A Black composer was fired by the Tulsa Opera after refusing to change one word in a lyric at the white artistic director’s request. Daniel Bernard Roumain is a Haitian-American violinist and composer who shared his experience on Twitter on Friday, March 19.
“@TulsaOpera just DEcommissoned me. I was asked to create a new work for them. I composed the words and music for a new aria, and the last 2 lines are, ‘God Bless America; God Damn America!’ They asked me to omit ‘Damn’. I refused. They fired me. Life in Black America,” Roumain wrote.
The self-described “creationist” said he was specifically asked by Tulsa Opera Artistic Director Tobias Picker, who is white, to change the lyric. Roumain said Picker’s email to him said “some of the text shoots itself in its own foot,” then suggested he either repeat “God Bless America” twice or change the lyric to “God Help America” as that would be “more poignant than the original and also makes your point in a more elegant way.”
Roumain’s firing is particularly troubling to many because he was hired to compose a song for “Greenwood Overcomes” — an upcoming concert designed to commemorate the centennial of the horrific Tulsa Race Massacre. Set to take place May 1, the opera has touted the event as featuring all-Black composers and singers.
In an interview with Opera Wire, Roumain said he initially requested a librettist to write the text of the song but was told “there wasn’t support for that.” So Roumain submitted original music and lyrics to a song he entitled “They Still Want To Kill Us,” denoting the atrocities of the 1921 riot during which hundreds of Black people were murdered by white supremacists with the help of the local government and police. The prosperous Greenwood District, known as Black Wall Street, was also leveled to the ground.
The harsh dichotomy of oppression experienced by Black people in America despite it being deemed “The Land of the Free” is why Roumain said he chose such specific words. “For me, the point being made is the hypocrisy of our country committing countless atrocities, time and again, in the name of country and under God. Indeed, many BIPOC humans in America have been treated in an inhumane manner, and it’s clear Picker cannot and will not ever be able to understand this and speak for us,” Roumain told Opera Wire.
The Tulsa Opera released a statement defending its actions, noting Roumain was decommissioned because he was inflexible and refused to compromise despite being told the singer he was hired to compose for — mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves — was uncomfortable with some of his lyrics.
“The piece that Mr. Roumain submitted, ‘They Still Want to Kill Us,’ contained lyrics that Ms. Graves felt uneasy singing. Ms. Graves expressed her concerns to Mr. Roumain, and he was asked if he would consider altering his lyrics. He declined,” the statement read. “Mr. Roumain was subsequently informed that, as Ms. Graves was not comfortable performing his piece as written, and as he was unwilling to work to find a compromise, his work would no longer be part of the concert program. He will receive his full commissioning fee.”
The opera’s statement also included a quote from Graves herself: “As a Black woman I am a huge supporter of all Black Lives, Black expression, and creativity. I don’t have trouble with strong lyrics, but I felt that they did not line up with my personal values. I could not find an honest place to express the lyrics as they were presented.”
However, Roumain said in the one email interaction he had with Graves she didn’t ask him to change anything. Rather, Roumain said Graves told him the lyrics made her “bristle” before requesting an MP3 she would be “grateful to have.”
Tulsa Opera’s co-curator Howard Watkins recommended Roumain for the concert. He reiterated the official statement’s claim that “the desire to change the text was not a race issue.”
“She was uncomfortable with more than just the word ‘damn.’ It was the cursing of this country. If you know Denyce Grave’s work and what she’s known for, she performed at Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s funeral and other national events,” Watkins said. “This is reflective of her personal values and something like that was never going to work for her. Daniel didn’t show any evidence of being more flexible to the person he was creating the work for and that was the reason for the dismissal.”
Roumain disagreed, noting his firing by the Tulsa Opera is reflective of a larger institutional problem within the industry. He added he didn’t think it was “the right choice: to hire a white person to lead such an ‘emotional’ tribute to Black lives.
“The Tulsa Opera has revealed why the operatic field continues to be seen as racist and divisive. When a Black composer must endure the intrusions of a white composer — within a work and a festival built around the death and artistry of Black people — but insists on his words and his way, what are we to think and do? I say we don’t bend, or break, or subject ourselves to their ideas. The opera world is full of white stories and perspectives. This is the time for Black stories and our experiences to be on our stages,” Roumain said.