Skip to main content

Culture Music

Somber portents

Richard Thompson (Ken Jacques)

Somber portents

The Mask in the Mirror explores a tragic historical romance

Insofar as contemporary drama and Black History Month coincided this year, the films Black KkKlansman and Black Panther sucked much of the air out of the room. 

But a richer, more challenging, and more universal “black history” story can be found in the Sanaa Opera Project’s just-released recording of The Mask in the Mirror (Navona), a three-act opera by the Scottish-born third-stream composer and jazz pianist Richard Thompson.  

Subtitled The Tragic Romance of Paul Laurence Dunbar, the First Black Poet, & Alice Ruth Moore, Thompson’s libretto draws upon excerpts from several of Dunbar’s poems (most notably “Sympathy,” the source of his best-known line, “I know why the caged bird sings”) and the many letters exchanged between Dunbar and Moore during their semi-clandestine, 19th-century courtship and marriage.  

This focus requires Thompson to begin in medias res and therefore to telescope the background against which Dunbar and Moore’s relationship took place: namely, Dunbar’s odds-defying rise to success at a time during which a black poet had a next-to-zero chance of being taken seriously. So some background may be in order. 

Dunbar was not the West’s “first black poet.” The freed slave Phillis Wheatley beat him to that distinction by over a century. But he was the only black author (he also wrote novels, short stories, and the lyrics of two Will Marion Cook productions) with a sizable audience during his time. When he died in 1906 at 33, the Harlem Renaissance was still a dozen years away. 

His poetry has not aged well. The two styles in which he wrote—black-dialect dramatic monologues and formally intricate, “literary English” poems that echo Tennyson and Wordsworth (or, as Act 2, Scene 1, of The Mask in the Mirror has it, Byron and Longfellow)—have long been considered off-puttingly passé. His emotionally direct letters to Moore, however, and hers to him, will still strike a chord in anyone who has ever plunged headlong into a great passion only to discover too late that that way lies madness.

Moore, dazzled by Dunbar’s talent and fame, ignored numerous warning signs. Not only was Dunbar an alcoholic, a womanizer, and a “mama’s boy,” but he also nourished a sense of entitlement based on his self-perception as a “great poet” and a “genius” (at least one of which, to be fair, he was).

The libretto homes in on the turbulence inevitable in such a combustible situation, a turbulence that Thompson’s largely recitative-based vocal melodies and the voices of his classically trained cast bring to a life both tender and terrifying. Whether proud, angry, self-pitying, or pleading, the tenor Cameo Humes and the soprano Angela Owens are resplendent as Dunbar and Moore respectively. And the supporting cast—especially John Polhamus (as the well-meaning but racially blinkered critic William Dean Howells) and Roland Mills (doubling as a Dodd, Mead & Co. sales representative and Dunbar’s “drinking buddy”)—is no less so.  

Meanwhile, the music as played by a Stephen Tucker-conducted chamber orchestra gives voice to the inchoate elements of Dunbar’s and Moore’s internal and external conflicts, connecting them with a moody, at times almost melodramatic tension.  Even the relief provided by the ragtime syncopations of Act 2, Scene 2 (“Paul in a Harlem Bar”), feels portentous.

What it portends is Moore’s inability to save Dunbar from himself, Dunbar’s unwillingness to abandon his self-destructive course, and the crashing failure of their marriage.     

In that sense, The Mask in the Mirror is a richer, more challenging, and more universal work than A Star Is Born as well.