The Philharmonia Orchestra
An opera in four acts for soloists, chorus, and full orchestra. To a libretto by Grace Nichols and John Agard in collaboration with Michael Stimpson.
The story of Jesse Owens' life is an extraordinary one, encompassing struggle and success. Surviving a childhood brush with death, he rose from extreme poverty (his parents were sharecroppers and his grandparents were slaves) to triumph at the 1936 Berlin Olympics under the disapproving eyes of Hitler. After the American authorities saw fit to strip him of his amateur status shortly after his Olympic success, he entered a period of decline, and struggled to make a living from various business ventures, even being forced into racing motorbikes and horses for money. He took a controversial stand on the rise of the Black Power movement in the 1960s, but by the time of his death from lung cancer in 1980, he had finally achieved the recognition and respect that he deserved. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Gerald Ford in 1976, and his reputation has continued to grow posthumously, in both the African-American community and society at large.
The four Acts cover Jesse Owens' early life; his development as a young athlete in a society where racial prejudice and the Ku Klux Klan were still highly visible; his Olympic achievements; and his later life as an athlete prohibited from any meaningful competition. The opera, both light-hearted and serious, touches on issues and themes that are just as relevant today, especially that of achievement against the odds.
Covering such a vibrant period (Jesse was born in 1913, the year that W.C. Handy made his first recordings), the opera is able to blend the influence of jazz and the blues with the traditional characteristics of mainstream opera. Central to the opera is of course the role of Jesse himself, and to facilitate dramatisation of the psychological aspects of his life this has been split into four - thus the young Jesse (boy soprano), athlete Jesse (tenor), middle-aged Jesse (baritone), and old Jesse (bass) are able to interact with each other and to look forward and back on events simultaneously. Accompanying the main role of Jesse are his parents, Emma and Henry, his wife, Minnie, and coach, Riley. Lesser, but nevertheless important roles are given to Luz Long, Leni Riefenstahl, and Avery Brundage, the head of the US athletic authorities.