In summer 2021, Opera Theatre of Saint Louis (OTSL), in partnership with the Missouri Historical Society, held a city-wide celebration commemorating Juneteenth with I Dream a World. The outdoor production, curated by soprano Nicole Cabell and baritone Will Liverman, beautifully blended music, song, and spoken word and received rave reviews. This event was presented free to the public and then streamed at no cost between September 3 – 30, 2021.
AGMA’s Director of Communications Alicia Cook had the great opportunity to speak with Nicole Cabell about the whole experience. This interview was originally published in the Fall 2021 Issue of AGMAzine on page 35.
Alicia Cook (AC): Thanks so much for taking the time out of your schedule to speak with AGMAzine. Let’s start at the beginning! How did this all come together?
Nicole Cabell (NC): Will [Liverman] and I were approached by OTSL to curate an evening in honor of Juneteenth, as we were both singing in William Grant Still’s Highway 1, U.S.A. the same season.
AC: How is working with Will? Fun I bet.
NC: Will and I had worked together very briefly on an album that Alyson Cambridge and I recorded for Cedille Records in Chicago several years back. Will sang a trio from Cosi Fan Tutte with us on the recording. I didn’t get the opportunity to truly know him then, but I’m so grateful to have collaborated with him for six weeks this summer in Highway 1, U.S.A.
Will is a colossal talent, and a wonderful colleague and new friend! It’s always a pleasure to sing with someone who is considerate and creative on stage, and Will certainly fits the bill.
AC: That’s so great. How did you go about curating this program? How did you pick and choose? This was such a robust event! The program included a wide range of musical modes to reflect and celebrate the Black experience in America -- from opera to gospel to jazz to even spoken word poetry.
NC: Initially, working off of the Juneteenth theme, Will and I were discussing basing the music around freedom, specifically emancipation. We cast a wide net in considering who would sing in the concert and what music would be included. As we had a limited time frame to work with, we excluded many selections and fine-tuned the concert to include music composed by Black Americans, featuring Black singers. We envisioned a variety of different genres in order to add shape and texture to the program. Our final product included operatic arias, spirituals, art song, jazz selections, ensemble repertoire, spoken word featuring local St. Louis poets, a string quartet, and a special commission from Joshua Brian Campbell, who composed the song “Stand Up” from the movie “Harriett”, which was nominated for an Oscar.
AC: As curators, did you also name the event, I Dream a World? The title song, “I Dream a World” was composed by Damien Sneed, and I see on Spotify that Will is the vocalist on the track. Why did this particular selection become the title of the evening and were there any other titles you had considered? What does I Dream a World mean to you?
NC: We did consider other titles, but we thought “I Dream a World” perfectly captured what we were trying to say with this concert. There is an inherent optimism in this title and the poetry itself, juxtaposed with our current reality, which is trying to move in the right direction despite the battles we continually fight. We dream of a world that can live up to our potential as a society.
AC: Beautiful. Thank you for sharing. You had mentioned needing to exclude some pieces due to time. Were there any performances you had hoped to include, but it didn’t work out?
NC: Yes. We were hoping to feature dance numbers, but because of our time and stage limitations, given the outdoor event had a social distancing structure to the staging, we sadly had to scrap that idea. We were quite happy with the overall product, and it was fascinating to discover so much excellent music that I hadn’t heard before. It was kind of amazing how much music we couldn’t include in the program because we were trying to keep the concert within 90 minutes, but that’s good news for future iterations of this program!
AC: Speaking of other iterations…given the great success of the event and how much you seem to have enjoyed it, do you think you will curate works in the future too?
NC: This concert with OTSL was the first real opportunity to curate a concert that I’d been offered. Of course, I have curated my own piano and voice recitals, but that is a common skill most singers develop and nothing quite as complex as this concert. I’d be happy to curate in the future, but I must say I’d love to collaborate with others rather than take on a project like this by myself.
Feeding off of others’ points of view was crucial to this project, and working with Will, in particular, was invaluable. I hope I am able to work with him again in the future, both in performance and behind the scenes. Will and I also had the pleasure to work with members of OTSL and the Missouri History Museum as well choosing the artists and general program construct.
AC: Teamwork makes the dream work. In addition to curating the program, you and Will performed as well. Tell us about that. How did you balance the role of curator with your role as a performer?
NC: Curating I Dream a World with Will gave us the opportunity to work together before we started rehearsals for Highway 1, U.S.A. We were able to get to know each other, and our relationship as colleagues grew even stronger through the operatic process.
We don’t often get to work with our singer colleagues behind the scenes, so it was really wonderful getting to know another side of Will. We have hopes to sing and possibly record together in the future.
It was actually quite refreshing to be involved with an opera company both behind the scenes and in front of the public, and balance was certainly possible in this case given the short length of Highway 1, U.S.A. We had a bit of extra time for our Juneteenth concert, which was a luxury.
AC: I Dream a World was presented free to the public. Did you see a big turnout? Can you share any responses you recall witnessing? Broadway World gave it a glowing review!
NC: We were very happy with the turnout, given it was about 95 degrees and humid outside! The audience was quite enthusiastic, especially at the end when everyone stood for “Lift Every Voice.” We heard from dozens of audience members afterward that really enjoyed the program, especially the discovery of so much music they’d never heard.
AC: This program was designed to commemorate Juneteenth, and included all Black composers. What does Juneteenth mean to you?
NC: Will and I programmed music we felt highlighted the Black American experience in all its complexity and depth. The interesting, beautiful, sometimes tragic, sometimes exuberant music on display is a snapshot of what we have to offer, fueling hope for the future of our contributions to music and art.
It was an immense pleasure to curate this program, especially in light of Juneteenth becoming a federal holiday. To me, Juneteenth represents hope. While we have such a long way to go toward achieving the imagined “American Dream” for everyone, Juneteenth was a major step in the right direction.
About Nicole Cabell: Nicole Cabell is the 2005 Winner of the BBC Singer of the World Competition in Cardiff and a Decca recording artist. She is one of the most sought-after lyric sopranos of today. Her solo debut album, “Soprano” was named “Editor’s Choice” by Gramophone and has received an incredible amount of critical acclaim and several prestigious awards, including the 2007 Georg Solti Orphée d’Or from the French Académie du Disque Lyrique.