Majestic Talents of Opera: Black American Opera Singers

Many people are aware of the numerous jazz, gospel, and R&B legends, but very little is known of black Americans and opera. African Americans have had a very great impact on the development of music throughout the United States. While their role in the history of American popular and folk music is now generally acknowledged and appreciated, their influence within the ‘classical’ music world has received little attention – even within the African American community.” The intent of my research is to inform and elaborate on the impact and importance of Black American opera singers. Black Americans have long been involved in and making their mark on the operatic world. From the early twentieth century up until the present day, Black American opera singers have displayed great resilience and talents that have inspired many young Black Americans, who are a growing presence on opera stages around the world.

In 1873, a group of Black Americans performed the opera The Doctor of Alcantara by Julius Eichberg in Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia. This group formed, in D.C., the very first black-operated opera company. The company was operated through St. Augustine, a black Roman Catholic Church. Their performance money aided the building process of the church. The latter part of the nineteenth century saw the rise of soprano Sissiereta Jones, who made history as the first Black American woman to headline a concert on the main stage of Carnegie Hall in New York City in 1893.

“Thirty years out of slavery for African-Americans in this country, here she was on the stage of Carnegie Hall,” Jessye Norman, who became a great African-American diva in the late 20th century, said in an interview, according to the New York Times. Matilda Sisserieta Jones, born in Portsmouth, Virginia, in 1868, became the star of a touring company of all black performers called the Black Patti Troubadours in 1896. She was often called, “the Black Patti.” Jones did not like this name because it compared her to white diva Adelina Patti. This was four years after her first of several appearances at the white house, where she sang for President Benjamin Harrison.

Though Sissiereta Jones toured the world and was adored by a multitude of people, there were color lines she never managed to break in her time, but she refused to devalue herself, standing proud of who she was as a Black American. Due to the segregation of the nation’s major opera companies, Jones was denied the opportunity to perform in fully staged operas. Jones once told a reporter from The Detroit Tribune that she was told that her color was against her. An interviewer once suggested that she alter her appearance to look white; Jones dismissed this idea. Jones responded to that interviewer of The San Francisco Call saying, “Try to hide my race and deny my own people? Oh, I would never do that; I am proud of belonging to them and would not hide what I am even for an evening.” Jones never ceased to speak out and be an advocate for Black Americans. After a concert in 1893, Jones expressed her dislike at the seating of black people, who were only allowed to sit in the compact upper gallery. More than half of a century before other Black Opera singers would make history, Sissiereta Jones positively altered racial barriers in classical music.

One of the many Black American opera singers to make history was tenor Roland Hayes, who was born on June 3, 1887, in Curryville, Georgia. At a young age, Hayes began to take voice lessons from Arthur Calhoun, who was a local choir director. At this time, Hayes made singing his career goal. Years later, around 1911, after traveling with a college group called the Jubilee Singers, Hayes moved to Boston in search of success in the professional realm of musicians.

Hayes found some success in his endeavors; however, he was unable to get professional management due to the blatant racism of white Americans during the early nineteenth century. According to an article on the Afrocentric Voices in Classical Music website, Hayes once said, “I remember that one day–I think it was in 1920–I met William Brennan, who was the manager of the Boston Symphony. I told him about my hopes, and he told me that no one of my race would ever be accepted in music. I thanked him. I wasn’t angry at what he said, but I knew that I still hadn’t done enough.” Years later, Hayes commented in his biography saying that he never wished he was white, but there were times where being black in America proved to be very difficult. In 1920, Hayes made the decision to travel and take his musical talents to London, England. Hayes was received warmly by most people, but he experienced troubles when he was faced with a hostile crowd in Berlin, Germany. The crowd hissed for about ten minutes when Hayes took the stage; however, when Hayes began to sing his first song, the crowd immediately calmed. Hayes continued to share his musical talents and do what he loved regardless of the racism thrown his way. He loved who he was and loved to sing.

Hayes spent the majority of the following two decades performing with orchestras in Europe and the United States and having vocal recitals. Reportedly, there was an incident on January 31, 1931, when Hayes demanded that the Constitution Hall audience be desegregated prior to his performance. The incident prompted the hall management to instate a “white artists only” policy that played a major role in the widely known controversy between contralto Marian Anderson and the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) eight years later. Hayes discovered Marian Anderson, one of the many Black American Opera singers he supported the development of, many years before this and provided guidance in her developing career.

