Battling the Odds: The Uphill Odyssey of African American Women - Carla Maria Verdino-S├╝llwold - Scene4 Magazine Special Issue April 0414

Carla Maria Verdino-S├╝llwold


April 2014

When 75,000 people gathered at the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday in 1939, they were bearing witness to the belief that Secretary of the Interior Harold  Ickes had eloquently expressed: " Genius draws no color line."  They had come to demonstrate their admiration and solidarity with a thirty-seven-year-old African-American contralto, who had just returned from thundering successes in Europe, and who had been denied the rental of Washington's Constitution Hall by its owners, the Daughters of the American Revolution.


The dignified, non-militant Marian Anderson had become, in the aftermath of that incident, a civil rights heroine.  First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt resigned her DAR membership in protest, and for the first time widespread attention was focused on the indignities and discrimination which had been endured for more than two centuries by black musicians and artists, especially by African-American women who faced the dual hurdles of race and gender.

Black classical singers are sometimes thought to inhabit a rarified world apart from the routine prejudices faced by other members of their race, but, in fact, African-American artists in the classical sphere have had to wage a long and valiant struggle to reach the levels of success they are now experiencing, and, as many contemporary artists will attest, that battle is not yet wholly won.

In 1991 I conducted a series of interviews with leading African-American classical artists of the period for the NAACP's Crisis Magazine; all attested to the uphill nature of the feats they had achieved.  Major scholarly works such as Rosalyn Story's And So I Sing (1990) and the documentary Aida's Brothers and Sisters (2001) have focused much needed attention on the topic and also paid tribute to the extraordinary perseverance and challenges overcome by African-Americans in opera and concert. Today, almost a quarter of a century later, in an America with Barak Obama as President, progress has been made in classical music, though African-American women (and men) still remain in the extreme minority and must prevail against casting prejudices and other more subtle forms of exclusion.

Given that African-Americans have made such a deep mark on American jazz, gospel, hip-hop, R&B, and other forms of popular music, why is there such a paucity of performers in opera and concert?  And why in an America, which has welcomed black musicians in other idioms, has it been so difficult for African-American classical singers, who have often had to achieve their first rounds of success in Europe?  Lastly, how does gender complicate even further this series of issues?

In setting out to answer those questions and in the interviews I conducted several leitmotifs emerged:  the issue of blacks in what is traditionally seen as "white" music; the often limited access - hampered by cost and educational opportunities - African-American communities often have to the classical tradition; and the cross-currents of social context and their impact on classical music culture. To understand these contexts and conflicts it is necessary to take a brief look at the history of the black classical singer in America.  It is an history inextricably linked with slavery – a fact which both impelled and hindered blacks' pursuit of this essentially white, European art form.

In Colonial America, though some slaves and freemen received musical instruction from their masters or church organists and choirmasters, there was little opportunity for any formal study and virtually none for employment as musicians.  This changed only slightly right after the Revolution, when a few black freemen were recognized as singers and music teachers, though their numbers were very small - as late as 1850 only twenty-four professional black musicians in New York.

A few African-Americans did gain wider notice in the mid-19th century.  One of these was Elisabeth Taylor Greenfield, dubbed the Black Swan. So extraordinary did Harriet Beecher Stowe find Greenfield's three-and-one-half octave range that the famous abolitionist arranged for Greenfield's first London engagement. There were also a few other groups who made headway on the concert stage, among them the black DeLuca Family, who gave an historic concert in Sandusky, Ohio, with the white Hutchinson Family Singers in 1853.  These, however, were isolated incidences in an ante-bellum world where classical music remained generally outside the sphere of daily African-American life.

After the Civil War a few more African-American stars emerged on the American concert stage, but many, like soprano Marie Selika performed extensively abroad.  Selika did, nevertheless, tour America with her husband, baritone Sampson Williams in the 1880s.  Gradually, opera began to permeate the cultural consciousness of black Americans, but they had very little chance to enjoy the art form. Only the opera in New Orleans permitted African-Americans to sit in the upper galleries; all other houses were closed to them as spectators and as performers.  This exclusion prompted the creation of the Colored American Opera Company in 1872 – the first all-black ensemble in America and the forerunner of later 20th century projects such as the Negro Opera Company of Philadelphia and the National Negro Opera. These alternative companies provided black classical singers a chance to gain stage and repertoire experience, but they did not stem the flow of African-American talent to Europe.

