The Portrait of an Opera

by Joshua Borths, DMMO company dramaturg

In 1916 the world-famous artist, John Singer Sargent, stepped into an elevator at the Hotel Vendome in Boston, Massachusetts. As the doors began to shut, Sargent noticed—and presumably began a conversation with—the young, Black bellman, Thomas McKeller, operating the lift. While the nature of their interactions behind closed doors is unknown, this encounter was clearly the beginning of a long relationship between the two men.

McKeller quickly became Sargent’s preferred model in the United States, posing for a dizzying array of figures in Sargent’s paintings and murals, all of whom were depicted as white. And yet, despite this erasure of McKeller from Sargent’s public work, it was a private, nude portrait of McKeller that dominated Sargent’s studio when he died in 1925.

Since the rediscovery of this complicated relationship, art historians and scholars have worked to uncover the life of Thomas McKeller and reexamine the works of John Singer Sargent. However, no amount of research can ever fully unearth what happened between them. It is only fitting, therefore, that this relationship be explored through a work of art, the opera American Apollo, making its much anticipated premiere this summer at DMMO. “McKeller and Sargent were artists, and artists are better judged by their art than what they say about themselves,” explains librettist Lila Palmer, adding “you can always tell when someone takes a picture of—or paints—someone they love.”

American Apollo began its life as a 20-minute opera as part of Washington National Opera’s American Opera Initiative. It caught the eye of David Neely, DMMO’s Music Director and Principal Conductor, and the company quickly commissioned an expansion of the opera.

Now the full work has been fleshed out, workshopped, and prepared for its world premiere. “We tweaked and cut a lot,” explains composer Damien Geter. “It’s easy to get swept into the world of famous figures and chiseling them down was a challenge.” Palmer adds, “The process is very technical and detailed, but what has been clear through all the workshops is that different people resonate with different aspects of the story… I’m excited to learn what people see.”

Many of the same singers who will premiere American Apollo have been with the project since the beginning. “Their voices are each so interesting, and their contributions were invaluable,” says Geter. “Listening to them, I got a lot of information about how the text and notes were working together.”

Musically, Geter explains, “I used almost every note of the original version, but the material is now spread out. The score is motific, so musical ideas are used over and over in variation. As I wrote, I was thinking about how Sargent painted McKeller in all these different poses… The score is like a theme and variation.” Geter’s eyes brighten. “I wanted to use a musical palate that was colorful and makes you think you are looking at a painting. There’s a lot of swirling as different ideas and musical styles collide.” Geter concludes, “But I’m most excited for people to learn about Thomas McKeller… People need to know about the contributions of Black folks across the country.”

While American Apollo is a work of historical fiction, Geter and Palmer agree that this is a story that needs to be sung. “The issue of erasure… is an important part of the story. We had to tackle it.” Palmer concludes, “It is so delicate and nuanced. People contain multitudes, and there is so much that is sweet and bitter as we depict the complexity of humans trying and failing.”

After decades of neglect, Sargent’s portrait of McKeller now hangs in the Boston Museum of Art for the world to see. Surrounded by both Gilded Age artifacts and paintings by contemporary Black artist Kehinde Wiley, an explosion of color and pulsating beauty now confronts viewers as ubiquitous French vases give way to Black excellence. When baritone Justin Austin, who is originating the role of Thomas McKeller, finally stood face-to-face with the portrait, he exclaimed, “Yes… I see.”