Georgia university opera recounts segregation

The Associated PressApril 22, 2007 

At the end of Act One, the tenor wearing a white suit and trademark red suspenders clutches his fat cigar in a smoldering rage.

"I'm not gonna put up with any social equality in this state as long as I'm governor," he sings in a dark, resonant voice. "We don't need no Negroes and white people taught together."

Segregationist Gov. Eugene Talmadge, still one of Georgia's most theatrical political figures 60 years after his death, is taking center stage again -- this time as the villain in an opera.

"A Scholar Under Siege," composed by Georgia Southern University music professor Michael Braz, tells the true story of how Talmadge in 1941 fired the college's president amid suspicions that he supported integrating the school.

The opera, which opened on campus Friday and runs through today, was written for the university's 100th anniversary celebration this year.

"I'm not an opera fanatic, but to me opera is not a bad way to tell a story," Braz said. "Some of the characters in question were so operatic themselves, so flamboyant. Talmadge could range from being suave and debonair to absolutely manic and prone to rage."

Talmadge ruled Georgia politics in the 1930s and early 1940s with a style that mixed profanity-laced stump speeches, pocketbook populism and unabashed racism.

But Talmadge's racist politics backfired on the three-term governor in 1941 when he orchestrated the firings of Marvin Pittman, president of Georgia Teachers College, which later became Georgia Southern, along with Walter Cocking, dean of education at the University of Georgia.

The firings caused Georgia's 10 white colleges to lose their accreditation -- making their degrees practically worthless. Outraged voters ousted Talmadge when he sought re-election in 1942.

Braz dug into history books, biographies, magazines and newspapers to research his opera. All but one of the 23 singing roles are real people -- from Atlanta Constitution editor Ralph McGill to Mose Bass, a black custodian at the Statesboro college.

Braz's musical stylings range from Wagnerian gravitas to jazzy, soft-shoe shuffles -- such as when Talmadge sings of Georgia's infamous county-unit system, which rigged elections by giving rural counties more voting power than the more populous cities.

The libretto contains many actual quotations from the characters, with a major exception. The composer axed a common racial slur, though the real Talmadge never hesitated to speak it.

"I don't use it and I'm offended by it," Braz said. "And I felt that it's a cheap way of getting publicity."

When it comes to his protagonist's feelings about Talmadge, Braz isn't so gentle. One scene has Pittman, tipped off about the governor's plan to have him fired, likening Talmadge to another villain of the time.

"One Hitler anywhere is one too many," sings Pittman, played by Georgia Southern music professor Kyle Hancock. "I dare not let our governor succeed."

The role of Talmadge went to 23-year-old Georgia Southern student Pedro Carreras. Carreras is the son of Cuban immigrants -- and said he's well aware of the irony. "Talmadge is probably rolling over in his grave right now with me playing his role," he said.

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