The Black Opera Project Reminds Us That Opera is a Tool to Tell New Stories

In July 2022, I reviewed Fierce for I CARE IF YOU LISTEN. The commission by Cincinnati Opera featured music by William Menefield and a libretto by novelist Sheila Williams, centered on the worries and dreams of four teen girls prepping their college entrance essays. It was a very non-opera story – or more accurately, a story I didn’t expect to see told through the medium of opera. 

In that review, and my interview with Michael Abels and Rhiannon Giddens about their opera, Omar, I wondered if opera could be a practical storytelling method for Black artists. Could the (white) exclusivity be sloughed off, its potential centered to tell any story lavishly, majestically, and passionately? 

Cincinnati Opera is making that vision happen. On Feb. 22, they announced The Black Opera Project, funded through a grant from the Mellon Foundation. The new $5 million initiative will support the commission and staging of three new operas by Black composers and librettists, one of which must be an all-female creative team. 

What makes this initiative unique is not so much the commissioning of new works. Since 2001, Cincinnati Opera has staged a new or contemporary opera every season. But what makes The Black Opera Project stand out is the way Cincinnati Opera is seeking to redress the dearth of operas by Black creatives: to use their resources to get these works staged. 

After a rehearsal of Porgy and Bess in 2019, bassist Morris Robinson, Cincinnati Opera’s artistic advisor (who was also starring as Porgy), expressed a particular frustration to artistic director Evans Mirageas: he said Porgy and Bess was “the only opera where he wasn’t the only Black member of the cast,” Mirageas recalled in our recent conversation. Robinson expressed a desire for “an opera with the same impetus of Black Panther, the same kind of story of empowerment and joy – it can have conflict, but it has to have joy.” And Mirageas’ reaction was, “let’s sit down and talk about it.”

Talk soon led to action. During Cincinnati Opera’s Mellon Foundation grant renewal for their Opera Fusion: New Works program – a partnership with the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music that provides opera workshop opportunities to composer/librettist teams – Mirageas pitched an idea for a commissioning project. Susan Feder, the Mellon Foundation’s Program Officer in Arts and Culture, was receptive. Mirageas told me, “She said very nicely, ‘It’s a very good idea, but there are a couple of catches: we can’t do one; we don’t do one offs. So, three operas over three years, and one of the teams has to be a female composer and librettist of color.’ So, we worked crazy [on revising the grant application] over two weeks.”

Their proposal was approved, and The Black Opera Project was born. The first of these commissions is Lalovavi by composer Kevin Day and librettist Tifara Brown, with dramaturgy by Kimille Howard, set to premiere on June 19, 2025. Morris Robinson heard one of Day’s works on a Fort Worth Symphony concert in 2021, and after expressing his excitement about the composer to Mirageas, he contacted Day on Instagram, asking if he had considered writing an opera. Day’s response: “Yes!”

Kevin Day -- Photo by Sara Bill Photography

Kevin Day — Photo by Sara Bill Photography

Day immediately knew who he wanted to write the libretto – poet Tifara Brown, who he had previously met at a spoken word workshop at the University of Georgia. Lalovavi marks the first opera for Day and Brown, though neither are unfamiliar with the genre: Day has extensive experience as a choir member, and Brown’s maternal grandmother, Gloria Anderson, was a classically trained singer. They set to work creating and discarding plots and scenarios before landing on the story of Persephone, a kidnapped young woman raised in the dystopian city of Atlas, whose genetic profile is discovered to hold the key to immortality. She embarks on a journey of self-discovery that takes her to her true home: Nunewaks.

The worlds of Atlas and Nunewaks walk the line of sci-fi and fantasy, inspired by Brown’s love of those genres, and dramaturge Kimille Howard’s observation during an early planning meeting: “When do Black folk get a chance to escape?” 

When do they, indeed. Books, film, and TV seem to equate traumatic narratives as honest storytelling. Sociological commentary as art is a specter that has followed Black creatives for centuries. But this specter seems very distant for Day and Brown. At the heart of Lalovavi is an opportunity to tell a story steeped in imagination, explorations of historical and contemporary displacement, searches for home, and an understudied African American language – Tut. Developed by enslaved African Americans and used from the 18th to 20th century, Tut was an aural tool used to teach reading. The opera’s title and Persephone’s home are both Tut words, and the language also figures prominently in the score.

Kimille Howard -- Photo courtesy of the artist

Kimille Howard — Photo courtesy of the artist

“In Atlas, they speak English, but more robotic,” Day shared. “Not the English we have; it’s more strict, more tense. And Nunewaks are speaking Tut. I pick up on phrase and text very quickly, and Tifara’s text uses a lot of triplet meter, which is giving me a lot of musical ideas. With English, I’m thinking about vowels and placement, and with Tut, it’s a similar approach, but where those words line up is very different.”

Brown says she has always been fascinated with language; but she knew that creating an entirely new language for the opera was not efficient. It was this creative problem that led her to incorporate Tut in the lyrics, and into the very heart of a story about reclaiming one’s home. “We have a Tut expert named Veronica who’s been helping us ensure the Tut lyrics I bring in are accurate,” Brown explained. “It has been very eye-opening for me. As I was writing this, I’m thinking, ‘Wow, my ancestors may have spoken this language, a language that was created because it was illegal to write, read, to speak English that wasn’t degraded.’”

Tifara Brown -- Photo by PKT Productions

Tifara Brown — Photo by PKT Productions

Both Day and Brown are aware of the precedent they are setting. Their creation, along with the work of musicologist Naomi André, cultural historian Lucy Caplan, OperaCreole founders Givonna Joseph and Aria Mason, and many others, reveal and remind us that Black people in opera is not a new thing – it’s just new to some of us. As Joseph said in a recent interview with Mariel Padilla for The 19th, “Opera has never been white…It’s been sold that way, and those composers were smashed down in historical records. It’s never been just a thing for white Europeans.”

Cincinnati Opera, Opera Philadelphia and The Apollo Theatre, and others are making moves to redress this selective memory. It’s a big step toward making commissioning and casting more equitable and diverse, thus centering what opera can be: a way to transport, move, and inspire all kinds of people. 

“I hope this gives people an opportunity to feel empowered, to be able to dream and not be afraid to tell your story,” Day concluded. “And that was the whole crux of doing this: we want to give people a little hope, a little joy on this wonderful journey. We’re so every excited to do this, I am incredibly honored.”


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

You can support the work of ICIYL with a tax-deductible gift to ACF. For more on ACF, visit the “At ACF” section or