personal values. I could not find an honest place to express the lyrics as they were presented.”

Read more: Opera singer honours Breonna Taylor’s memory with poignant ‘Vigil’ >

Speaking to Opera Wire, Roumain indicated that his only contact with Graves for the project had been via email, and that Graves had noted the lyrics made her “bristle”.

The composer also outlined correspondence that took place between him and Tobias Picker, who is artistic director of Tulsa Opera, in which Picker suggested that ‘God Bless America’ be repeated twice, or that the ‘God Damn America’ lyric be changed to ‘God Help America’.

Roumain said that would be missing the point, telling Opera Wire that the “point being made [with ‘God Damn America’] is the hypocrisy of our country committing countless atrocities, time and again, in the name of country and under God.”

Roumain’s aria was one of four pieces by Black composers commissioned for Tulsa Opera’s concert, which is a collaboration between Tobias Picker and Howard Watkins, who’s from Met Opera and The Juilliard School.

Chief exec of Tulsa, Ken McConnell, said: “Tulsa Opera is proud to bring together 22 Black living composers and eight remarkable Black singers for the ‘Greenwood Overcomes’ concert that is being presented as part of important city-wide centennial commemorative events.

“While disappointed that a compromise could not be reached on one of the commissioned works, the concert artists and Tulsa Opera remain committed to presenting a memorable civic event.”

Tulsa Opera has said Roumain will receive his full commissioning fee for the work, and is free to have the aria performed elsewhere.