‘An African American Requiem’ debuts in Texas at TCU


Sally Verrando/Staff Photographer

Maestro Damien Geter rehearses with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra for “An African American Requiem” Jan. 26, 2023, at the TCU Music Hall. Geter said he composed the piece in 2016 as a response to racial violence. The day before the TCU performance, body cam footage was released showing five police officers beating Tyre Nichols after a traffic stop in Memphis.

By Sally Verrando, Staff Writer

“An African American Requiem,” a statement to multiple killings of Black Americans, was presented by the Fort Worth Opera on Saturday, two days after five police officers in Memphis were charged in the death of a Black man after an encounter during a traffic stop.

Composed by Damien Geter, the performance is sung in classical opera style mixed with spiritual, jazz and gospel music.

Soloists, soprano Brandie Sutton, seated left, and mezzo-soprano Karmesha K. Peake, standing right, prepare for the Saturday night performance with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra. (Sally Verrando/Staff Photographer)

Saturday’s performance at TCU’s Van Cliburn Concert Hall was the production’s third. It premiered in Oregon and was also performed in Washington, D.C. at the Kennedy Center.

Geter said he was nervous about coming to Texas, which is considered a conservative red state.

“That’s the point of it,” he said. “If you want to have a nice conversation about it, I’m not up for debates or argument, but a conversation, I’m willing to have. You don’t have to have it with me. You can have it with other people, too.”

The composition is a statement to reports of multiple killings of Black Americans in 2016, “which I call modern-day lynchings,” Geter said, and also for the hundreds of years of racial violence.

The work includes Ida B. Wells’s speech, “Lynching is a Color Line Murder.” Wells was awarded the Pulitzer Prize posthumously for her coverage of lynchings. The last words spoken by Eric Garner, “I can’t breathe,” are also remembered. Dr. S. Renee Mitchell’s live performance of her poetry provides a modern response for social justice.

Geter conducts the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra and the Fort Worth Opera Chorus for the performance. Mezzo-soprano Karmesha K. Peake, soprano Brandie Sutton, tenor Bernard Holcomb and baritone Thomas Cannon perform as soloists.

Listen to Fort Worth Opera Chorus.

Poet S. Renee Mitchell, left, along with baritone Thomas Cannon, center and tenor Bernard Holcomb, right, rehearse the call for social justice with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra and the Fort Worth Opera Chorus. (Sally Verrando/Staff Photographer)

Performed as an oratorio or concert performance, it lacks the big sets, costumes and presentation of an opera, but it can be just as impactful as a full production.

“The Fort Worth community, including my former colleagues and students at TCU, have expressed such excitement and support for this incredibly moving and poignant new work by Damien Geter,” wrote Angela Turner Wilson, the new general and artistic director of the Fort Worth Opera, in an email response. “Maestro Geter is a rising star, and the Fort Worth Opera is thrilled to have him with us for ‘An African American Requiem.'”

Combining musical aspects from spiritual, jazz and gospel styles in a traditional Latin requiem, Geter, an opera singer of 20 years, said all of those styles are part of who he is.

“A lot of people think it’s a gospel piece,” he said. “It’s not a gospel piece. It’s deeply steeped in a classical tradition because I’m a classical composer. I don’t compose gospel music. In fact, I tried to once and it was terrible,” he said with a laugh.

The performance began at 6 p.m. on Saturday.