‘Black Mozart’ and his namesake to headline new Glyndebourne concert

·3-min read
Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges - Alamy Stock Photo
Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges - Alamy Stock Photo

Glyndebourne is set to include music by a composer labelled the “Black Mozart” as part of efforts to make opera “truly equitable”.

The East Sussex opera house will stage works by Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, the 18th-century virtuoso who was of mixed-race origin and whose career has been largely forgotten.

His arias will be performed at Glyndebourne for the first time and included in a concert of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Requiem as part of an initiative to improve diversity in opera.

The first classical composer of African ancestry, Bologne was highly successful before his works were stamped out by Napoleon Bonaparte, which reduced the one-time celebrity to a relative unknown compared to Mozart.

On Dec 3 and 9, Glyndebourne’s sold-out performances will put the two composers on an equal footing to raise the profile of diverse composers whose works have been forgotten.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - DEA/A Dagli Orti/De Agostini via Getty Images
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - DEA/A Dagli Orti/De Agostini via Getty Images

Simone Ibbett-Brown, the show’s director, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that the project was concerned with “ensuring we are a truly equitable and creative environment for all to be able to have that voice in what has historically been a very classist industry”.

Regarding historically overlooked composers, she said: “Due to the patriarchy and many other sorts of structural issues – racism, ableism – many of their works have been hidden from view.”

Bologne was born in 1745 to Frenchman George de Bologne Saint-Georges and a slave called Nanon. Despite the racial boundaries of the 18th century, he was given a comprehensive education and became a prodigious swordsman and violinist, before enjoying a career as a popular composer.

Ibbett-Brown explained that Bologne’s abolitionist views led to his works being suppressed by Napoleon, as the emperor was “supported a lot by many slave traders”. However, Glyndebourne will stage arias from his one surviving opera, The Anonymous Lover.

Mixed with music from the 1780 work, actors will perform episodes from his dramatic life as a composer and revolutionary. This will be followed by a performance of Mozart’s Requiem.

The decision to raise the profile of Bologne and place him alongside the composer to which he has been recently compared, with the epithet “the Black Mozart”, came following commitments by Glyndebourne to diversity and inclusion.

In 2020, it said in a statement: “The reality of how we work has fallen short: opera companies, both on stage and off, have failed to realise the full creative potential which would be released by a fully inclusive and diverse workplace. Glyndebourne is no exception.

“It is our aim to improve this situation, and, inspired by the energy of #BlackLivesMatter movement in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, we have committed to examine how we work across all areas.

“As an artistic company, this includes examining decisions about repertoire (our artistic output), as well as the choice of key interpreters for the operas we present – conductors, directors, designers – and how we cast the performers.”

Stephen Langridge, the artistic director of Glyndebourne, has previously stated that the opera house in East Sussex was working towards being “fully inclusive and diverse”.

In 2021, it partnered with the south London-based Pegasus Opera Company, which offers aspiring artists of African and Asian heritage a programme of coaching and mentoring.

‘Championing’ hidden music

Ibbett-Brown said that she was happy to promote Bologne as part of Glyndebourne’s programme: “Why would I not champion this great music that currently, actually, so few of us actually get to enjoy?

“Everyone feels this sort of prejudice, whether it’s persons, or more commonly inherited from a shared history and education and so on. It gives us blinkers.”

She added: “We may miss these perfect pockets of inspiration; of genius. When we take those blinkers off, all we can do is see more beauty in the world, and I think that is a really great thing.”