Photo2SiserettaJones-crAnother gifted diva who decided to go abroad was Siseretta Jones, nicknamed the "Black Patti" for her soprano-contralto range and pure, bell-like tone.  She told The Detroit Tribune before embarking for Europe that "I would like very much to sing opera here, but they tell me my color is against me."   After a triumphant concert tour of Europe, Jones returned to give a recital at Madison Square Garden in 1892, after which she was offered the role of Aida at the Metropolitan Opera. Her debut never materialized because the Met's board "felt that the opera house was not ready for a black prima donna."  This was a decision that would later be shamefully repeated in the 1930s when the board again countermanded Gatti-Cazzazza's hiring of soprano Lillian Evanti, who had a resume which included the best opera houses in Europe.


Recognizing the need for activism in the early 20th century, African-American organizations began to make concerted efforts to promote the careers of black classical musicians.  The NAACP established the Spingarn Medal in 1914, and the National Association of Negro Musicians began a scholarship fund in 1919. The Harlem Renaissance proved a major impetus for black classical singers – and, of course, African-American arts in general. Among the women artists who rose to prominence were Anne Brown, Gershwin's first Bess, and Dorothy Maynor, who made her 1939 debut under the baton of Serge Koussevitsky at the Berkshire Music festival and after a successful concert career, went on to found the Harlem School of the Arts in 1966.

The most prominent African-American diva of the first half of the 20th century, however, was Marian Anderson who, (together with Roland Hayes and Paul Robeson) made huge strides to advance the image and m├ętier of the African-American classical singer. Roland Hayes actually exerted a direct influence on Marian Anderson's career by arranging for free lessons for her with his former Boston Teacher, Arthur Hubbard.

Possessed of a creamy contralto with rich chest resonance and lush, firm high notes, Marian Anderson, who was born in 1902 in South Philadelphia to a poor, hard-working family, received her early musical training in church and school choirs.  Refused admission to the Philadelphia Music School because of her color, she was able to continue her studies through the charitable intervention of her church colleagues, and in later years, Anderson repaid every one of those debts.  She paid for her own recital at New York's Town Hall and was rewarded with lukewarm praise from the press.  She did win the Lewisohn Stadium Concert Prize, however, in 1925, and with that endorsement in hand, she decided – like many of her predecessors – to go to Europe "to perfect her languages and repertoire." There she gave a series of dazzling recitals throughout Britain, Germany, Scandinavia, France, Belgium, and Austria, where her 1935 Salzburg performance prompted the legendary conductor Arturo Toscanini to say, "What I have heard today, one is privileged to hear only once in a hundred years."

When Anderson returned to the United States in 1935, she explained that she had gone to Europe "to reach for a place as a serious artist, but I never doubted I must return.  I am an American."  Marian Anderson's quiet integrity and her resolute and forgiving faith in her countrymen made her an icon of African-American pride and achievement.

World War II and its aftermath brought major social changes to America and with the advent of the Civil Rights Movement there was even more progress made in opening stages to African-American singers. In 1940 Mary Caldwell Dawson founded the National Negro Opera Company to showcase black singers and composers. In 1949 Zelma George starred in Gian Carlo Menotti's The Medium on Broadway, and beginning in 1945, New York City Opera's Lazlo Haslasz became the first impresario to implement colorblind casting, facilitating the debuts of such divas as Camilla Williams as Butterfly, and managing a company which boasted of others like Adele Addison, Carol Brice, and Margaret Tynes.

The New York City Opera's bold step prompted Met General Manager Rudolf Bing to engage Marian Anderson in 1954 as Ulrica in Il Trovatore.  While Bing succeeded where previous Met managers had failed, the battle with the board had been hard fought and acrimonious.  Bing wrote in his memories:  "The Metropolitan Opera Board was not among the many organizations that sent congratulations."  Nevertheless, Anderson, as the first black soloist at the Met, added another groundbreaking accomplishment to her illustrious resume.  She was followed shortly thereafter by coloratura Mattiwilda Dobbs in 1954, when she became the first black soloist to be offered a long-term Met contract.



