Troubled Island

Troubled Island

"Troubled Island" is an American opera in three acts composed by William Grant Still (1895-1978), with a libretto begun by poet Langston Hughes (1902-1967) and completed by Verna Arvey (1910-1987), who married the composer following their collaboration.

Set in Haiti in 1791, "Troubled Island" focuses on Jean Jacques Dessalines (1758-1806) and the corruption of his leadership in the Haitian revolution, which resulted in Dessalines crowning himself as emperor of an independent Haiti before being assassinated.cite web| biography on William Grant Still|url=]

Still and Hughes began writing "Troubled Island" in 1936, but Hughes left the project the following year to cover the Spanish Civil War for the Baltimore Afro-American. [cite web|title="Troubled Island” plot synopsis|url=] Arvey, a pianist and writer who never wrote a libretto before, completed the project in Hughes’ absence. cite book|title=William Grant Still: A Study in Contradictions|last=Smith|first=Catherine Parsons|publisher=University of California Press|isbn=978-0520215436|date=2000]

"Troubled Island" was completed in 1939, but Still faced problems in arranging for a production. Planned premieres in 1945 and 1948 at the New York City Opera were withdrawn, but the company presented the world premiere of "Troubled Island" on March 31, 1949; this was the first time the work of an African-American composer was presented by a major American opera company. Although the leading roles of Dessalines and his wife Azelia were based on black Haitians, the opera company cast white opera stars Robert Weede and Marie Powers, who work dark make-up for the 1949 premiere.

The premiere performance was greeted with 22 curtain calls.cite web|url=|title=Verna Avery|publisher=William Grant Still Music & The Master-Player Library|accessdate=2008-05-13] However, critical reaction to the work ranged from mixed-to-negative. Time Magazine complained “Composer Still's music, sometimes lusciously scored, sometimes naively melodic, often had more prettiness than power. In all, Troubled Island had more of the 'souffle of operetta than the soup bone of opera.” [cite web|title=Troubled Opera|url=,9171,800096,00.html|publisher=Time Magazine] John Briggs of the New York Post opined that “one was never sure one was hearing a first-rate performance of an inferior work or a second-rate performance of a good one,” while Miles Kastendieck, writing for both the New York Journal-American and the Christian Science Monitor, stated that Still’s music was “the result is a mixture of styles signifying talent and a feel for opera but achieving little more than a suggestion of it.” [cite web|title=William Grant Still: A Bio-bibliography|authors=Judith Anne Still, Michael J. Dabrishus, Carolyn L. Quin|url=]

Years later, Judith Still, the daughter of Still and Arvey, stated that the New York critics intentionally panned "Troubled Island" due to racism. “Howard Taubmann (a critic and friend of Still) came to my father and said ‘Billy, because I’m your friend I think that I should tell you this – the critics have had a meeting to decide what to do about your opera. They think the colored boy has gone far enough and they have voted to pan your opera.’ And that was it. In those days, critics had that kind of influence.” [cite web|title=Classics For Kids biography on William Grant Still|url=]

Following its premiere, New York City Opera staged two additional presentations, on April 1 and May 1 of 1949. To date, New York City Opera has never revived the work, and it has not been widely seen since.


External links

* [ William Grant Still Music] , site with comprehensive information about him and his music
* [ Interview] , Transcript, African American Music Collection, University of Michigan

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