CHARLOTTE, NC – Commissioned by the Glimmerglass Festival and premiered there during the summer of 2021, The Passion of Mary Cardwell Dawson is a fascinating, informative, and inspiring hybrid. Part documentary, partly a new play by Sandra Seaton with operatic arias composed by Carlos Simon, and partly an eye-opening “Building the Stage” exhibition, the new co-production by Opera Carolina and The Denyce Graves Foundation has found a perfect landing spot at the posh Parr Center on the Central Piedmont Community College campus. With numerous glitterati on hand from Charlotte’s African American community to celebrate opening night, Dawson, and Black History Month, the Parr Center lobby dazzled as never before. Just 15 minutes before the curtain was scheduled to rise, I encountered a roomful of beautiful people and formalwear; imposing billboard-sized exhibits of museum quality devoted to Dawson, the National Negro Opera Company she founded, and the luminaries of opera – and jazz – that she tutored; accessorized with video stretching from one entrance to the New Theater to the other. All the bells, whistles, and glamor you could want, with a live bass and alto sax duo playing Charlie Parker bebop in the background.

The production was certainly equal to the new hall. Accompanied solely at this point of its development by pianist Gregory Thompson, The Passion would seem smallish at Belk Theater with its cast of four and an orchestra of one. Unfortunately, the Seaton-Simon creation also struck me as too small for Dawson, its subject, and too small for Graves, its star. With a sympathetic director like Kimille Howard already on board, and Opera Carolina’s set designer demonstrating fresh possibilities with his wonderful projections on the upstage wall, the avenues are certainly opened for a fuller exploration of Dawson’s talents and achievements.

Seaton places all of the action in Pittsburgh, mostly at the headquarters of Dawson’s company on Apple Street, in a studio upstairs from her husband Walter’s electric company. Her compressed timeline results in a format that wavers between masterclass and a professional rehearsal. On one side of the stage, Thompson presides at a Steinway, and at the other, we see three humble chairs that might be occupied by students in a Dawson masterclass. If the libretto were allowed to breathe a little, the curtain would rise on the three students we will see, either seated and ready to perform or engaged in conversation, giving Simon – composer-in-residence at the Kennedy Center in DC – a chance to begin penning some recitative, and giving Graves a grander entrance.

Alas, this is a rehearsal of Bizet’s Carmen on the day that the Negro Opera Company’s production is set to premiere on a floating outdoor stage by the shore of one of Pitt’s famed three rivers. This setup gets more improbable as the story unfolds, undercutting Dawson’s wisdom as a performing artist, an opera director, and a business person. Would an operatic director allow her performers to risk overtaxing their voices by rehearsing on the day they perform? Wouldn’t the entire cast be summoned to a last-minute rehearsal? Wouldn’t it be in full dress? Wouldn’t standard rep like Carmen be so far under the belts of professional-grade singers that their director wouldn’t feel compelled to instruct them on how to present Bizet’s music or penetrate to his protagonists’ cores?

By heightening her drama on the day of the opening, Seaton actually manages to be more unflattering to the Dawsons. A rainstorm is raging across Pittsburgh, threatening the cancellation of the night’s outdoor performance and the ruination of Dawson’s company. Administrators at Spoleto Festival USA and ticketholders from around the globe would laugh out loud at the notion that a scheduled outdoor production would bring in national and international stars to Pittsburgh without making contingency plans for bad weather beforehand. Not sound judgment for Dawson or her husband, who handled her company’s business end.

Of course, Seaton’s scheme makes it easier for The Passion to have legs, because the roles of Dawson’s singers – Isabelle as Micaela, Phoebe as Carmen, and Frank as Don José – only need to be versed in their presumably familiar Bizet music rather than having to learn anything written by Simon. Even so, Diana Thompson-Brewer as Isabella, LaDejia Tenille as Phoebe, and Johnnie Felder as Frank, are all forced to look and sound slightly amateurish at times during their lamentably brief moments in the spotlight. Howard helps them all out from her director’s chair, occasionally obliging Graves to be a bit fussier – and a lot more prudish – than Seaton may have imagined Dawson when she wrote the script.

I was most impressed by Felder in the tenor role, and wondered how much his superiority might have figured in Seaton’s concept or Howard’s casting. Most of Graves’ vocal coaching, after all, is reserved for the younger women onstage and the music she has excelled in all the way the Metropolitan Opera, Covent Garden, and the Vienna Staatsoper, to name a few – so it would be a pity not to hear Graves in this repertoire while we have her here and not perceive her superiority to Dawson’s protégées. The diva and the drama deserve that. Simon’s music, scant as it is, is also worthy of Graves. Those two arias, when Dawson is alone with her thoughts and later when her class/rehearsal is done, both have the qualities of the best arias sung at Spoleto’s production of Barber’s Vanessa last spring.

A fuller version of The Passion of Mary Cardwell Dawson would be a full-length opera with a fuller view of Dawson as a singer, teacher, and impresaria. Ideally, it would take us back to the North Carolina native’s childhood and the foundations of her love for music and opera, but we should at least cover the arc of Dawson’s founding of her company, a more substantial exploration of her teaching methods and philosophy, and a nicely drawn arc of her prize students’ development into professional opera singers that do full credit to Dawson and her pioneering company in their Carmen. A full opera company at the end – with a fuller orchestra – would bring the entire enterprise up to scale. Make no mistake, though, this handsome Opera Carolina production is an exciting coup for Charlotte and a compelling argument for Denyce Graves’ project to reach its fullest fruition.

For more information on the production, see our calendar here.