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Buffalo native expands his blues opera 'Stag Lee'

Stag Lee, he's a bad man, as Mississippi John Hurt used to sing.

And now, the legend has grown. Stag Lee - also known as Stagger Lee - is badder than ever.

That is because he is the subject of a three-act jazz opera by Buffalo native son Darryl Glenn Nettles. In 2014, Buffalo Opera Unlimited presented a one-act version of this opera, titled "The Fall of Stag Lee." Nettles has since expanded it to make it a full-length work.

The story of Stag Lee is an African-American legend based on a happening in St. Louis, Mo., in the 1800s. It is a simple story, as old as time: One man kills another man in a barroom brawl. Nettles expanded on this story by putting the murder early in the show, and then moving the action to Stag Lee's prison cell.

Darryl Glenn Nettles, who studied singing with two great classical baritones, has set his opera in the 1920s.

Darryl Glenn Nettles studied singing with two great classical baritones.

The News praised Nettles' imaginative embellishment of what could be described, on the surface, as a simplistic story. The shooting was a shocker. Dancers from Buffalo's LehrerDance added a lighthearted note with 1920s jazz dances.

LehrerDance also helped with what could have been the opera's most chilling moment: Two dancers played demons, who slithered about Stag Lee in his prison cell.

Nettles, who is on the faculty of Tennessee State University, showed versatility in crafting his music. There are hints of Bach, Mozart and down-and-dirty blues. The variety reflects his multifaceted background. He studied with two great baritones, Heinz Rehfuss and William Warfield.

He also coached and performed with the late jazz pianist Mary Lou Williams, who chose him as a featured soloist for the Western New York premiere of her jazz mass.

In re-imagining the story of Stag Lee, Nettles was inspired by jazz as well as classical traditions.  The three-act version, reportedly, is a substantial overhaul. The character of Stag is deepened and explored, and characters have been added. Buffalo Opera Unlimited also discloses that the new opera involves "a broader sense of the victim William Lyons, and a more complete picture of the social arena in St. Louis in the 1920s."

Buffalo Opera Unlimited will be presenting the expanded "The Fall of Stag Lee" with two performances at SUNY Buffalo State College's Rockwell Hall. The performances, sung in English with a full orchestra,  feature Eric McKeever and Jordan Pitts, as well as Brittany Walker and Nia Drummond. The composer conducts, and the artistic director is Tim Kennedy.

Performances take place at 8 p.m. Sept. 23 and 2:30 p.m. Sept. 25. Tickets are $30 general admission, $25 for seniors and $10 students.Call 878-3005.


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