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The Emperor Jones
Metropolitan Opera House
Opened
: Saturday, January 7, 1933
Composer: Louis Gruenberg     Conductor: Tullio Serafin    
Director:
Alexander Sanine     Designer: Jo Mielziner
Operatic adaptation

Brutus Jones - Lawrence Tibbett
Smithers - Marek Windheim
Native Woman - Pearl Besuner
Congo Witch Doctor - Hemsley Winfield

[From a 3/25/34 letter from Edward Ziegler, Assistant Manager, to Edward Ellsworth Hipsher of The Etude.]

"For the 'Emperor Jones' performances we used a group of negro dancers called the Hemsley Winfield Art and Dance Group of which Hemsley Winfield was the solo dancer and played the part of 'The Witch Doctor' in the last scene. Later he died and his place was taken by Leonardo Barres.

During the action of the opera - I do not know whether you saw it or not - these negroes were grouped behind a painted stockade of palm branches on both sides of the stage.

They did not actually sing but called out to each other the text such as 'this man has got to die', 'he steal our women', etc. Behind the scenes we had the Metropolitan Chorus, who appeared in the last act chorus. Whether or not the negroes chanted the triumphant cries following the death of Emperor Jones, I do not actually remember, but I think they did."

[Review by Pitts Sanborn from New York World Telegram.]

Eugene O'Neill, Lawrence Tibbett, and Jo Mielziner were the making of the hour and a quarter of terror which on Saturday afternoon engrossed one of the largest audiences the Metropolitan Opera House has ever held. Louis Gruenberg's share in the orgy of rasped nerves was more problematical. "The Emperor Jones" has been familiar to followers of the drama for a dozen years, both as a stage production and a play for reading. In turning it into an opera Mr. Gruenberg bravely faced a hazard. Should he or should he not be able with his music to heighten the effect of the original? Unless through the music the play acquired a mightier emotional punch, that music must be more or less in the way. Mr. Gruengerg accepted the risk, with what degree of success we have as yet no collective answer.

There are parts of the new opera in which Mr. Gruenberg's musical instinct has told him to let the actors speak their lines, just as though they were appearing in the "spoken" drama, while the "music" is reduced to the distant drum-beats which have their reiterated parts in the general attack on our nerves. To the observer, these were the wholly successful moments in the production. The orchestral commentary, for the most part, sounded less like the issue of an inspired imagination than like a remembered convention. And when the people took to singing, the words lost clearness and the pace turned leaden. Nor did it seem to me that Mr. Gruenberg made a particularly pungent use of syncopated rhythms or of an inserted spiritual. However, these fragmentary remarks are offered merely as a first impression. In time the scales may fall from my ears and I may hear "The Emperor Jones" as an authentic operatic masterpiece.

There could be no doubt at any time of the excellence of Mr. Tibbett's achievement in the name part. The role is one of pitiless exactions and Mr. Tibbett carried it off with intelligence and unflagging care and a high degree of skill, from the bombast of the self-made "emperor" through all the manifestations of terror to the utter abasement of the end. The scenery supplied by Mr. Mielziner deserves warm praise. The stage direction, however - lighting, dances, and the rest-is another matter. The chorus, partly grouped behind fences on either side of the stage vociferated obediently, and the orchestra, directed by Mr. Serafin, wrought with a will. At the end of the brief "world premiere" there was an ovation, principally, it appeared for Mr. Tibbett, though others bowing acknowledgements included Messr. Gruenberg, Mielziner, Serafin, Setti, and Sanine.


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