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Review | An impresario rediscovered in ‘The Passion of Mary Caldwell Dawson’


The best parts of “The Passion of Mary Caldwell Dawson” — presented Friday at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater by Washington National Opera — are when the lines blur between the subject and the star, mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves.

Graves may be a much more famous name than her titular character in this “play with music” created by Kennedy Center resident composer Carlos Simon and playwright Sandra Seaton, but Dawson’s time in the spotlight was long overdue.

Mary Lucinda Cardwell Dawson was a singer, pianist, educator, and founding director of the National Negro Opera Company, active from 1941 to 1961. Born in North Carolina in 1894, raised in Pittsburgh and trained at the New England Conservatory of Music, Dawson’s living with intertwined with music and fully invested in the push to make way on stage for black performers.

She founded the Cardwell Dawson School of Music and the National Opera House over her husband Walter’s electric utility in their Pittsburgh home—the Queen Anne-style mansion at 7101 Apple St., now the subject of an extensive preservation effort. The company staged ambitious productions of works such as “Aida” and “La Traviata” in Chicago, Pittsburgh, New York and Washington (on the outdoor Watergate Floating Stage).

She also founded the Cardwell Dawson Choir, mentored dozens of young black singers, and advocated the staging of works by black composers, including R. Nathaniel Dett’s 1932 oratorio “The Ordering of Moses” and Clarence Cameron White’s “Ouanga”.

Singers such as Robert McFerrin, Camilla Williams, La Julia Rhea, Lillian Evanti, Minto Cato, Muriel Rahn, William Franklin, Joseph Lipscomb and Napoleon Reed all contributed to the company’s 20-year run and still immeasurable legacy. (And while they were an independent group, Dawson’s company is technically the first to present work by a black composer on the stage at the Metropolitan Opera.)

President John F. Kennedy appointed Dawson to the National Music Committee in 1961, a year before her death from a heart attack.

“The Passion of Mary Caldwell Dawson,” repeated twice Sunday, is an attempt to remedy the blatant omission of Dawson’s contributions from the annals of American opera history. Along with “Building the Stage,” an accompanying exhibition of the company’s images and costumes on view at the Hall of States until February 1, the “play with music” attempts to fill in some historical blanks while giving the story ample music is infused. to prevent the show from becoming a didactic diorama.

For the most part it succeeds. Set in a sparsely furnished D.C. rehearsal studio equipped with a piano (where pianist-organist Marvin Mills held a smooth, skillful court), Dawson and a trio of her protégés prepare a production of “Carmen” – bound by a contract and threatened by a threatening thunderstorm. Desperate to stage the performance but firmly opposed to accepting a local venue’s offer to house the company with “colored” chairs, Dawson alternates between frustrated monologues, one-sided phone calls and (the real treat) singing lessons.

Graves first played the role of Dawson when the first version of the show premiered at the 2021 Glimmerglass Festival in New York. Dawson’s story spurred the launch of the Denyce Graves Foundation, dedicated to “championing the hidden musical figures of the past and nurturing young artists with world-class talent from all backgrounds.”

A member of the voice faculty at Johns Hopkins University’s Peabody Institute, Graves effortlessly takes on the proverbial tenor of a teacher onstage – chiding her Don Jose (tenor Jonathan Pierce Rhodes) for his inadequate innocence with a small thump, singing ” tempo! tempo! tempo” as Isabelle works through an aria from soprano Amber R. Monroe. All three students get high grades, but soprano Taylor-Alexis Dupont is especially good as Dawson’s “Carmen”-in-training, Phoebe: her voice is beautifully rich and vibrant, very suitable for the task of singing, a singer learning to sing to sing.

Musically, the show has the easy, informal delight of a cabaret, moving lightly between spoken parts and arias of “Carmen” – We hear “Parle-moi de ma mere”, the “Seguidilla”, “La fleur que tu m’avais jetee and, of course, the “Habanera” – each enhanced by a certain meta-charm. (It’s impossible not to see the Dawson of Graves go right back to Graves when she shows her students how it’s done.)

Simon’s original music lends extra emotional splendor – Mills’ lone piano references Debussian interludes in the opening “Divided Soul”. And Seaton’s lyrics find powerful echoes to pierce Simon’s music – poetically capturing Dawson’s ambition, perseverance and grace. Their closing track “She Steps Onto a Floating Stage” is particularly beautiful, and I wondered how much richer a realization this could be with the integration of a chamber orchestra.

But like Dawson and her students, there’s a lot of room for growth here. Director Kimille Howard skillfully brings focus and lends a mythical quality to Dawson’s spartan studio, but there are regular dead zones and a few too many loops and gaps in the script.

Unexplored are the stories of all of Dawson’s students, whose frustrations seem entirely (and unconvincingly) confined to the studio. Much of Graves’ dialogue is stiflingly explanatory – a necessary approach when there’s so much to do, but one that can feel dangerously animatronic. And there wasn’t much subtlety to the dedication: “The concert must go on!” Graves laments as the sky darkens above the stage, “Or the National Negro Opera Company will cease to exist!”

Yet the relative dryness of the dialogue in this ‘play with music’ perhaps inadvertently makes the musical quarters much more refreshing. If future iterations of “The Passion of Mary Caldwell Dawson” can devise ways to seamlessly integrate the historical significance of this unjustly forgotten queen of American opera with the beauty and immediacy of the music to which she devoted her life, we could achieve a breakthrough. have work on our hands.

For now, it’s no small treat to listen and learn as this show finds its voice.

“The Passion of Mary Caldwell Dawson” will be repeated at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater on Sundays at 2 and 5 p.m. www.kennedy-center.org.

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