South Side Crescendo

When one considers Chicago African-American music, the first things that come to mind are probably twelve-bar blues and stirring gospel. But Cornelius V. Johnson, the calm and sagacious Artistic Director and tenor of the South Shore Opera Company (SSOC), which is based out of the South Shore Cultural Center, has something else in mind. According to Johnson, “the future of African-Americans and opera is very bright.” The SSOC’s February show⎯an excerpted version of a newly composed opera, “The March on Washington, A Civil Rights Opera Project”⎯was met with warm accolades. Johnson says that the company is “looking to expand,” and these hopes are not far from realization–the SSOC phones have been ringing off the hook with proposals for potential commissions.

With a well-established local reputation for quality opera, it is surprising that the SSOC is only in their fourth season. The group was founded by Dr. Marvin Lynn, who is no longer with the opera. Today, SSOC has a simple and clear vision, as Johnson explains, “to spread high caliber music to South Side Chicago. We want to give artists an opportunity to perform with minority groups, and we want to work with the youth.” Elsewhere, there are not many opportunities for African Americans in opera, a field traditionally dominated by those of European stock. To stir change, the Company presents three programs a year: two free performances and one gala event, all at the South Shore Cultural Center.

Although they primarily perform scenes from classical American operas, the SSOC often includes an eclectic repertoire ranging from musical theatre, such as “Porgy and Bess” by Gershwin, to traditional African-American music. On June 23, students who are of college age will be performing a selection of musical theater pieces in the Company’s “Showcase of Our Young and Emerging Artists.” Although they have many veteran singers, most of whom reside on the South Side, the SSOC doesn’t have a fixed group of vocalists. In addition to auditions, such showcases aim to draw new talent to the group.

This past February, the Company collaborated with the Chicago Parks District, the composer Jonathan Stinson, and librettist Alan Stinson on their opera-in-the-works, “March on Washington,” for their Black History Month program. This new opera follows Martin Luther King Jr., Coretta Scott King, members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and others from a civil rights meeting scene at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York, to a confrontation with President Kennedy at the Oval Office in Washington. The Company’s most talented were showcased in these short segments from the show, which feature works ranging from traditional freedom songs to classical arias. This show, still a work in progress, will hopefully be complete for the 2013-14 season to mark the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington.

The SSOC is determined to offer young African-Americans with vocal chops a new path. Johnson, who played civil rights leader John Lewis in “March on Washington,” says, “I think that people would be really pleased in attending any of our performances because of the range of what we present on the stage. Each of our programs has been very high quality. It is a wonderful evening. And you can’t beat the value.” Although opera tracks aren’t reigning on the Billboard Top 100 lists, there is no doubt that the SSOC offers a great deal of training, relevancy, and community to the young South Siders that attend their rehearsals. Johnson repeatedly mentions the importance of spreading opera to minorities, “but,” the tenor says, lowering his voice, “I really want to stress that the bigger goal is to promote good, quality music.”

Showcase of Young and Emerging Artists, South Shore Cultural Center, 7059 S. South Shore Dr. June 23. Saturday, 7:30pm. Free.