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FREEMAN, HARRY LAWRENCE

FREEMAN, HARRY LAWRENCE

FREEMAN, HARRY LAWRENCE (9 Oct. 1869-24 March 1954) became the first African American to compose an opera, adding nearly a score of works in the same genre during a long career as teacher and composer. The son of soprano Agnes Sims Freeman, he was born in Cleveland and educated in its public schools, where he learned to sight-read music. He organized a boys' quartet at the age of 10 and became assistant organist at his family church at 12. Following his high school graduation, Freeman went to Denver, Colo., where he composed and produced his first opera, The Martyr (1893). The first opera ever written by an African American, it was also produced in Chicago and at the German Theater in Cleveland in 1904. After writing a second opera, Nada (1898; later retitled Zuluki), Freeman returned to Cleveland to study composition and theory under JOHANN BECK. Excerpts from Freeman's Nada were also performed by the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra under Beck in 1901. Freeman went on to teach at Wilberforce Univ. from 1902-04 and later in New York, where he founded the Freeman School of Music in 1914. He continued to compose operas to his own librettos, the majority of them centered around African American, Native American, or Mexican characters. Several of them were never performed, although Valdo (1906) had its premiere in Cleveland's Weisgerber's Hall, and Voodoo (1914) became the first African American opera to be performed in New York's Broadway theater district on 10 Sept. 1928. Those that were performed were generally produced by Freeman himself, often with the participation of his soprano wife Carlotta and son Valdo L., a baritone. Freeman died in his home in New York City.