Friday, January 27, 2023

The Important Story of Mary Cardwell Dawson


Washington National Opera, much to the Dresser’s surprise, produced a play with music. The Passion of Mary Cardwell Dawson by playwright Sandra Seaton and composer Carlos Simon tells the little-known story of a Black woman in the 1940s who formed and operated the National Negro Opera Company.


The germ of this play began with WNO’s dramaturg Kelley Rourke who brought Cardwell Dawson’s accomplishments to the attention of Francesca Zambello, WNO Artistic Director. Zambello, in turn, tapped Seaton and Simon to collaborate using this subject matter. In 2020, Seaton and Simon had created a 20-minute opera entitled Night Trip for WNO’s American Opera Initiative, which the Dresser reviewed with deep appreciation.


On January 22, 2023, the Dresser attended Washington National Opera’s production of The Passion of Mary Cardwell Dawson. The setting is Washington, DC in 1943. The backstory is that Cardwell Dawson toured her operatic productions to New York City, Chicago, Pittsburgh, and Washington, DC. In Seaton’s play, the situation is tense—the company is about to open in the out-of-doors on a floating barge in the Potomac River under threatening skies. Even if the performers are willing to sing in the rain, it is unlikely audience will show up and buy tickets. That revenue is vital to the Company’s survival. So, Cardwell Dawson tries to lease an indoor venue, but she is up against segregation practices despite theaters having little luck with white audiences because so many Americans—both white and Black—are away fighting in World War II. Cardwell Dawson stands up for principles and refuses to rent the theater if it means performing for a segregated audience.


The centerpiece of this production is that Mary Cardwell Dawson is played fascinatingly by the celebrated mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves. Graves as Cardwell Dawson is coaching several singers on how to successfully perform Bizet’s opera Carmen, a signature role for Graves which she sung worldwide including WNO and the Met. It was mesmerizing to see her teaching how to imbue passion in the performance to the young singers two of whom (soprano Amber Monroe and tenor Jonathan Pierce Rhodes) are current accomplished Cafritz Young Artists.


However, the music of Carmen overshadows the original and quite appealing music of Carlos Simon. Because this 70-minute piece is focused on Carmen, there are only three original songs. The most memorable original song is “Rebellious Bird,” and that phrase comes from “Habanera,” a song sung by Carmen with this line, “Love is a rebellious bird that no one can tame.”


Mezzo-soprano Taylor-Alexis Dupont plays the singer Phoebe who has landed the coveted role as Carmen much to the disappointment of Isabelle (Amber Monroe). Both singers are memorable for their performances, but Dupont (making her WNO debut) has more opportunity as Carmen to show her singing agility and fiery acting.


Zambello first premiered The Passion of Mary Cardwell Dawson in 2021 at Glimmerglass. This performance was done with piano accompaniment. The work continues to be a piece in development. It is worthy subject matter and has great potential.

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