The 1960s was an especially fertile renascence for African-American classical singers.  A large number of divas (and divos) rose to prominence both in America and abroad, among them Leontyne Price, Shirley Verrett, Grace Bumbry, Martina Arroyo, and Betty Allen.  Price was honored by being chosen to open the new Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center in the world premiere of Samuel Barber's Antony and Cleopatra. Her lustrous dramatic soprano and regal presence made her a superstar for several decades and did a great deal to continue to break down color barriers for her colleagues. 

Photo5GraceBumbry-crMezzo-soprano Bumbry created history abroad by becoming the first black singer to appear at the Wagner Festival in Bayreuth as Venus in Tannh├Ąuser in a production, directed by Wolfgang Wagner.  Wagner told the German press that his grandfather "wrote for the voice and not for skin color.  I don't need any ideal Nordic figures; what I was looking for . . .was voice and presence." The Festival press and public apparently agreed, because Bumbry was hailed as a sensation, and Europe, with its myriad of opera houses, continued to beckon American singers regardless of race or color.

The last fifty years of classical music have witnessed a resurgence of African-American singers on the world's stages. The list of names is too long to cite without risking omissions, but a sampling of the women who have made illustrious careers gives a good idea of the wealth of talent being recognized. In addition to the ladies mentioned above, Reri Grist, Clamma Dale, Barbara Hendricks, Leona Mitchell, Kathleen Battle, Jessye Norman, Cynthia Clarey, Harolyn Blackwell, and today's prominent divas Michele Crider, Angela Brown, and Tichina Vaughan come to mind.

Yet, despite the increased presence of African-Americans on opera and concert rosters, many of issues which previously proved insurmountable, still surface to impact these artists' careers. The days of segregation and overt insults are over, but "prejudices are subtler now," Shirley Verrett told me in 1991, a concept corroborated by Betty Allen, whose illustrious concert career had culminated in her heading the Harlem School for the Arts. Others like Reri Grist very graciously refused to go down the road of complaints, insisting that the only solution was "not to be deterred and to be as well prepared as possible. The point is doing the job one loves well."

"It's na├»ve to think that racial problems do not exist in the arts today," writes Carolyn Sebron in 2011 in The Root.  "However, discussing race in the classical world is like stepping on the third rail in the New York subway, and it can kill your career.  In private singers may talk about incidents in rehearsals or performances or with agents and managers.  The dilemma is this:  If an artist reacts, even justifiably, he or she risks being called difficult, arrogant, ungrateful, unprofessional, or worse, unstable.  Contracts dry up, and a singer's "disappears" in a year or two."

While a few African-American artists have spoken up provocatively, among them Paul Robeson and more recently baritone Simon Estes, many artists prefer to avoid the subject and to take action in other ways. Among these is the concept of serving as a role model for younger artists, improving access to and education in classical music for African-Americans, or exploring the time-honored tradition of striking out first in Europe.

"Those of us who have had successful careers have served as role models," Shirley Verrett remarked.  "Just as Miss Anderson, Miss Maynor, Mr. [Todd] Duncan, Mr. [William] Warfield were inspirations to me, I hope I can serve in some small way as an inspiration to the next couple generations."  Verrett also posited that the way to have real influence was to "acquire the clout of a board member," though the numbers of blacks in these citadels of white classical music power remain few.

Photo6DorothyMaynor-crAccordingly, many African-American artists have struck out on their own ventures, embracing the idea that access to classical music through education and performance opportunities is the best antidote to overt or residual prejudice.  One of the foremost institutions to address these issues is the Harlem School of the Arts, founded in 1963 by Dorothy Maynor.  Her successor Betty Allen spoke eloquently of the role this bustling oasis of artistic discipline and inspiration in the midst of Harlem.  "How available to African-American children are the classical arts?" she asked rhetorically, citing the lack of money for lessons, the inability to envision the arts as a practical career, the unfamiliarity with the traditions of European music.  "We have to educate not only the students, but the teachers and the parents."


The school, now headed by Yvette L. Campbell, has grown to be one of the premiere educational institutions in the country; it continues to provide unrivaled arts education and outreach programs to the greater New York area, building diverse audience, and imparting young students not only the skills needed for performing careers but also, as their mission statement affirms, "for the life-long abilities of creative thinking and imaginative leadership."

