Troubled Island
Composer: William Grant Still
Composer Bio: William Grant Still (May 11, 1895 – December 3, 1978) was a prolific African-American classical composer. Born in Woodville, Mississippi he was the son of two teachers. Growing up with his widowed mother and stepfather originally went to medical school per his mother's wishes. While there he conducted the university band, learned instruments, and began composing. He later attended Oberlin Conservatory of Music and studied at the New England Conservatory before enlisting in the US Navy and serving in World War I. His career took off in the years afterward. He was the first African-American to conduct a major American symphony orchestra, the first to have his own orchestra performed by a leading orchestra, the first to stage an opera with a major company, and the first to have an opera performed on live television. He married Verna Arvey, a journalist and pianist, in 1939. He died of heart failure in Los Angeles.
Librettist: Langston Hughes and Verna Arvey
Other Artistic Personnel: Laszlo Halasz (Music Director/Conductor)
Heinz A. Condel (Stage/Costume Design)
Eugene Bryden (Stage Direction)
George Balanchine and Jean Leon Destine (Choreography)
Original Cast: Muriel O'Malley (Celeste)
Nathaniel Sprinzena (Popo)
Marie Powers (Azelia)
Robert Weede (Dessalines)
Oscar Natzka (Martel)
Richard Charles (Vuval)
Also: Arthur Newman, Robert McFerrin, Ruth Stewart, Helena Bliss, Dorothy MacNeil, Frances Bible, Rosalind Nadell, Edwin Dunning, Richard Wentworth, William Stanz, Mary Lesawyer
Work Web Site:
Premiere Date: March 31, 1949
Producing Company: City Center Opera Company (New York City Opera)
Description: The opera tells the story of Jean Jacques Dessalines, an African slave who liberated Haiti from French rule to become its emperor in the late 18th century. Dessalines, who ruled Haiti from 1803-1806, incites the revolt against the ruling French.

Setting: Haiti, 1791
Act I-In Front of an Abandoned Sugar Mill: Dessalines; his wife, Azelia; his aged friend, Martel; and other slaves gather together to wait for the voodoo priests. Once everyone has gathered, the priests declare that it is time to strike for freedom. Dessalines is chosen as leader of their rebellion against the white man.
Act II-The Palace of the Emperor, Several Years Later: Dessalines is now Emperor, but all is not well in his small kingdom. His secretary, Vuval, mocks him for wanting such nonsense as schools for Haiti. Dessalines laments to Martel that he wishes for a separate black land where people will always be free, but Martel tells him that Haiti must be the land of freedom for all people, white and black. Dessalines has divorced Azelia and taken as his Empress the beautiful mulatto Claire. Claire is secretly in love with Vuval, and together they plot to overthrow Dessalines and escape to Paris. Azelia, ever faithful, tries to warn Dessalines of the danger awaiting him but is rebuffed by the guards. A large, opulent banquet and ballet are announced, and there is much frenetic dancing and drumming. After the banquet's drums cease, incessant, distant drumming can now be heard in the jungle: The people have risen against Dessalines's rule.
Act III-A Quay in a Fishing Village: Dessalines is set upon by Vuval and other soldiers and is eventually shot in the back by Vuval. After Dessalines is assassinated, he is mourned only by the faithful Azelia.
Character List (Major): 4 sopranos, 1 alto, 1 mezzo-soprano, 1 contralto, 3 tenors, 2 baritones, 1 bass
Reviews: New York Post, 5-2-49; The New York Times, Olin Downes, 4-1-49; Herald Tribune Review, Francis D. Perkins, 4-1-49; New York Sun, Irving Kolodin, 4-1-49
Length: 02:00
Total Acts: 3
Chorus: Mixed Chorus
Orchestration: 2 flutes (dbl. piccolo), 2 oboes (dbl. Eng. horn), 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons - 3 horns, 3 trumpets, 2 trombones, 1 tuba - extensive percussion, harp, piano - strings
Ballet/Dance: Ballet
Musical Style: Tonal, mildly dissonant, some blues influence; tropical, Haitian traditional melodies
Contact: William Grant Still Music
E-mail Address:
Phone: 212-621-6327
Composer Web Site:
Publisher Web Site:
330 Seventh Avenue, New York, NY 10001
Tel: 212.796.8620 • Fax: 212.796.8621

Privacy PolicyReturns Policy
© Copyright 1995-2015 OPERA America Inc.