'Blackness in Opera' and the Career of Contralto Marian Anderson


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The great contralto Marian Anderson (1897-1993) spent much of her career performing in concert and recital with famous orchestras throughout the United States and Europe between 1925 and 1965. Although offered roles with many important European opera companies, Anderson declined, as she had no training in acting. She preferred to perform in concert and recital only. She did, however, perform opera arias within her concerts and recitals. She made many recordings that reflected her broad performance repertoire of everything from concert literature to lieder to opera to traditional American songs and spirituals.

Blackness in Opera, recently published by the University of Illinois Press, focuses on the intersection of race and the opera arts. An interview with the editors of the book appears below.

Anderson became an important figure in the struggle for black artists to overcome racial prejudice in the United States. In 1939, the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) refused permission for Anderson to sing to an integrated audience in Constitution Hall. The incident placed Anderson into the spotlight of the international community on a level unusual for a classical musician.

At the time, Washington, D.C., was a segregated city and black patrons were upset that they had to sit at the back of Constitution Hall. The District of Columbia Board of Education also declined a request to use the auditorium of a white public high school. As a result of the ensuing furor, thousands of DAR members, including first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, resigned.

MArian Anderson performing at Lincoln MemorialThe Roosevelts, with Walter White, then-executive secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and Anderson's manager, impresario Sol Hurok, persuaded Secretary of the Interior Harold L. Ickes to arrange an open air concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The concert was performed on Easter Sunday, April 9, and Anderson was accompanied, as usual, by Vehanen. They began the performance with a dignified and stirring rendition of "My Country, 'Tis of Thee." The event attracted a crowd of more than 75,000 of all colors and was a sensation with a national radio audience of millions.

Anderson continued to break barriers for black artists in the United States, becoming the first black person, American or otherwise, to perform at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City on January 7, 1955. Her performance as Ulrica in Giuseppe Verdi's "Un ballo in maschera (A Masked Ball)" at the Met was the only time she sang an opera role on stage.

Anderson worked for several years as a delegate to the United Nations Human Rights Committee and as a "goodwill ambassadress" for the United States Department of State, giving concerts all over the world. She participated in the civil rights movement in the 1960s, singing at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963. The recipient of numerous awards and honors, Anderson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1963, the Kennedy Center Honors in 1978, the National Medal of Arts in 1986, and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1991.

Book cover: Blackness in OperaThe University of Illinois Press recently published Blackness in Opera, which examines the intersections of race and music in the multifaceted genre of opera.  The collection’s editors, Naomi André, Karen M. Bryan, and Eric Saylor, collectively answered questions about their new book. This interview was conducted by the University of Illinois Press

Q:  What are some of the issues that arise with the characterization of blacks in the opera?

Editors:  Many of them have to do with misconceptions on the part of white composers, librettists, and/or directors on how black people sing, speak, and behave—in our collection, Gwynne Kuhner Brown addresses this topic in her essay “Performers in Catfish Row: Porgy and Bess as Collaboration.” The assignation of certain stereotypical behaviors, speech patterns (especially pidgin dialects), or personality traits to black characters may not have been motivated by maliciously racist intentions, but institutionalized racism certainly shaped white creators’ approach to black characters and cultures for a very long time. Operas written after the Second World War are less subject to such problems (though not without them), and the increase in color-blind casting since that time has also  helped mitigate the historical elision of black performers from the opera stage.

Q:  What sorts of roles would be given to black performers as opposed to whites?

Editors:  With a handful of exceptions prior to the late twentieth century, black performers really didn’t have any expectations that they would be “given” roles in operas. There were all-black companies that mounted performances of standard operatic repertory, but they were formed in recognition of the closed doors black singers typically faced at major opera houses. As for black characters, they typically fall into one of two categories: more or less indistinguishable from the average white protagonist, or introduced as a means of infusing the opera with a veneer of exoticism, sometimes reinforced by the use of music derived from (or meant to evoke the imagined qualities of) black traditional, popular, or folk music.

Q:  What is “blackface” and how often was it used?

Editors:  Blackface is the practice of applying stage makeup to someone’s face and body to make them appear to be black. This practice was associated with minstrelsy, a type of American popular theater that dates back to the 1830s where white performers would take burnt cork and blacken their faces while also putting a garish red paint on their mouths. Minstrelsy employed degrading stereotypes (e.g., the happy-go-lucky lazy Sambo or the hyper-sexualized Jezebel) that played into the way black people were seen and treated. The minstrel shows and use of blackface had an especially complicated legacy for black artists. Later in the nineteenth century opportunities opened up for black artists to perform, but through these negative stereotypes and the use of blackface; so black performers found ways to make money as professional artists (e.g., as actors, singers, and composers), but only if they participated in this demeaning practice.

Though our book focuses on how blackness and the specters of blackface and minstrelsy haunt opera, the term blackface has also been adapted to refer to non-Asian singers/actors portraying Asian characters (“yellowface”—an operatic practice frequently used today in productions of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly and Turandot) or Latino characters (“brownface”— such as the several white actors who portrayed the Puerto Rican characters in stage productions and the 1961 movie version of West Side Story) in modern productions.

