The Emperor Jones
Metropolitan Opera House
Saturday, January 7, 1933
Composer: Louis Gruenberg Conductor:
Alexander Sanine Designer:
Jo Mielziner Operatic adaptation
Brutus Jones - Lawrence
Tibbett Smithers - Marek Windheim Native Woman - Pearl Besuner Congo Witch Doctor - Hemsley Winfield
[From a 3/25/34 letter from Edward Ziegler, Assistant Manager, to Edward
Ellsworth Hipsher of The Etude.]
"For the 'Emperor Jones' performances we used a group of negro dancers
called the Hemsley Winfield Art and Dance Group of which Hemsley
Winfield was the solo dancer and played the part of 'The Witch Doctor'
in the last scene. Later he died and his place was taken by Leonardo
During the action of the opera - I do not know whether you saw it or not
- these negroes were grouped behind a painted stockade of palm branches
on both sides of the stage.
They did not actually sing but called out to each other the text such as
'this man has got to die', 'he steal our women', etc. Behind the scenes
we had the Metropolitan Chorus, who appeared in the last act chorus.
Whether or not the negroes chanted the triumphant cries following the
death of Emperor Jones, I do not actually remember, but I think they
[Review by Pitts Sanborn from New York World Telegram.]
Eugene O'Neill, Lawrence Tibbett, and Jo Mielziner were the making of
the hour and a quarter of terror which on Saturday afternoon engrossed
one of the largest audiences the Metropolitan Opera House has ever held.
Louis Gruenberg's share in the orgy of rasped nerves was more
problematical. "The Emperor Jones" has been familiar to followers of the
drama for a dozen years, both as a stage production and a play for
reading. In turning it into an opera Mr. Gruenberg bravely faced a
hazard. Should he or should he not be able with his music to heighten
the effect of the original? Unless through the music the play acquired a
mightier emotional punch, that music must be more or less in the way.
Mr. Gruengerg accepted the risk, with what degree of success we have as
yet no collective answer.
There are parts of the new opera in which Mr. Gruenberg's musical
instinct has told him to let the actors speak their lines, just as
though they were appearing in the "spoken" drama, while the "music" is
reduced to the distant drum-beats which have their reiterated parts in
the general attack on our nerves. To the observer, these were the wholly
successful moments in the production. The orchestral commentary, for the
most part, sounded less like the issue of an inspired imagination than
like a remembered convention. And when the people took to singing, the
words lost clearness and the pace turned leaden. Nor did it seem to me
that Mr. Gruenberg made a particularly pungent use of syncopated rhythms
or of an inserted spiritual. However, these fragmentary remarks are
offered merely as a first impression. In time the scales may fall from
my ears and I may hear "The Emperor Jones" as an authentic operatic
There could be no doubt at any time of the excellence of Mr. Tibbett's
achievement in the name part. The role is one of pitiless exactions and
Mr. Tibbett carried it off with intelligence and unflagging care and a
high degree of skill, from the bombast of the self-made "emperor"
through all the manifestations of terror to the utter abasement of the
end. The scenery supplied by Mr. Mielziner deserves warm praise. The
stage direction, however - lighting, dances, and the rest-is another
matter. The chorus, partly grouped behind fences on either side of the
stage vociferated obediently, and the orchestra, directed by Mr. Serafin,
wrought with a will. At the end of the brief "world premiere" there was
an ovation, principally, it appeared for Mr. Tibbett, though others
bowing acknowledgements included Messr. Gruenberg, Mielziner, Serafin,
Setti, and Sanine.