Koanga is an opera written between 1896 and 1897, with music by Frederick Delius and a libretto by Charles Francis Keary, inspired partly by the book The Grandissimes: A Story of Creole Life by George Washington Cable (1880). Inspiration also came from Delius's own experiences as a young man, when his family sent him to work in Florida. It was Delius's third opera, and he thought better of it than of its predecessors, Irmelin and The Magic Fountain, because of the incorporation of dance scenes and his treatment of the choruses.[1] Koanga is reputed to be the first opera in the European tradition to base much of its melodic material on African-American music.[2]

Opera by Frederick Delius
Rosen - Frederick Delius.jpg
The composer in 1912
LibrettistCharles F. Keary
Based onThe Grandissimes: A Story of Creole Life
by George Washington Cable
13 June 1904 (1904-30-13)

Performance historyEdit

Koanga was the first of Delius's operas to be performed. It was also the most labour-intensive with regard to the libretto, which was continually revised. The opera was posthumously published in 1935.

It was performed privately in March 1899 at the residence of Adela Maddison in Paris. Gabriel Fauré was among the performers, and the audience included Prince Edmond de Polignac and the Princesse de Polignac.[3] Selections from the opera were performed in London on 30 May 1899 at St James's Hall, in a concert of his own music organised by Delius.[4]

The first public staging of the opera was at the Stadttheater Elberfeld, Germany, on 30 March 1904. It was sung in German, using a translation by Jelka Delius,[5] and conducted by Fritz Cassirer.[6]

Sir Thomas Beecham directed the British premiere of the full opera at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, on 23 September 1935.[7] John Brownlee sang the title role, with Oda Slobodskaya as Palmyra.[8]

A later revival was in 1972, for the Camden Festival at the Sadler's Wells Theatre, London, conducted by Sir Charles Groves. Douglas Craig and Andrew Page had worked extensively on revisions to a performing edition, which was used for the first complete commercial recording, conducted by Groves. Robert Threlfall has examined revisions to the text of Koanga in its various editions.[9] More recent revisions to the libretto have been by Olwen Wymark.

The single most famous musical passage from the opera contains the melody known as La Calinda, which is the only part of the score that has remained famous in the concert hall.

Eric Fenby, Delius's amanuensis, wrote of the opera as follows:

"Koanga is one of those singular works that attract attention in Delius's development, but which stand apart from the rest of his music. Usually, once a work was written, Delius's interest in it would wane. It would then be renewed and be relived temporarily every time he heard it again. For Koanga, however, he showed concern as though it held some secret bond that bound him to his youth in Florida. It was the one work he deplored in old age he was never likely to hear again. And so it proved. A dark grandeur pervades the score which, whilst yielding to hankerings after Wagner, recalls the tragic gusto of Verdi. The elements of time, place and plot allowed him a range of textures and moods wider than in his other operas."[citation needed]

The first U.S. staging of Koanga, or of any opera by Delius, was by the Opera Society of Washington in late 1970 and early 1971.[10] [11]

The Pegasus Opera Company staged Koanga at Sadler's Wells Theatre in April 2007[12] [13] and the Wexford Opera Festival in 2015 (broadcast by BBC Radio 3 in 2016).[14]

William Randel has studied the relationship of the opera and its libretto to the original story by Cable.[15]


Role Voice type Premiere cast, 30 March 1904
Koanga, an African Prince and Voodoo Priest baritone Clarence Whitehill
Palmyra, a mulatto, maid and half-sister to Clotilda soprano Rose Kaiser
Don José Martinez, a planter bass Max Birkholz
Simon Perez, Don José's overseer tenor Georg Förster
Clotilda, Don José's wife alto Charlotte Lengenberg
Rangwan, a Voodoo Priest bass
Onkel Joe, an old slave bass
Renée, Hélène, Jeanne, Marie, the Planter's daughters sopranos
Aurore, Hortense, Olive, Paulette, the Planter's daughters altos
Negro I tenor
Negro II baritone
Chorus of slaves, dancers, servants


Place: Mississippi River plantation in Louisiana
Time: Second half of the 18th century.


