Singer and composer’s Tallahassee opera previews FSU Fundraiser

Black opera is taken to the next level as DaSean Stokes’ original opera tells the story of the crucifixion from the eyes of the women who loved him.

The FSU graduate student, opera singer and composer is excited to share his work during FSU’s Fundraising Preview concert of his “The Saturday Sorrow” on May 8 at Opperman Music Hall. There will be a pre-opera reading in the Lindsey Recital Hall.

Black opera

Historically, opera has been heavily steeped in whiteness. Opera America’s 2022 field-wide demographics focused on the racial landscape of various opera companies in the United States. The lack of representation within departments is devastatingly apparent, with only 22% of total staff identifying as Black Indigenous People Of Color (BIPOC) and 16% in leadership roles.

This truth seeps into the stories told and the artists who share them on stage. Opera singer and composer DaSean Stokes attended his first opera, Puccini’s Tosca, during his undergraduate studies at Central Methodist University (CMU). There he saw his blackness reflected in him through actor Gordon Hawkins; he was addicted.

Singers like Michael Jackson, Kirk Franklin, Anita Baker, CeCe Winans and many more filled the soundtrack of Stoke’s childhood. He started in the band, but soon started singing in the choir, where he first came into contact with classical music.

After leaving CMU, he moved to Tallahassee to pursue a Master of Arts in Arts Administration from Florida State University. Mentors such as Ron Atteberry, who sparked Stoke’s love of composition, and David Okerlund, who emphasizes being unapologetic in one’s artistry, shaped Stoke’s approach and understanding of his role in opera.

“I didn’t know black opera composers were a thing until I came to Tallahassee. Professor Okerlund showed me composers like William Grant Still and Harry Lawrence Freeman,” Stokes said. “These composers show that Black opera has been around for a long time and that our voices are just as needed and valued.”

For Stokes, there is nothing more human than music. His desire to connect with his audience on a human level drives his music and artistry as a whole.

A woman’s perspective

Eight years ago, Stokes was sitting in a classroom learning the ins and outs of composing music when an idea popped into his head that would eventually become his first opera, “The Saturday Sorrow.”

What if he could capture the untold stories of the Biblical characters and saints who surrounded Jesus at his death? Stoke felt that he had always placed Mary, Jesus and Peter on a spiritual pedestal. He decided to investigate whose perspective was missing from the Gospels.

“I chose Mary the Mother of Jesus and Mary Magdalene because I felt that many women in the Bible are not given full recognition for their importance,” Stokes said.

“It was Mary the Mother to whom the angel first came to tell her that she was pregnant. It was Mary Magdalene who saw the stone rolled away, and it was Pilate’s wife who tried to stop Pilate from condemning Jesus. They are the women who are closest to the story.”

“The Saturday Sorrow” tells the story of Jesus’ last days and the events leading up to the crucifixion, through the eyes of the women who loved him. Through innovative storytelling, compelling music and powerful performances, audiences can feel the love, loss and redemption that attendees experience in the sacred moments the community shares.

Stokes feels that the transition from performer to composer is a fluid transition that ebbs and flows. He still considers himself a performer at heart, but appreciates the autonomy you have in creating the world in which the character, and subsequently the actor, lives.

“As a composer, it is what I want to express that allows me to write the music, rather than as a performer being a conduit for expression,” Stokes said.

To do this, he was inspired by a melody by Professor Dr. Laura Wiebe’s setting of the Lord’s Prayer, American Negro Spirituals, and a compilation of prayer, writings, and poetry. The process was filled with discoveries and surprises.

Stokes was surprised by the difficulty of writing a clever and sometimes rhyming libretto (the text of an opera). He leaned on the simplicity of storytelling and focused more on using the music to move people. When he first heard singers and instrumentalists play his music, he and his opera were filled with new life.

A taste of passion

Stokes’ passion for the arts extends beyond the classroom and into his advocacy for the student experience in the Office of Student Success within the College of Music. As a champion for diversity and inclusion, Stokes works to facilitate programs that meet the needs of college students and graduates equally and effectively.

After years of writing and months of rehearsals, Stokes is pleased with the completion of this project.

He hopes to get the opera published and one day perform it with a full orchestra, staging, set and costumes. For now, he would like to share his work during FSU’s Fundraising Preview concert of “The Saturday Sorrow.”

This show “delivers catchy melodies, beautiful instrumental accompaniment and moments full of happiness, sadness, anger and the many other emotions we hope to feel in the opera,” Stokes said.

Dr. Christy Rodriguez de Conte is a feature writer for the Council on Culture & Arts, the umbrella agency for arts and culture in the capital.