In the musical Showboat, the character Joe sings about racism and inequality, as he watches how things change and stagnate along the river and in the world.
And the song where he really lays it all out there - “Ol' Man River” - has become a beloved classic, notably performed by Paul Robeson and William Warfield…or as singer Justin Hopkins first heard it: Frank Sinatra.
But this summer at the Glimmerglass Festival was the first time he sang it context of the full show. He had other characters to interact with, a world this character was inhabiting, instead of being isolated on stage. And he said it was important for him and director Francesca Zambello for this not to “be a sing-songy piece.”
“This had to have meaning. We had to find a way to bring out the strife, the feeling of the emotion of the piece. Also, something I had to think about too – it can’t all be about anger too.”
Showboat was revolutionary in several ways when it was first produced in 1927, but it has elements that to modern ears and eyes are…uncomfortable. And yet, as Justin Hopkins discussed in our interview, it still has things that are a challenge to us today. That made it a fitting companion to the new opera Blue that had its premiere at the festival.
Listen to our conversation at Glimmerglass this summer to hear more from Justin Hopkins about his experience with this music, confronting its history and its current relevance.
After his powerful performances this summer at Glimmerglass, Justin Hopkins headed to Belgium, where he is singing for a year as part of Opera Vlaanderen. Hear more from Hopkins and keep up with where he is performing next through his website.
Thanks to Neal Ganguli for production assistance with this interview.