Ten thousand spectators filled the lakefront stadium. They marveled at the multi-tiered stage, the elephant that lumbered across it, and the thirty-foot waterfall towering above. As the sun set, a light rain began to fall. Its rhythmic patter merged with the sounds emanating from a battalion of percussion instruments. Four soloists and a chorus of hundreds appeared. Their voices guided the audience out of the drizzly present — Cleveland, summer, 1932 — and into the sweeping epic of Tom-Tom, the world-premiere opera unfolding onstage.
Composed by 35-year-old Shirley Graham, Tom-Tom was the first opera by a Black woman to be produced by a major company in the United States. Over three acts, it hurtled through time and space, offering a diasporic narrative of African American history that compressed centuries and continents into a work of vast aesthetic proportions. One critic called it a “revolutionary project.” Another deemed it an “opera which marks an epoch in the history of creative music in this country.” A third proclaimed that it was “new opera. Something different from what has preceded it in history.” Yet despite the immense success of its premiere, Tom-Tom has never been staged again.
The circumstances of Tom-Tom’s creation were exceptional. Graham was invited to compose the opera by the Cleveland Stadium Opera Company — an extraordinary occurrence in an era when white musical institutions virtually always ignored Black composers, especially Black women. She had never before written an opera, but she drew from a wealth of relevant experience. Her early life had been peripatetic. Her father was an itinerant minister, and the family moved often throughout the United States. Immersed in the music of the Black church, Graham also studied Western classical music and became a skilled pianist. Beginning in 1926, she made several voyages to Paris, where she studied music and became part of a diasporic network of Black artists and intellectuals, including the illustrious Paul Robeson. She also studied at Howard University and the Institute of Musical Arts, worked as a music librarian, sang with jubilee quartets, and gave lectures on Black music history. Beginning in the 1940s, her career centered upon leftist politics and activism. She became affiliated with the Communist Party and spent decades living in Ghana, Egypt, and China, advising political leaders and working in support of anti-imperialist and anticolonial movements. In 1951, Graham married W. E. B. Du Bois — a development that, while obviously crucial to her political and personal trajectories, has also tended to overshadow her own myriad accomplishments.
Tom-Tom originated as a one-act play that Graham wrote in 1929 while teaching at Morgan College in Baltimore. She enrolled at Oberlin two years later, intending to complete undergraduate and graduate degrees in musicology. After the opportunity to write Tom-Tom arose, she took a semester’s leave, rented a room with an upright piano, and worked ceaselessly for three months until the opera was ready for the stage.
Subtitled “The Epic of Music and the Negro,” Tom-Tom is indeed epic in scope. Each act depicts a moment of social transformation in African American life, anchored by four archetypal characters: the Boy, the Girl, the Mother, and Voodoo Man, who move from premodern West Africa to a cotton plantation in the U.S. South in 1865 to the “Harlem of today” circa 1930. The opera’s musical range is equally expansive. The first act is scored largely for percussion, and it includes various approximations of West African melodies. The second act is suffused with choral arrangements of spirituals, alongside music that references the wide variety of operatic repertoire that Graham knew well. Act III evokes the sounds of Harlem in the 1920s, from taxi horns to cabaret song. Today’s program features excerpts from each act — a brief tour through the opera’s kaleidoscopic sonic universe.
The dazzling success of Tom-Tom’s premiere suggested that the opera would have a long life ahead. Plans were made for future performances: an autumn showing at Madison Square Garden, a tour of Europe the next year. Yet these never came to be. Despite Graham’s repeated attempts to secure the time and funding necessary to revise her work, various other personal and professional demands interfered. As the years went on, the possibility of Tom-Tom returning to the stage grew ever slimmer; the Great Depression only exacerbated these conditions, of course. Moreover, as Graham’s politics moved further leftward and her career moved away from the arts, the likelihood of an opera company taking on this work plummeted: what opera company would stage a work by a black woman affiliated by the Communist party in the Cold War-era United States?
Tom-Tom’s marginalization has created a sort of ripple effect: other operas not written, other sounds not heard, other ideas not considered. Yet ironically, that same marginalization invites a different relationship between Tom-Tom and contemporary audiences. What does it mean to bring Tom-Tom back to the stage and the public imagination, nearly a century after its premiere? How do we acknowledge its long absence without allowing that absence to overshadow the richness of the original work?
Although today’s event may lack the waterfalls and elephants of the premiere, it does offer the rare opportunity to hear music from Tom-Tom. We invite you to join the conversation as we explore an opera that remains new to our ears so many years after its premiere, still unfamiliar and, perhaps, still revolutionary.
— Lucy Caplan