Opera composer focuses on American stories

Black male relatives in the same household view life differently in the opera House of Brothers, coming May 21 to the Porter Sanford III Performing Arts and Community Center.

Black male relatives in the same household view life differently in the opera House of Brothers, coming May 21 to the Porter Sanford III Performing Arts and Community Center.

As a child in the 1950s Sharon J. Willis was living in Atlanta with an aunt and attending an after-school program at the YMCA near Morris Brown College. An official at the center announced plans for an upcoming recital and asked the youngsters what talents they had. “Does anyone play the piano?” the Y official asked. 

“I don’t know what made me raise my hand,” Willis recalled. “I had never touched a piano. She didn’t ask me to try out—she just put me on the program. When they announced a piano selection by Sharon Willis, my aunt looked shocked; she knew I couldn’t play the piano. She must have wondered if there was another Sharon Willis in the room, but I sat down at the piano confident that God would give me the ability to play. I literally sat there waiting on God. Finally, I just hit a few keys, striking anything. Then I stood up and took a bow. There was a spattering of laughter, but the audience was mostly polite because I was a child.”

Willis recalled that her aunt had a few choice words for her when they got home. “I had embarrassed the family,” Willis said, “and she wanted me to know that. After she calmed down she said, ‘If you are so interested in piano that were willing to get up and make a fool of yourself, I’ll find you a piano teacher.’”

Within a year, Willis actually learned to play the piano. She did so well that when she was ready for college she applied to be a piano major at Clark College, now Clark Atlanta University. She said she couldn’t establish rapport with Clark’s piano teacher and asked whether she could study with the piano teacher at neighboring Morehouse College. After the request was denied, Willis changed her major to voice.

“I knew I didn’t have a big operatic voice, but I also knew that I could sing, so I did very well. I’ve always loved music—all types of music—but through my voice teacher I became specifically interested in opera,” she said. Founder/director of Atlanta-based Americolor Opera and Theater Arts, Willis said she has shocked herself by writing 14 operas and seven plays over the years.

Her first opera, The Opera Singer, premiered April 2000 as a way of celebrating a milestone birthday. “I wanted to celebrate by telling my story in a special way. I pulled together talent from across the Atlanta area and was delighted at how well it came together. People started asking what I would do next. I hadn’t planned to write another opera, but while giving a performance at the Herndon Home I was intrigued by the story of Alonzo Herndon, who started out cutting White people’s hair and became Atlanta’s first Black millionaire. My next opera was The Herndons about that family.” 

Willis, who said she has had a lifelong interest in Black history, decided the operatic stage was a good place to tell stories from Black history that many people are not familiar with. Her next opera was LaRoche, about the only Black passenger on the Titanic, the luxury liner that sank on its maiden voyage in 1912.

Callanwolde Fine Arts Center hosted a performance of LaRoche along with a dinner in which dishes served in first class on the Titanic the night it sank were recreated. “The people at Callanwolde were wonderful,” she recalled. 

Again, the venue inspired a new work—this one about the Candler family, founders of the Coca-Cola Company and builders of Callanwolde. “This wasn’t an Afrocentric story, but I believe that American stories of conflict and triumph are all our stories. They may be about a specific ethnic group—a Black family such as the Herndons or an Irish family such as the Candlers—but they are universal. They speak to us all,” Willis said.  

Another of Willis’ operas, House of Brothers, is scheduled for a return performance May 21 at the Porter Sanford III Performing Arts and Community Center. “The play was inspired by my own brother,” Willis said. “Men often hold inside much of the turmoil and angst of life and relationships. House of Brothers brings to the surface experiences relatable for everyone, making you laugh, cry or applaud.”  

House of Brothers tells the story of four Black male relatives with different perspectives living under the same roof as the country looks to elect its first Black president. Performances are at 3 and 7 p.m. For more information, visit www.americoloropera.org.


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