Relatives of late black opera singer producing filmWritten by Stacy Jurich | | email@example.com
St. Louis native David J. Ragland, a University of Toledo graduate and current visiting assistant professor at Bucknell University, along with his cousin New York City audio engineer Wayne Adams, recently presented their work in progress, “Deep River: A Journey to Holmes,” at a kickoff fundraiser at the Mott Branch Library.
The documentary features the life of their great-uncle, Eugene B. Holmes. Holmes, who lived from 1932-2007, was one of the most prominent African-American operatic baritones. Holmes achieved international acclaim and reached such a height that he was considered “The Foremost Negro Baritone of our Time.”
Stacy Jurich: Why is it important to bring the story of the life of Eugene Holmes to the world?
David J. Ragland: Eugene’s life illustrates the variations of possibilities for any life. As the 12th of 14 children, Eugene’s parents were Tennessee sharecroppers. He rose to prominence in the elite opera world during the height of segregation. His story shows how dedication and persistence can lead to accomplishment even under the most challenging conditions.
SJ: What is your personal tie to this story?
DR: Eugene is my father’s uncle, so he and my grandmother are siblings. Growing up, I’d always heard stories about him; family and community members would tell me I had a famous uncle. Since that time I wanted to meet and talk to him to understand how an African-American could become a famous opera singer.
When I first met him, it was briefly at a family gathering and I did not get to talk much with him. In 2003, I was in Paris and decided to drive to visit him. He shared a lot of himself and we became close. While in Germany, I realized the extent of his fame, as well as the European support and interest in the opera genre. It was at that point I understood the importance of sharing his story.
Both my cousin Wayne Adams and I have a personal affinity with his life choices; we both have left home (St. Louis) to learn, explore the world, pursue art and explore new vistas for Being.
SJ: Why the title, “Deep River: A Journey to Holmes?”
DR: The title is in part based on famous spiritual “Deep River,” which he was known for singing. The title is also a metaphor for the complexity of his own life. Like a river, our lives twist, turn, at times seems to dry up, are often overflowing and always flowing.
In researching his life, my cousin and I found out much initially unknown to us and the family. For example, Eugene had a son with a Japanese woman and felt he had to end that relationship because of cultural differences and decided against the pursuit of international acclaim because he didn’t want his personal life publicly displayed.
In talking with his friends in Germany, they suggested that he choose to remain in Dusseldorf instead of the world stage, like those he performed with, such as Placido Domingo (one of the world-renowned Three Tenors).
SJ: As the acclaimed “Foremost Negro Baritone of our Time,” what was Holmes able to overcome during the Civil Rights Era, and what was he able to accomplish for Black Rights, either directly or indirectly?
DR: Holmes was the first African-American to perform at the Jackson Mississippi Opera during the height of segregation, despite threats to his life. He was one of the African-Americans first to sing at the metropolitan opera. He struggled with being seen as fully human when blacks were considered to have significantly less moral worth. He was not a civil rights leader per se, but he led by example, trailblazing a path that made it seem possible and probable for blacks to make similarly unconventional choices.
Ragland and Adams are fundraising through Kickstarter for needed filming equipment and travel funds to Germany and Japan, where Holmes’ only son lives. The documentary follows the two cousins as they translate the life and struggles of Eugene Holmes and to find his lost son in Japan.
Style magazine in Germany said: “Eugene Holmes, who is seen by the international press as the best colored Baritone of our time, is at home in the renowned Opera houses of the world.”
Eugene maintained a repertoire of more than 75 different operas, including “The Marriage of Figaro,” “La Traviata,” “Nabucco,” “Madame Butterfly” as the American Consul, Fuchinni’s “Tosca” and “La Boheme.”
Visit www.deepriverfilm.org/kickstarter and “like” Eugene B. Holmes Opera Singer on Facebook.