NORMAN — A musical form born in the slave quarters of the Deep South, spirituals are experienced by many as an outpouring of emotions with rich cultural history and beautiful harmonious structures.
Keeping the resilient inspiration of spirituals alive, the Cimarron Opera presents the 43rd Annual Festival of Spirituals this weekend free to the public, for all ages and denominations.
Cimarron Opera executive director Shari Ransley said spirituals are the “first American art form”.
“All spiritual songs are about hope,” she said. “It is incredible to me how hopeful and positive this music is against all odds.”
Predating the foundation of Cimarron Opera by five years, the Festival of Spirituals has been a Palm Sunday tradition in Norman since 1970. The late Thomas and Carol Brice Carey, Cimarron Opera founders, developed the annual program to keep aspects of African-American heritage alive.
“It is important to keep the memory of the spiritual alive,” Kevin Smith, Cimarron Opera musical director said. “Festival of Spirituals is an opportunity to hear things you usually don’t get to hear when you turn on the radio.”
Smith continues the Carey’s tradition of presenting a program of many familiar spirituals — such as “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” as a spiritual — along with a few lesser known songs.
“Kevin has compiled a wonderful collection for Sunday’s concert arranged from Carol Bryce’s beautiful musical arrangements,” Ransley added.
The spirituals to be performed Sunday are not technically authentic, Smith said.
“All our spirituals are arranged,” Smith said. “They were of course originally sung a cappella and handed down while being sung in the field as the slaves worked. Most were pretty simple. They were created to be repetitive because each song honed in on a singular message.”
Cimarron Opera continues its original mission to provide aspiring performing artists and creative technicians a forum for their talents and opportunities to gain valuable training and stage experience.
Smith has expanded festival performers to represent a variety of musicians.
“I want to showcase all types of musicians,” Smith said. “I asked Mervin Tay to develop three arrangements for brass quartet. Tay is originally from Singapore and is a very talented University of Oklahoma student musician and arranger. I challenged him to arrange the pieces so the audience will know the melodic times even without the words. Tay has done a fantastic job in arranging for [The Boulevard Brass Quintet].”
Ransley said audience members will be blown away by the “extraordinary group of talented singers” slated to perform Sunday. Performers include soprano Donna Cox, a voice professor at OU; soprano Erica C. Thomas, Cimarron Opera performer for over 15 years, an Oklahoma Arts Council touring artist and educator at Langston University; and the Langston University Choir, under the leadership of Bonita Franklin.
“Cimarron Opera has such a rich history. Our strength is to pull community together and we are working to do that again,” Ransley said. “Our education arm has always been very, very strong. Our annual summer kids cam is very well respected across the United States.”
Cimarron Opera community building will incorporate bringing back the summer operetta. Ransley says Cimarron Opera will stage both an adult and children’s version of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Iolanthea.