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Birge's Picks: Opera connections

A production of Jake Heggie's opera, 'Moby-Dick,' from the Dallas Opera. Karen Almond

This week, grab a cup of Starbucks and think "opera!" Because Tuesday is the 50th anniversary of the coffee chain that took its name from the first mate in Moby Dick. Herman Melville's classic novel also inspired an opera by Jake Heggie (who himself turns 60 on Wednesday). If Jake Heggie's name rings a bell, he also composed a unique "choral opera," The Radio Hour, co-commissioned by VocalEssence in Minneapolis. You can watch their entire performance online.

Heggie's librettist for the project, Gene Sheer, was in the news when President Biden's inauguration speech quoted Gene Sheer's most famous song: "The American story …might sound something like a song that means a lot to me. It's called American Anthem. And there's one verse that stands out, at least for me. And it goes like this: 'The work and prayers of centuries have brought us to this day. What shall be our legacy? What will our children say? Let me know in my heart when my days are through. America, America, I gave my best to you.'"

Gene Sheer's American Anthem has been beautifully recorded by several distinguished singers, including baritone Nathan Gunn, and Nora Jones who sang it for Ken Burns' WWII documentary. But the singer most synonymous with American Anthem is the opera star Denyce Graves. She sang its premiere in 1988 for President Bill Clinton at the Smithsonian; at the inauguration of President George W. Bush; after 9/11 on The Oprah Winfrey Show and Larry King Live, and last year at the Ruth Bader Ginsberg memorial.

Last week, Denyce Graves' American values were in the spotlight at Tulsa Opera, which cancelled a new piece written for her to commemorate the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921. Graves explained her objection to part of the text via the following statement: "As a Black woman I am a huge supporter of all Black Lives, Black expression, and creativity. I don't have trouble with strong lyrics, but I felt that they did not line up with my personal values. I could not find an honest place to express the lyrics as they were presented." More on the controversy from Public Radio Tulsa and Black Opera Alliance.

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