Q:  When did blacks first develop a presence in opera?

Editors:  This is a complicated question because for so long, black performers were not supported in the institutions that paved the way for opera performance. Segregation kept blacks from attending conservatories and, if singers were able to study privately, opera companies were closed to black performers. However, there were a few all-black opera companies along with impresarios, archivists, and scholars who had a vision to support blacks in opera and this history is still being collected and documented. In fact, Karen Bryan (one of our co-editors) is helping to write this history; she is working on a book
about Mary Caldwell Dawson, a black singer who founded the National Negro Opera Company in 1941 that ran for nearly 20 years.

Marian AndersonBlack opera singers were definitely present in the nineteenth century. Two of the best known examples are Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield (c. 1819-1876) and Matilda Sissieretta Joyner Jones (c. 1868-1933). Though born into slavery, Greenfield (who became known as the “Black Swan”) was one of the early black prima donna singers. She toured throughout the US and in England (she sang for Queen Victoria in 1853). Since there were no operatic venues for her, she performed as a concert singer. Sissieretta Jones who was called the “Black Patti” (after famed Italian coloratura Adelina Patti) also had a remarkable career; she sang in the US, England, and the West Indies, as well as being invited to sing at the White House (1892) and the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago (1893). A musical troupe formed around her, the “Black Patti Troubadours,” a vaudeville company that featured operatic music as well as popular music that fit the tastes of the time.

Though I mentioned that the history of black singers and institutions in opera is still being written, there are several good sources out there that begin to flesh out this story. Among the best on this topic are: Eileen Southern’s The Music of Black Americans: A History, Rosalyn M. Story’s And So I Sing: African American Divas of Opera and Concert, and Wallace Cheatham’s Dialogues on Opera and the African-American Experience.  Two videos also stand out: Porgy and Bess: An American Voice (James Standifer, in addition to information about this opera there are great interviews with singers) and Aida’s brothers & sisters: black voices in opera (a film by Jan Schmidt-Garre and Marieke Schroeder). A terrific website is AfriClassical.com, a site that focuses on African heritage in classical music.

Q:  What is the status of that presence today?

Editors:  We are definitely in a time where there are black singers, composers, scholars, and opera companies in existence. However, the strength of this presence is precarious and needs to be nurtured. A long-standing problem is that while black women have had the most success as singers in opera (and it is not like there is an over-abundance who have made it to the top at any given moment), there are fewer black men who have been able to break into this profession.

There have been stellar examples of black male singers sprinkled among the operatic elite: Todd Duncan, George Shirley (a contributor to this collection), Willard White, Simon Estes, and Gregg Baker are among the best known. At this moment we have Lawrence Brownlee and Eric Owens who are singing at the top houses and to have two black men at the same time—sadly, that is a lot! There is much room for improvement here. In terms of the women, after Marian Anderson, the superstars include Leontyne Price, Shirley Verrett, Camilla Williams, Grace Bumbry, Martina Arroyo, Jessye Norman, and Kathleen Battle. Singers today include Denyce Graves, Angela Brown, Marquita Lister, and many others. Pretty Yende, a Zulu opera singer is currently on the roster at La Scala and represents the vast operatic talent coming out of South Africa.

We also have many wonderful black composers who are writing operas and they have had a terrible time getting the support to mount their works. In addition to Anthony Davis, perhaps the best-known living black opera composer (X, The Life and Times of Malcolm X, 1986; Under the Double Moon, 1989; Tania, 1992; and Amistad, 1997), there are several other living black composers who have written and produced operas (Tania León, The Scourge of Hyacinths, 2001; Richard Thompson, The Mask in the Mirror, 2012, just to name a few). There are also non-black composers writing about black subjects. Richard Danielpour’s Margaret Garner (with the libretto by Toni Morrison) premiered in Detroit in 2005 and was co-produced by the Cincinnati Opera and the Opera Company of Philadelphia. Recently Daniel Sonenberg finished his opera, The Summer King, about Negro Baseball League baseball player Josh Gibson. Opera is popular now and I am thrilled to be hearing of more projects in progress that incorporate issues around blackness by black and non-black composers.

Q:  What are some of the more prominent operas to feature blacks?

Editors:  There’s a distinction to be made here between operas that feature black characters, and those that cast black singers in specific roles. George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess is the best-known example of the latter, in no small part because the Gershwin
estate stipulated that only black performers be cast in the roles. (Other operas that have typically reserved roles for black singers include Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha and Virgil
Thomson’s Four Saints in Three Acts.)

There are several well-known operas that feature black characters—including Verdi’s Otello and Aida, Ernst Krenek’s Jonny spielt auf, and Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte—but in these, as well as many lesser-known operas with black characters, it was historically quite common for the roles to be played by white singers in black makeup, rather than by black performers; in fact, it is still a practice that goes on today.

Q:  Who are some of the most prominent black figures in opera?

