William Grant Still

TROUBLED ISLAND by William Grant Still

Troubled Island

Opera Synopsis

Opera Production Timeline

Premiere Performance

Directors and Cast

William Grant Still Art Center and Mural

JUST TELL THE STORY: Troubled Island

What's Inside

Book Review




Biographical Introduction

William Grant Still

Verna Arvey



Contact Information

    Opera Synopsis

William Grant Still Music  
& The Master-Player Library  

An Opera in Three Acts

Libretto by Langston Hughes and Verna Arvey

Requires eight vocal soloists, chorus, ballet, full orchestra and four stage sets.

The Time:     1791
The Place:     Haiti

ACT ONE:  In Front of an Abandoned Sugar Mill
In the balmy still of a Haitian night, a mother sings plaintively to her child. Nearby, in the abandoned sugar mill, angry slaves gather. The rumblings of rebellion are heard as they cry for freedom from their White tormentors. They wait impatiently for their leader, Dessalines. His wife, Azelia, arrives before him, carrying arms hidden in a fruit basket. When Dessalines arrives, he dispatches guards to watch the roads and begins to make plans for freedom.

All that is left is to wait for the voodoo priest and priestess. In this quiet moment, Dessalines and Azelia lament the hopelessness of slaves in love. More slaves arrive to add their voices, and with them is Dessalines' aged friend, Martel. Martel speaks passionately of the Black man's fate, of the tragic tears falling on the troubled island of Haiti.

The voodoo priest and priestess arrive and declare that it is time to strike for freedom. They affirm that Dessalines is the leader of the rebellion. Dessalines rips off his shirt and shows everyone the cruel scars of the White man's whip. He cries for all to take to the hills where freedom waits.

ACT TWO, Scene I:  The Palace of The Emperor--Several Years Later
Dessalines is now Emperor, but all is not well within his small kingdom. He dictates letters to Vuval, his secretary, and is mocked because of his ignorance. Vuval opposed this Black regime and laughs at Dessalines for wanting such nonsense as schools. Dessalines drives Vuval away.

Martel enters and Dessalines confesses that he wears his heavy crown of authority with much trepidation. He expresses his desire for a separate Black land where his people will always be free. But Martel tells him that Haiti must be the land of freedom, for all, White and Black.

Dessalines, divorced from Azelia, has taken the beautiful mulatto Claire as his Empress. She enters from the garden. It is sunset and everyone is preparing for a state banquet. Dessalines leaves to dress. Enter Vuval; Claire, secretly in love with Vuval, agrees to aid him in his revolt against Dessalines. Then she and Vuval will fly away to Paris in triumph.
ACT TWO, Scene II:  The Banquet Terrace
As three female servants complain of the hard work they must do, Azelia enters looking for Dessalines. She is ridiculed and driven away.

The feast begins, the scene awash with the colors and sounds of the tropics. A decadent procession of lords and ladies heralds the entrance of Dessalines. He proclaims his greatness and power. Once again, Azelia tries to enter, to warn him of the danger of the counter-revolution, but she is thrown back by the guards. Her cries of alarm do not reach Dessalines.

The ballet is announced. Gentried couples in their European finery begin the pretentious Minuet. Suddenly the dance floor is alive with the savage, sexually-implicit undulations of the jungle as another group seizes the spotlight. They leap and whirl to the frenzied beat of jungle drums. Claire despises this frantic display and cries out that the drums must be silenced. The room goes still as the drums stop, but in the distance are other drums. Their incessant beat goes on and on and on...

The people have risen against Dessalines' rule. Spurred on by the discontent of the mulattos, the once-glorious revolt against the White man is now threatened by the very people it was supposed to have helped. Dessalines leaves the court to defend his empire against the rebels.

ACT THREE:  A Quay in a Fishing Village
It is a typical scene. The people sing of the sea, the market women cry their wares as fisherman flirt with the women. As the fishermen leave for their boats, the women tease them good-naturedly. Into this happy scene comes a crazed old woman, carrying a basket of fruit. It is Azelia. The market women laugh at her and drive her away. Soldiers suddenly enter led by Stenio and Vuval. They set a trap for Dessalines who is searching for his traitorous generals. When Dessalines arrives, Stenio leaps from his place of concealment and orders his soldiers to seize Dessalines and Popo. Popo is taken but none dare touch the Emperor. Dessalines and Stenio draw swords and fight. Just as Dessalines strikes Stenio's sword from his hand, Vuval emerges from his hiding place and shoots Dessalines in the back. He falls to the ground and the man once proclaimed the liberator of the slaves lies lifeless in the town square. Three Ragamuffins enter and strip the dead Dessalines of his plumed hat, braided coat and wine-colored silken shirt. Azelia enters and drives the Ragamuffins away. She goes to the corpse and kneels beside the body of the man she loves. She lifts his head and falls sobbing across his body. She alone remained true. She has lived to kiss again the scars on his poor Black back.


American Composer and Conductor William Grant Still

Troubled Island  |  Opera Synopsis  |  Opera Production Timeline  |  Premiere Performance  |  Directors and Cast  |  William Grant Still Art Center and Mural  |  What's Inside  |  Book Review  |  Testimonials  |  ORDER BOOK  |  Biographical Introduction  |  William Grant Still  |  Verna Arvey  |  Contact Information

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