top of page

The Dunbar Opera Project

Steven M Allen.png

American Composer Steven M. Allen has uniquely captured the life of Paul Laurence Dunbar in an ongoing array of operatic works based on the life and loves of the poet. 

His “walk with Dunbar” has been an extraordinarily rich one, and his works have been featured on stage, television and in concert. This year represents a significant move forward in this journey with this new, expanded iteration of his opera The Poet

Composer, conductor and ethnomusicologist, Steven's  compositions possess an affinity for imbuing the verbal soul and musical vernacular of the common person with the highly crafted, vocal florid, and expressive heights of the grand opera tradition.  His work is lyric yet dramatic, contemporary yet accessible to those whose soulful lives it emulates. (See & hear Steven's work on his site)

This year marks the 150th anniversary of Dunbar High School, originally established in 1870, America’s first school for African Americans in the District of Columbia. In 1916 the school was renamed in honor of the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar.


Alliance for New Music-Theatre is proud to be partnering with Dunbar High School and members of the Dunbar Society in a year-long commitment to Paul Laurence Dunbar and to local composer Steven M. Allen to further The Dunbar Opera Project. Paul Laurence Dunbar’s work represents a triumph of the human spirit over racism, poverty, and adversity. Together we are committed to the project as a form of celebration, community outreach, and forum to promote social justice.

In the spring of  2020, two performances of a new iteration of Paul Laurence Dunbar’s story-in-opera will be offered at Dunbar High School on April 30 & May 1. Other performances, including site-specific events) workshops for schools, evenings of poetry readings, and a children’s chorus are also being planned as part of New Music-Theatre’s year-long celebration throughout the city.

The megawatt singer-actor Greg Watkins, Alliance for New Music-Theatre company member, who originated the role of Paul Laurence Dunbar in the original opera, will return in the central role.



History of the Project

The first opera was begun over ten years ago, as Allen’s original one-act work “The Poet” based on the lives and love of Paul Lawrence Dunbar and Alice Ruth Moore. It was presented with Greg Watkins and featured Denyce Graves in the original production. The music was also heard in the 2016 PBS documentary about Paul Laurence Dunbar entitled “Beyond the Mask.”

The Original Cast:

Gregory J. Watkins as Paul Laurence Dunbar

Denyce Graves-Montgomery as Matilda Dunbar

Lisa Edwards-Burrs as Alice Ruth Moore

Daniel Noone as Major James Pond


In 2020 a fully developed opera will serve as a gorgeous celebration of Paul Laurence Dunbar, meticulously thought-out and rendered in a wide variety of musical styles attractively juxtaposed and woven together. Greg Watkins, company member of New Music-Theatre will return in the role he originated. This outstanding local DC performer, music director, and arranger is a force of nature.

The history of Allen’s works inspired by Paul Laurence Dunbar include the following list, excerpts of which can be heard by going to the link at


Lyrics of Sunshine.png

Act I of Lyrics of Sunshine and Shadows: An Opera based on the Lives and Love of Paul Laurence Dunbar and Alice Ruth Moore was first premiered in 2009. Sketches from the work were awarded First Place at The Coalition of African Americans in the Performing Arts’ Opera Composers’ Showcase at The Clarice, co-sponsored by Prince George’s County Commission of Arts and Humanities, 2018.

As a vignette from the full opera, The Poet: A Chamber Opera on the Life and Times of Paul Laurence Dunbar was premiered June 27, 2014, in commemoration of the opening of the newly reconstructed Paul Laurence Dunbar High School, Washington, DC. The Opera is weaved together with excerpts of poetry, short stories, and over 300 letters written between Dunbar and Moore that are intricately placed within a tapestry of genres and echoes of Post-Reconstruction America.


The South Shore Opera Company of Chicago, under the musical direction of Leslie B. Dunner, premiered The Poet with full orchestration by composer and engraver, and Alliance for New Music-Theatre member Maurice Saylor, in October, 2017.

Of the performance, M. L. Rantala wrote:

“Allen’s opera is a gorgeous celebration of Dunbar, meticulously though-out and rendered in a wide variety of musical styles juxtaposed and weaved together. Dunbar’s life straddled the late Romantic and early Impressionistic periods of music, and Allen exploits this fact beautifully.”     Hyde Park Herald

The Poet.png

In October of 2015, the opera gained the attention of Frederick Lewis, a Paul Laurence Dunbar researcher and Chair of Media Communications at Ohio State University.


Beyond the Mask was the first full-length PBS documentary on the life of the great American poet, which includes several scenes and cast interviews surrounding the first well-documented romance among the African American elite. Through Paul Laurence Dunbar’s coveted relationship with Frederick Douglass, he was granted the opportunity to give his first public recitation at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.

Beyond the Mask.png
bottom of page