Marian Anderson was born on February 27, 1897, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. From a young age, Anderson received financial and moral support from the black community, who recognized her singing talent. When trying to apply for admission at a local school of music, Anderson experienced blatant racism for the first time. She recalled her reaction to the admissions clerk’s racial comments: “I don’t think I said a word. I just looked at this girl and was shocked that such words could come from one so young. If she had been old and sour-faced I might not have been startled. I cannot say why her youth shocked me as much as her words. On second thought, I could not conceive of a person surrounded as she was with the joy that is music without having some sense of its beauty and understanding rub off on her. I did not argue with her or ask to see her superior. It was as if a cold, horrifying hand had been laid on me. I turned and walked out.” Afterward, she found a teacher who offered her free lessons.

Anderson’s church, astounded by her drive and commitment, raised approximately $500 to pay for her to train under the respected voice teacher, Giuseppe Boghetti. Anderson began touring regionally during her two years of studying with Boghetti. Anderson gave her first recital in 1924 at New York’s Town Hall, and in 1928, she performed at Carnegie Hall for the first time. Shortly afterward, thanks to a Julius Rosenwald scholarship, she was able to commence a tour through Europe. Anderson’s voice was internationally famous by the late 1930s. She was even invited by United States President Roosevelt and his wife Eleanor to perform at the White House; Anderson was the first Black American ever to receive this honor.

Anderson’s successes did not exempt her from racial discrimination. She was often refused accommodations at restaurants, hotels, and concert halls. In 1939, her management and officials from Howard University tried to arrange a concert for her at Washington, D.C.’s Constitution Hall. The Daughters of the American Revolution turned Anderson away, refusing to let her perform because she was not a white artist. As a testament to the support and respect that Anderson was beginning to gain, void of racism, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt arranged a concert at the Lincoln Memorial, which 75,000 people attended and millions of others heard over the radio. There, Anderson's song “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee.” When she got to the third line of the well-known tune, she made a change. Instead of “of thee I sing” she sang “of thee we sing.” “We cannot live alone,” Anderson said. “And the thing that made this moment possible for you and for me has been brought about by many people whom we will never know.” This was a special highlight of Anderson’s career. Embodying hope, grace, and wisdom, Anderson famously stated, “I forgave the DAR many years ago. You lose a lot of time hating people” and, on a separate occasion, “I have a great belief in the future of my people and my country.”

Anderson’s life comprised of breaking down numerous barriers for Black American performers. In 1955, the contralto became the first black person of any nationality to perform as a member of the New York Metropolitan Opera. She provided much inspiration for many Black American singers, including Leontyne Price who was born in Mississippi. Price has stated, “If you are going to think black, think positive about it. Don’t think down on it, or think it is something in your way. And this way, when you really do want to stretch out and express how beautiful black is, everybody will hear you.” Price’s life list of achievements consists of 19 Grammy Awards, a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, and an array of other prestigious honors, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the National Medal of the Arts. Anderson also received many honors during her life. She received the NAACP’s Spingarn Award by Roosevelt in 1938 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Lyndon Johnson in 1963. Anderson used the $10,000 she received with Philadelphia’s 1941 Bok Award to establish the Marian Anderson Scholarships that aided several up-and-coming musicians, including Grace Bumbry, Mattiwilda Dobbs, Reri Grist, Natalie Hinderas, Willis Patterson, Coleridge Taylor Perkinson, Julia Perry, Florence Quivar, Shirley Verrett, and Leontyne Price over the scholarship’s 30-plus years of existence.

Those Black American opera singers are also very worthy of more extensive research along with Elizabeth Taylor-Greenfield; who paved the way for black operatic sopranos by pursuing a career against all odds while enduring cruel jokes and racism; Marie Selika Williams, who sang at the White House and for Queen Victoria in London, Camilla Williams; who was the first black woman to secure a contract with a major United States opera company, Dorothy Maynor; who founded Harlem School of Arts, George Shirley; who paved the way for many young black tenors in the industry and was the first Black American tenor to sing a leading role at the Met, Simon Estes; who became the first black male to sing a leading role at the Bayreuth Festival and many more.

From the early twentieth century up until the present day, Black American opera singers have displayed great resilience and talents that have inspired many young Black Americans, who are a growing presence on opera stages around the world. I hope that my research has shined a light on the numerous talents in the operatic world that are possessed by Black Americans. These amazingly Black American individuals deserved to be celebrated and acknowledged just as much as their counterparts in other areas of the music industry. 

07 July 2022
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