Similar pioneering endeavors include the various black opera companies which have offering training and performance opportunities to African-American singers. Taking their inspiration from the 19th century companies like the National Negro Opera, modern organizations such as Opera Ebony, founded in 1973, and Harlem Opera Theater, established in 2001, have worked diligently to showcase black artists, and to perform not only the standard opera and concert repertoire, but also to focus on works of neglected African-American classical composers, and to commission new works by black composers.


Among the more visible recent outreach efforts is a program created by contemporary star soprano Angela Brown entitled Opera from a Sistah's Point of View.  Brown has brought her one-woman show in which she sings arias, narrates opera stories, and demystifies classical music to audiences of school children, and she has gained widespread recognition when her program was recently featured on CNN.


Brown, like two of her contemporary African-American colleagues, soprano Mich├Ęle Crider and mezzo-soprano Tichina Vaughan, rose to prominence first on European stages, returning to America with star status. While this route has been a common one for singers of any race, given the greater number of opera houses in Europe and the attractive, nurturing security of the Fach system, still in place in smaller companies, it has been a particularly helpful path for African-American singers. Virtually every black classical singer has profited from the European experience, albeit for different reasons.  In the early years, the absence of overt discrimination and segregation surely served as a draw, but even in America's post civil rights era, there were cultural advantages to building a career in Europe. Reri Grist found her lovely lyric soprano best suited to the size of European houses. Shirley Verrett  made the pilgrimage to gain opera experience and discovered that because she was "exotic and had talent," she was readily showcased.

And here "being showcased" is the operative word. Because casting in America continued throughout the 20th century to be shadowed by issues of race and color.  Often when African American singers made their debuts on the stages of the great American opera houses, it was in roles like Aida or Bess, and though they often went on to sing other repertoire regardless of color, they were much in demand for those which matched their ethnicity.  Gradually throughout the late 20th century and into the present one, these barriers have fallen away, first for the black divas, and, with much more difficulty, for the black men.  Every African-American singer I originally interviewed spoke of the pervasive taboos governing  American cultural thought.  Shirley Verrett explained it in this way: "I think it goes back to all those sermons on black males and white women."  And tenor George Shirley, who did sing a second cast Romeo in the 1960s, expressed his frustration:  "If I can accept a white man in blackface as Otello, why can't an audience accept me as a romantic lead?"  Happily in recent years there have been singers like Harlem-born tenor Noah Stewart, who has demonstrated that he can effectively take the stage as Pinkerton or Don Jos├ę or Nadir, and he was the first African-American singer to top the classical album charts – albeit in the U.K. - with his recital disc.

Black female classical singers, however, continue to face their own hurdles, which are as much the result of race than they are of gender.  Betty Allen attributes it to the general reluctance of all women to "verbalize the difficulties of the workplace."    Black divas are discovering that they must be creative in carving out their own opportunities, many of them in a wide range of music from opera to musical theatre to popular genres.  Audra McDonald comes immediately to mind for her stunning success as a "crossover" artist, and one can also cite concert phenomena like Laurice Lanier, Nova Payton, and Jarnet Pittman of Three Mo' Divas.

Taking charge of their own careers with the greater possibilities opened to them by media, technology, educational opportunities, social and cultural change, African-American classical singers – and especially black women singers – continue to combat adversity and, as CNN interviewer Tony Harris said of Angela Brown, help "to change the color of music." 


Their strength comes not only from their talent and artistic discipline but also from something within, a silent, special something that has propelled them through this centuries-long quest for recognition as artists and citizens.  Rosalyn Story in And So I Sing describes that faith in Marian Anderson:  "She was the calm center of a swirling controversy, at peace with herself."  And Shirley Verrett articulated it most movingly when she affirmed that "The black man (or woman) is a human being who can do anything he wants as long as he lives up to his potential.  There is no such word in my vocabulary, as "I can't." 

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Scene4 Magazine - Carla Maria Verdino-S├╝llwold |
Carla Maria Verdino-S├╝llwold's reviews, interviews, and features on theatre, opera, classical music, and the visual arts have appeared in numerous international publications.  
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