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How Black Joy Broke Barriers Through Opera — Just In Time For Juneteenth

Evie Hemphill
St. Louis Public Radio
Will Liverman joined Friday's talk show to discuss what it was like to curate "I Dream a World: A Celebration of Juneteenth."
Opera Theatre of St. Louis
“I Dream a World” included performances by Black opera singers, St. Louis Symphony Orchestra players, jazz musicians and spoken word artists.

President Joe Biden signed legislation Thursday making Juneteenth a federal holiday, but St. Louis didn't wait for his signature to celebrate.

On Tuesday, the Missouri History Museum and Opera Theatre of St. Louis presented “I Dream a World: A Celebration of Juneteenth” in commemoration of the day when enslaved people in Texas belatedly learned of their emancipation. The growing movement to celebrate Juneteenth included St. Louis and St. Louis County both making it an official holiday in the past year.

“For those of us in the African American community, Juneteenth is not a new holiday,” concert attendee Keon Gilbert said. “But the recognition — not only in the city, state and across the country — really demonstrates another symbol and example of freedom.”

Through the event, curators Nicole Cabell and Will Liverman hoped to celebrate and amplify the work of Black composers and artists to foster evolution in the opera world and beyond. As Liverman explained on St. Louis on the Air, he felt it was important to showcase music from artists throughout history, as well as today’s up-and-coming artists.

How Black Joy Broke Barriers Through Opera- Just In Time For Juneteenth
Listen to our conversation with opera singer and curator Will Liverman.

“We're celebrating the composers of old, but also normalizing the composers of now that are out there doing it and telling new stories and owning our own narrative,” he said.

The opera world has not sufficiently been open to Black voices and Black composers historically, Liverman said.

“[Opera] is an institution that was once designed to keep Black people out,” he said.

While people are paying closer attention to diversity and inclusion in the wake of a summer of racial reckoning in 2020, Liverman said he would like to see more action taken in the classical community.

“We need people of color in leadership positions to be in the room, where it happens. … We need leadership and our creatives on the other side of the table, people of color, in roles of supporting the opera,” he said.

The program at the History Museum included performances by Black opera singers, St. Louis Symphony Orchestra players, jazz musicians and spoken word artists.

As performer Kaylyn McKoy told St. Louis on the Air after the show, “This is an event that is really showing African Americans in a positive light, which unfortunately doesn’t happen so often in the media, so this is us telling our own stories the way we want them to be told.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. Paola Rodriguez is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Emily is the senior producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.

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