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Bessie and Ma (2018)

Instrumentation: SATB leads; SATB chorus; SATB break-out solos; 1 Fl / 1 Ob / 1 Cl / 1 Bsn / 1 Hn in F / Pno / Perc / Strings; piano reduction
Duration: ca. 60'
Libretto by Caitlin Vincent
Commissioned by the University of Connecticut
Premiere Date: March 29 and 31, 2019, Storrs, CT

Program Note

Born in Atlanta, Texas in 1893, Bessie Coleman faced significant financial and racial obstacles in her effort to become a pilot.  Rejected from every American flying school due to either her sex or skin color, Bessie was ultimately admitted to France’s most famous flying school and successfully earned her pilot’s license in 1921.  Nicknamed “Queen Bess” and “Daredevil Aviatrix,” Bessie returned to the United States in 1922 and embarked on a barnstorming tour of the country, hoping to inspire other women in her community and eventually open a flying school for African-Americans.  In 1926, Bessie’s life was tragically cut short when she fell out of her plane at 2,000 feet during a test maneuver. 

Born in 1875, Ma Ferguson allegedly never considered a career in politics until her husband, then Texas Governor James Ferguson, was impeached, convicted, and removed from office in 1917.  Determined to correct her husband’s legacy, Ma decided to seek the Democratic nomination and was successfully voted the first female governor of Texas in 1925.  Urging voters to choose between “the bonnet and the hood,” Ma was a strong opponent of the Ku Klux Klan and strove to end the Klan’s influence in Texas politics. After her first term ended in 1927, Ma successfully ran and served a second term as governor from 1933 to 1935.  To this date, Ma Ferguson is one of only two women to serve as governor of the state.

Framed by the moments leading up to Bessie’s fatal flight in 1926, Bessie and Ma interweaves significant moments from each woman’s life, including Bessie’s decision to apply to flight school in France and subsequent training under legendary WW1 pilots and Ma’s decision to run for governor against an opponent backed by the Ku Klux Klan.  In the opera’s climactic scene, Ma and Bessie meet face-to-face for the first and final time, when Ma Ferguson invites Bessie to visit the Governor’s Mansion, just a few months before Bessie’s death.  Tracing each woman’s struggles, triumphs, and flaws, Bessie and Ma will provide a glimpse into the hearts and minds of two groundbreaking American women, largely forgotten by history.

— Caitlin Vincent



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