Editors:  In the second half of the twentieth century, most people look to Marian Anderson’s career as reflecting the larger barometer of attitudes about race and opera. Though she was denied the right to sing in Constitution Hall in 1939 (owned by the Daughters of the American Revolution), through the support of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who resigned from the DAR in protest, Anderson sang on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to a crowd of 75,000. In 1955, Anderson was the first black person to sing at the Metropolitan opera. She appeared in the role of Ulrica (interestingly, a Creole
fortuneteller medium) in Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera.

However, regarding the prominence and importance of supporting black people in opera, this list needs to be extended to include those involved with the production of opera: Black directors, coaches, upper level administrators in opera companies who are hiring black singers, agents, and dedicated teachers (some of whom are opera singers themselves), and opera institutions that are dedicated to producing works by black composers and hiring black singers in all of their productions. Finally, we need to include scholars (including the contributors to this collection!), librarians, and archivists who are helping the preservation and documentation of the black presence in opera from the past into the present and future.

Q&A with Blackness in Opera editors at University of Illinois Press

Visit your local library for these resources:


Blackness in Opera
Naomi Adele Andre´; Karen M Bryan; Eric Saylor, (2012).

The Sound of Freedom: Marian Anderson, the Lincoln Memorial, and the Concert That Awakened America
Raymond Arsenault, (2009).
In 1964, the same year the Civil Rights Act was passed, renowned classical and spiritual singer Marian Anderson, at age 67, sang her last concert at Constitution Hall, the same venue that had been denied her in 1939 by the Daughters of the American Revolution. Historian Arsenault examines Anderson’s life from the perspective of her phenomenal musical talent and her iconic image during a time of struggle for racial equality.  — Excerpt of review first published March 24, 2009 (Booklist Online).Vanessa Bush

Marian Anderson: A Singer’s Journey
Allan Keiler, (2000).
Anderson’s reticent personality and less aggressive stand on racial discrimination than her contemporaries’ (Paul Robeson, Hazel Scott, and others) have cost her the notoriety she should have earned by her talent alone. Keiler, a music professor, captures the musical legacy of this gifted contralto and details the social and public life of a very restrained and dignified woman. Although she suffered discrimination in lodging and concert appearances in the U.S. and experienced greater acceptance in Europe, Anderson came under criticism for her reluctance to speak out against racism. Throughout her life, as a concert singer and later as a UN ambassador, Anderson remained a dignified though enigmatic figure. (Reviewed February 1, 2000)—Excerpt of review first published February 1, 2000 (Booklist). Vanessa Bush

Marian Anderson, An Annotated Bibliography and Discography
Janet L Sims-Wood, (1981).

Marian Anderson: A Life in Pictures
Online exhibition at the University of Pennsylvania Library, largest online collection of images, includes Anderson's papers, audio and film archives.

For Younger Readers:

The Voice That Challenged a Nation: Marian Anderson and the Struggle for Equal Rights
Russell Freedman, (2004).
Grades 4-8.
In his signature prose, plain yet eloquent, Freedman tells Anderson’s triumphant story, with numerous black-and-white documentary photos and prints that convey her personal struggle, professional artistry, and landmark civil rights role. Everything leads up to her 1939 historic performance at the Lincoln Memorial, where, denied the right to sing at Constitution Hall, she thrilled a crowd of 75,000 and a national radio audience. Documentation is an essential part of her exciting story, with many pages of source notes as well as an enthusiastic, annotated bibliography, and, of course, a discography. Older readers and adults will want this, too. —REVIEW. First published June 1, 2004 (Booklist). Hazel Rochman

When Marian Sang: The True Recital of Marian Anderson
Pam Munoz Ryan, illustrated by Brian Selznick, (2002).
K-Grade 3.
In a lush, operatic style that suits the subject, this large-sized picture-book biography of the great vocalist Marian Anderson captures the story of her triumph in the face of the vicious segregation of her time. The passionate words and beautifully detailed sepia-tone pictures select moments from her life to present a true story that seems like a theatrical Cinderella tale. Selznick’s stirring pictures convey the personal and political drama in both the performance scenes and the close-up portraits, and the climactic picture is unforgettable: children see Anderson’s concert at the Lincoln Memorial in 1939 from the perspective of the huge mixed audience. A lengthy, detailed afterword, in small type; a discography; and a bibliography (including mention of Anderson’s autobiography) are provided for older students who want to know more. — REVIEW. First published November 15, 2002 (Booklist).Hazel Rochman




1. Article illustration:
Marian Anderson: Painting by Betsy Graves Reyneau, 1888-1964, Artist (NARA record: 4772241)
Record creator     Harmon Foundation

2. American contralto Marian Anderson performs in front of 75,000 spectators in Potomac Park. Finnish accompanist Kosti Vehanen is on the piano.
Date     1939-04-09 (Easter)
Source     NARA image 306-NT-965B-4 / ARC 595378 (direct image URL [1])

3. Book cover:Blackness in Opera.

4. Marian Anderson in 1940, by Carl Van Vechten


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