Uncle Joe is about to tell the tale of Koanga and Palmyra, at the request of the planters’ daughters.

Act 1Edit

Years earlier

Palmyra, the maid to Clotilda (the wife of the plantation owner Don José Martinez), watches Simon Perez, the plantation overseer, rouse up the slaves for their labours. Perez declares his love for Palmyra, but she brushes aside such sentiments. Martinez arrives, and Perez tells him of the arrival of a new slave. The new slave is Koanga, a captured African prince. Koanga invokes his gods to avenge his betrayal. Perez states that Koanga would rather die than be a slave, but Martinez suggests that Palmyra can be used to change his sentiments. Koanga and Palmyra are introduced, and become attracted to each other. Perez becomes angry at this turn of events. Clotilda is appalled at this herself, as Palmyra is her half-sister.

Act 2Edit

Preparations for the wedding of Koanga and Palmyra are taking place. Clotilda consults with Perez as to how to stop this wedding. Perez tells Palmyra the truth about her birth, but she remains determined to marry Koanga. Just as the wedding ceremony is about to occur, Perez kidnaps Palmyra. Koanga then fights with Martinez and prevails in the man-to-man struggle. Koanga escapes to the swamp and invokes magic to bring disease contagion to the plantation. However, he has a vision of Palmyra’s suffering, which causes him to return to the plantation. When he arrives, Perez is trying to embrace Palmyra. Koanga kills Perez, but is in turn captured and executed. Palmyra mourns for Koanga, and then takes her own life.


The planter's daughters respond to Uncle Joe’s story, as the sun rises.



  1. ^ Redwood, Christopher, "Delius in the Opera House" (June 1984). The Musical Times, 12 (1696): 319, 321.
  2. ^ Saylor, Eric (1 March 2012). "Chapter 4: Race, 'realism,' and race in Frederick Delius's Koanga". In André, Naomi Adele (ed.). Blackness in Opera. University of Illinois Press. pp. 78–100. ISBN 978-0-252-03678-1. Retrieved 9 January 2013.
  3. ^ Simeone, Nigel (2000). Paris: A Musical Gazetteer. New Haven: Yale University Press. p. 59. ISBN 0-300-08054-9.
  4. ^ Smith, Barry (2000). Smith, Barry (ed.). Frederick Delius and Peter Warlock: A Friendship Revealed. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 64. ISBN 0-19-816706-7.
  5. ^ Anderson, Robert (1992). "Koanga". In Sadie, Stanley (ed.). The New Grove Dictionary of Opera. 2. London: Macmillan. p. 1013. ISBN 0-333-48552-1.
  6. ^ Lucas, John (2008). Thomas Beecham: An Obsession With Music. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press. p. 35. ISBN 978-1-84383-402-1.
  7. ^ Lucas (2008). Thomas Beecham: An Obsession With Music. p. 223.
  8. ^ Blackwood, Alan (1994). Sir Thomas Beecham: The Man and the Music. London: Ebury Press. p. 146. ISBN 0-09-178434-4.
  9. ^ Threlfall, Robert, "The Early History of 'Koanga'" (September 1974). Tempo (New Ser.), 110: 8–11.
  10. ^ "Ante Bellum Aida". Time. 4 January 1971. Retrieved 12 August 2007.
  11. ^ Loewens, Irving, "Reports: Washington" (1971). Musical Times, 112 (1537): 265.
  12. ^ Fairman, Richard (16 April 2007). "Koanga, Sadler's Wells, London". Financial Times. Retrieved 12 August 2007.
  13. ^ Holden, Anthony (22 April 2007). "Slaves to the rhythm". The Observer. Retrieved 12 August 2007.
  14. ^ "Delius - Koanga | Thursday Opera Matinee", Afternoon Theatre, BBC Radio 3, 17 March 2016.
  15. ^ Randel, William (April 1971). "Koanga and Its Libretto". Music & Letters. 52 (2): 141–156. doi:10.1093/ml/LII.2.141. Retrieved 18 May 2008.

External linksEdit