Sunday, October 17, 2004

Opera gets spiritual in 'Oh Freedom!'

By Janelle Gelfand
Enquirer staff writer

John Fulton and Andrea Jones rehearse Oh Freedom!

Follow the drinking gourd," sings Andrea Jones, as she explains how African-American slaves used music to help them escape along the Underground Railroad.

Jones, a soprano, and baritone John Fulton were warming up in Cincinnati Opera's rehearsal room last week for their show, Oh Freedom!, a 45-minute musical revue chronicling the African-American experience through the Civil Rights Movement. It ends with a moving song from Margaret Garner, the new opera based on a true Cincinnati story.

"It's very important for all of us to learn about our American history and the struggles that some people had to go through," says Fulton, who sings "Let My People Go" in a powerful, ringing baritone.

The singers introduce each spiritual, song and hymn with a story about its meaning. For instance, the "drinking gourd" was code for the Big Dipper; its verse about a "big river" refers to the Ohio River. These "hidden" directions aided slaves' escape to the North.

What: Oh Freedom! A musical tribute to African-American history, Andrea Jones, soprano; John Fulton, baritone, Cincinnati Opera Education.
Admission: Free. 241-2742.
Today - 5:30 p.m., National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, downtown (reservations required: 333-7737).
Wednesday - 7 p.m.,
Saturday - 5 p.m., Arts Consortium of Cincinnati, West End (reservations required: 241-2742).
Next Sunday - 3 p.m., New Prospect Baptist Church, Over-the-Rhine.
"When they were in the fields singing these songs, the masters assumed that they were just trying to sing something to get through the day's work," says Jones, whose great-grandmother was a slave. "But they were much smarter than they were given credit for. The text is a navigation."

Songs of the '20s, such as Cab Calloway's "Minnie the Moocher" and "Summertime" from Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, played an important role in the growth of this country, she adds.

"Music is international; everybody enjoys it," she says. " 'Minnie the Moocher' we all have heard in cartoons, but most people don't know who composed it."

It's important not to forget. But it's also important to celebrate the strides African-Americans have made, says Fulton.

"I love to sing spirituals. I just feel a really big connection with the strength that comes from them," he says. "For slaves, hope came from God and their faith. It makes me appreciative of who and I am, and where I am today."


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