William Grant Still Music
& The Master-Player Library
An Opera in Three Acts
Music by WILLIAM GRANT STILL
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.
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
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.