In Quamino’s Map, Errollyn Wallen Illuminates Forgotten American-British History

Loosely inspired by S.I. Martin’s 1997 novel “Incomparable World,” Errollyn Wallen’s new opera Quamino’s Map recounts an oft forgotten moment in American-British history. Staged in its world premiere by Chicago Opera Theatre on April 23, 2022, the opera tells the story of enslaved people in the United States who fought for the British Army in the American Revolutionary War in exchange for passage to England and a pension after the war. However, once these formerly enslaved people arrived in London, the British failed to follow through on the promise of a pension. This reality, along with laws forbidding the hiring of lower class people of color, left people destitute and without a way forward.

With this history as a backdrop, Quamino’s Map begins with the war over, and as a frenzied, excited march bellows from the pit orchestra, a ship comes ashore. Juba Freeman (tenor Curtis Bannister) arrives in London having won his freedom by fighting for the British during the American Revolution. But now, learning that the British will not provide a pension after all, he must build a new life as a free man on the streets of London.

Errollyn Wallen--Photo by Azzura Primavera

Errollyn Wallen–Photo by Azzura Primavera

The resounding theme of freedom is apparent from a dignified and stately opening number: “Freedom is a distant sound I could not hear. Now it surrounds me everywhere!” We follow Juba as he chooses his new name and begs for money to buy stale biscuits, with nothing but an ill-fitted shirt on his back. He soon meets Amelia Alumond (soprano Flora Hawk), a charitable and well-meaning member of the British Black gentry, and so begins this opera’s fated romance.

Amelia, while upper class, is not immune from her own struggle for personal freedom. Though in love with Juba, she is pressured to accept a bid for marriage from a man of “position.” To prove himself worthy, Juba steals silk garbs and a ring to impress Amelia in front of her inner circle. Jailed and nearly hanged for this crime, at the very last moment Juba is awarded one last chance at freedom. Guided by Quamino Dolly (baritone Damien Geter), a map-maker and formerly enslaved person, Juba finds freedom through music – his true passion.

Curtis Bannister and Flora Hawk in the Chicago Opera Theatre production of Errollyn Wallen's "Quamino's Map"--Photo by Michael Brosilow

Curtis Bannister and Flora Hawk in the Chicago Opera Theatre production of Errollyn Wallen’s “Quamino’s Map”–Photo by Michael Brosilow

The serious tone of this fast-paced, 90-minute opera is marked with slivers of light-heartedness and humor. In one moment, Juba is newly baptized but remains awkwardly kneeling until he’s told, “…. you can get up now,” welcoming laughter from the audience. In another memorable scene, a raunchy musical number (deftly conducted by Jeri Lynne Johnson) is led by the vulgar Mistress Paddington (mezzo-soprano Leah Dexter) as the derelicts of London romp and shout in a hilarious ear-worm: “It’s a free for all for all who pay, depravity all night, all day, in the flesh markets of London!” Here the orchestra shines its brightest, despite the tendency to bury the vocalists on stage.

If you’re unfamiliar with the work of Belize-born British composer Errollyn Wallen, don’t wait! Wallen’s scoring is colorful, and the stylistic contrasts quilted through Quamino’s 12 scenes create a refreshing mosaic of Baroque harpsichord flourishes, a bit of a sea shanty, and even a bombastic nod to Americano show tunes.

Other memorable moments include impressive performances from tenor Tyrone Chambers II as Dele Piebald, a delirious beggar who often appears as a kind of truth teller, and tenor Damien Geter as the eponymous map-maker Quamino Dolly. The sincerity and expressivity of their respective deliveries make these two characters a twinkle in the star-crossed lover trope’s eye.

Curtis Bannister and Damien Geter in the Chicago Opera Theatre production of Errollyn Wallen's "Quamino's Map"--Photo by Michael Brosilow

Curtis Bannister and Damien Geter in the Chicago Opera Theatre production of Errollyn Wallen’s “Quamino’s Map”–Photo by Michael Brosilow

Juba’s struggle to find love and freedom is resonant, especially today, and aptly performed by the Chicago Opera Theatre’s well-rounded and all-Black lead cast, but perhaps this work would have been better served with a longer run time to allow more depth and nuance to blossom. Bannister brings focus and heart to Juba Freeman from curtain open to close, but longer, fuller arias may have provided more complexity to the character and the story to which he belongs. Amelia, too, may have been able to explore her own struggles for freedom from societal implications in long-form musical displays, or even simply more scenes altogether in this recitative-heavy opera.

Chicago Opera Theatre has established itself as committed to expanding the living tradition of opera and spotlighting many of Chicago’s top-tier performers. And certainly the commissioning of Wallen’s Quamino’s Map serves as a reminder that mining forgotten moments in our histories can create meaningful and much needed work.


I CARE IF YOU LISTEN is an editorially-independent program of the American Composers Forum, funded with generous donor and institutional support. Opinions expressed are solely those of the author and may not represent the views of ICIYL or ACF. 

A gift to ACF helps support the work of ICIYL. For more on ACF, visit the “At ACF” section or