Quamino's map

Damien Geter (left) as Quamino and Curtis Bannister as Juba in the world premiere of “Quamino’s Map” by Errollyn Wallen.

Chicago Opera Theater’s latest world premiere is a fascinating look at a mostly unknown corner of British American history. During the American Revolutionary War, the British offered emancipation, transportation to another British dominion and a pension for slaves who would fight with the British. “Quamino’s Map” is the story of a man who makes this deal with the Brits only to arrive in London to find that no pension is forthcoming and that he is forbidden by law to work.

The opera is loosely inspired by the novel “Incomparable World” by S.I. Martin, and was a project that composer Errollyn Wallen had wanted to pursue for years. Her hero arrives in London and is taken to a Black church where he begins his journey with a new name of his own choosing: Juba Freeman. He falls in love with Amelia, a member of the Black gentry, and charms her not only with his good heart but also his beautiful violin playing. Juba cannot propose marriage because he has no way to support Amelia. Reduced to crime, he is caught, tried, and sentenced to death. A last minute intervention by friends results in Juba’s release as well as employment.

Wallen’s desire to use this setting as an opera is inspired. It addresses some of the most important issues of our time: racism, the lingering effects of slavery, the immigrant experience, and income disparities. That the opera does all this and concludes with hope and optimism makes it a unique and important work for our time.

Curtis Bannister creates the role of Juba Freeman, presenting him as fresh-faced, energetic, and curious as he disembarks in Greenwich. He has a pleasing, relaxed sound with easy top notes and a silky legato. His prison monologue, the climax of the opera, was deeply moving.

Damien Geter is Quamino Dolly, an actual historical figure whose maps aided the British during the war. He lives in London and serves as a mentor to Juba. Quamino doesn’t merely offer a guide to the city, but a guide to life. Geter has beautifully rumbling low notes and great nobility of sound.

Flora Hawk is a glorious Amelia Alumond, who sweeps across the stage in a lovely blue gown with the grace of a dancer. She has sweet high notes and a rich middle register.

There are also several outstanding singers in smaller roles. Kimberly E. Jones and Joelle Lamarre bring soprano sting to the roles of Amelia’s mother and sister, who archly oppose Juba as a suitor. Tyrone Chambers II brings a gravitas to Dele Piebald, a mysterious character who mostly communicates in mutters and sentence fragments. Leah Dexter is marvelous as the bawdy dominatrix Mistress Paddington who memorably animates the opera’s single big production number.

Composer Wallen and librettist Deborah Brevoort are incredibly efficient in this taut 90-minute opera which was presented without intermission. Wallen employs a wide range of compositional styles, opening with a chorus containing music indebted to sea shanties and a few minutes later we are in a London red light district with a big musical theater piece — the catchiest bit in the opera — putting me in mind of “One Night in Bangkok” from the musical “Chess”.

Yet the efficiency in moving the story forward at a good clip comes at a cost: the text is primarily aimed at elucidating the plot points with little time for any character development. Similarly, brief scenes limit the number of times the composer can offer extended musical depth. Amelia’s mum and sis, for example, are tissue-thin villains because there is no time to explore the sort of complicated reasons actual people might have to the Amelia-Juba romance. Similarly, Piebald and Mistress Paddington are interesting characters, yet their connection to Juba seems contrived or coincidental, again because no time is given to establishing more than a passing connection.

The biggest disappointment is that the resolution of the story requires a clumsy deus ex machina. The revocation of Juba’s death sentence and his release from prison is unbelievable enough, but after that Quamino manages to procure a violin for him and get him a job in an orchestra, even though jobs for Juba are illegal. After several references to a “secret way” to live, Quamino offers Juba this explanation for all that has transpired, “The freedom you’ve been seeking is inside of you.”

These are disappointments, but there are also intriguing undercurrents in this opera. Even Juba’s selection of a name got my attention. Why he selected the name Freeman is obvious, but no less potent for that. Juba is also an important choice. In the opera, the character says that he chose Juba because he liked the Juba dance, but Juba is also the name of African kings and means “command” in Zulu. There are hidden layers in this piece which I hope are explored in future productions.

There was a lot to like in the production values. The orchestra offered lush sound under the baton of Jeri Lynne Johnson, whose only notable fault was playing over the singers at times. Scenic designer Steven Kemp used the space marvelously, creating from the same raw material a pier at Greenwich, an alley bursting with sex workers, and a posh home with regal velvet curtains. Director Kimille Howard presided over a visually clear and attractive staging, even when the Studebaker Theater boards were packed with principals and chorus.

While there were many empty seats for the second of three performances (and not a lot of African Americans in the audience), those who were there offered enthusiastic, warm, and extended applause. “Quamino’s Map” took them to a place they won’t likely forget.

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