The Genesis of American Apollo

by Joshua Borths, DMMO Lecturer-in-Residence

When American artist John Singer Sargent died in 1925, only one portrait was hanging in his private studio. But it was not one of his famous paintings that defined the Gilded Age in New England; it was a spare, nude portrait of a Black man: monumental, vulnerable and pulsing with life. His name was Thomas Eugene McKeller.

Poised at the crossroads of race, sexuality, class, celebrity and history, the lives of these two men will intertwine when American Apollo makes its full-length world premiere at Des Moines Metro Opera in 2024.

Sargent was a Boston celebrity, and with support from the pioneering art collector Isabella Stewart Gardner, he was a titan of the art world. Known for his striking contrasts and subtle brush strokes, Sargent’s portraits seem to be alive, simultaneously beckoning the viewer to come closer while withholding important secrets. It’s not surprising, therefore, that prominent institutions would commission Sargent to create works of public art—gods and heroes—to adorn their temples to civic life.

However, in 2017 an important discovery was made. While exploring the archives of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, curator Nathaniel Silver came across sketches that resembled the most prominent poses in Sargent’s public paintings, and soon Silver realized that the model for the white figures on display was a Black man, Thomas Eugene McKeller.

McKeller moved to Boston from Wilmington, North Carolina, as part of the Great Migration from the American South. A contortionist and soon-to-be WWI soldier, McKeller found a job as an elevator operator at the Hotel Vendome where he fatefully met Sargent, a frequent guest of the hotel. Over a period of several years, McKeller became Sargent’s principal model, and the two developed a close—even intimate—relationship.

Opera librettist Lila Palmer was fortunate to see the art exhibition at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum that explored the relationship between McKeller and Sargent, and when she was paired with composer Damien Geter as part of Washington National Opera’s American Opera Initiative, this story became the foundation of American Apollo, which premiered as a 20-minute chamber opera in 2021, conducted by DMMO’s own Music Director and Principal Conductor David Neely. General Director Michael Egel quickly commissioned a full-length version of the work, expanding both the size and scope of this powerful story. 

Since DMMO’s fully staged production of the chamber version last season, librettist Lila Palmer, known for her “impeccable dramatic construction,” has diligently expanded the work to fit the larger canvas. Palmer has used the historical record and her imagination to craft a rich history for McKeller and Sargent, with a vibrant cast of supporting characters. Beginning at a Boston boarding house as McKeller gets ready for work, American Apollo cuts across time and space. The opera is now “equal parts portrait and romance,” Palmer explains, and “a bittersweet, strikingly contemporary story of love, creativity, and friendship that reaches across what divides us.” 

While Geter has preserved every note of the original opera, the musical soundscape has changed and shifted as the work has grown. “It’s jazzier,” muses Geter, whose music has been called “spectacular” by national critics. “I’m excited for people to get to know Thomas McKeller. As a composer, I’m committed to unearthing Black stories and honoring Black individuals who have contributed to the arts, whether we’ve been allowed to see them before or not.” Geter went on to confide, however, that, “I have more questions than answers—questions about power and the many barriers and bridges that existed between these two men.”

Following a successful reading of the libretto in December 2022, American Apollo will receive a piano-vocal workshop in New York City in the fall of 2023. But with the premiere less than one year away, American Apollo has already garnered national attention, a sign that audiences are eager to explore this newly uncovered story. For almost a century, Thomas McKeller has been hiding under someone else’s skin, but now he gets to be seen and his voice finally heard.