Music by: Damien Geter
Libretto by: Lila Palmer
Duration: 90 mins
Originally Commissioned by Washington National Opera, 2020
Commissioned by Des Moines Metro Opera, 2024
Available in short chamber and full length versions.
American Apollo is a new opera based on a story forged at the crossroad of celebrity, class, race, and power in America, giving voice to a pivotal figure in American art: Thomas Eugene McKeller, a Black model who served as inspiration for the famous portraitist, John Singer Sargent and is the subject of his only uncommissioned monumental male nude. McKeller posed for most of the figures in Sargent's murals at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, but the painter transformed McKeller's figure into white gods and goddesses, creating soaring allegories of the liberal arts that celebrated the recent expansion of the
city's premier civic museum. Themes of erasure, the white gaze, and the nature of the relationship between the two men are explored in this powerful new work.
Thomas McKeller - Baritone
John Singer Sargent - Tenor
Belle Gardner of the Gardner Museum in Boston - Soprano
Jimmy, Belle’s driver – Bass-baritone
1 player percussion
John Singer Sargent kept only one portrait hanging in his Pope Building Studio in Boston:
that of Thomas McKeller. His studies of McKeller and that portrait of Thomas as himself
were entrusted by the artist to his beloved friend and patron Isabella Stewart Gardiner,
likely with the express purpose of ensuring their preservation and inclusion in the
assessment of his body of work. Thomas McKeller shines out of this portrait, and out of this opera, as a man of dignity, finesse, and self awareness, one whose very presence made impossible the power imbalance of the role in society in which he found himself.
The story opens at a crucial point in the evolution of the relationship of John Singer Sargent and his primary North American model, Thomas McKeller. McKeller worked with Sargent in the most productive period of the artist’s later life, providing the studies for the MFA models, the Harvard Murals and many others, only one of which portrayed him as an
African-American man. A relationship that encompassed the complexity of unspoken sexual identification and transgressed contemporary social coding around race and economic class; the dynamic between the model and the artist has recently been the subject of significant art-historical research by the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and the Art Historian Trevor Fairbrother. The research reveals a relationship closer to muse and artist, and hints at a co-creative and potentially romantic synergy between the pair. The portrait of Thomas McKeller which inspired the opera is the only known in existence in which Sargent painted a model with the same attention and finesse he brought to his portraiture career in high society. It is also his only formal male nude portrait. As represented by the psycho-social value of portraiture to convey power on the subject as representational culture (much like the form of Opera); the portrait physicalizes an evolution of seeing, respect and relationship which represents an investment in the humanity, personhood and agency of McKeller, brought about by McKeller himself.