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ASU professor takes opera from the classroom to the world stage

November 26, 2017

A recent work composed by Arizona State University School of Music Professor of Practice Daniel Bernard Roumain is changing the possibilities of what opera is and can be. His critically acclaimed opera, “We Shall Not Be Moved,” is a rare piece in the operatic world — a multi-disciplinary work created by artists of color that addresses race relations in America.

Daniel Bernard Roumain of ASU's School of Music is bringing opera to the mainstream.

“We Shall Not Be Moved” debuted on Sept. 16 at the Wilma Theater in Philadelphia with sold-out performances. The opera then moved to the Apollo Theater in New York on Oct. 6, and will be performed in Amsterdam and London in the coming months. A U.S. tour is being planned for the 2018–2019 season.

Roumain said the foundation for “We Shall Not Be Moved” originated in a Philadelphia classroom in 2012. Opera Philadelphia invited him to join their organization as a teaching artist to assist Philadelphia-area public schools, which launched a partnership between Roumain, Opera Philadelphia and Art Sanctuary, a non-profit Philadelphia organization.

“Because those classroom visits were so successful, and because I had started writing some arias and some other things for the visits, it became apparent to them and to myself that we should have a larger collaboration,” Roumain said. “I was asked to put a creative team together and was commissioned to compose an opera for them.”  

He said his librettist Marc Bamuthi Joseph came up with the idea of an opera based on an incident that happened at a Philadelphia row house in 1985 involving local law enforcement and the Philadelphia-based multi-cultural liberation organization known as MOVE.  An altercation resulted in a standoff between MOVE and the police. The house was fired upon and bombed, which resulted in a fire and the destruction of dozens of homes. Five children died in the fire, a tragedy that still haunts the city of Philadelphia. Roumain said he and Joseph used the Philadelphia incident as a catalyst for telling a completely original story involving five runaway children who decided to continue their learning in the abandoned house presumed to be the home of the MOVE organization — and from the ghosts of those five children who died there.

Roumain said the genre of music in the air in the 1970s and 1980s — Philadelphia-based funk, soul — had some degree of influence on his work. 

“Like any city, we have diverse people and music that follows them — that actually represents them,” Roumain said. “As a composer, what I was trying to do was to really set the tone and respond to Marc’s brilliant libretto.”

The opera has been called “not just the future of opera, but … the past, present and future of African-American cultural expression, too” by Kamilah Forbes, the Apollo Theatre’s executive producer.

New York Times chief musical critic, Anthony Tommasini, said, “Mr. Roumain skillfully folds gospel, funk, jazz and contemporary classical idioms into the score. In a post-performance conversation with the audience, he said he hopes the piece ‘changes the notion’ of what an opera can be. It does.”

Roumain believes the opera is something that can be translated back into an ASU classroom and the Herberger Online experience to positively impact and influence students’ lives.

Roumain said that in his current classes, “Leadership in the Creative Industries” and “The Communicating Artist,” his students have been discussing the opera and the events surrounding the work. He has also produced videos and other content about the creation of the opera and the collaborative effort.

“For me the ASU educational experience is always evolving and alive, and I want to create an array of both classroom and online offerings for our ASU faculty, students and community — I’m simply creating work in different places that always ends up back within the ASU family,” he said. 

Roumain said when he thinks about his work, education in its entirety, and the world of educators in articulating what a 21st-century education should be, he asks himself: “What are the tools and what skill-sets are required? How should ASU students be thinking about their work here that launches them into a different non-academic arena if that is their choosing? Where do their careers already exist? Where do their futures lie?”

Roumain said he really has no clear idea of the context of his own work, but as a black Haitian-American composer, it was instilled in him by his mother and father to be responsible as a human being, partner, husband and parent to two young sons.

“Whether or not you have children, you most likely live somewhere where there are children around you and they are your children,” Roumain said. “I’m the type of artist that thinks not about what I could do next, but what I should do next — that attitude, that sense of responsibility and that need to affect change for a common good. These are ideals that I think emanate from ASU’s President Michael Crow, are upheld by Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts Dean Steven J. Tepper, and are exemplified and personified by the School of Music Director Heather Landes.”     

Roumain hopes to bring “We Shall Not Be Moved” home to ASU. He said he thinks the work has solicited change and has given hope and promise to not only the work of composers within the operatic field, but to the work of artists in other areas.

“In as much as 'We Shall Not Be Moved' has its controversies, what I hope it truly ignites is a conversation that is not confrontational and that provides an opportunity for us to share, exchange and grow,” Roumain said.

School of Music
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