Breaking Barriers: Four Pioneering African American Singers in Opera

Breaking Barriers: Four Pioneering African American Singers in Opera

Marian Anderson’s Curtain Call Debut

“In truth, I knew of a certainty before I launched my career that my blackness would play a role covertly or overtly wherever and whenever I appear onstage in an operatic role. I, like every performer, wished to be assessed, accepted, or rejected on my artist merits alone.”
George Shirley1

On January 7, 1955, history was made when Marian Anderson (1897–1993) became the first African American singer to perform with the Metropolitan Opera Company. Her landmark performance as Ulrica, the sorceress in Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera, was a long overdue fracture in the color barrier that had kept black singers from appearing in opera on one of the world’s great stages.

In many ways, Anderson’s momentous performance at the Met was a culmination of the rich legacy of black American classical singers who had ventured into opera before her.

Due to prevailing attitudes of racism in the United States, black classical singers were blocked from singing with major American opera companies. Many—including Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield (“The Black Swan”), Sissieretta Jones (“The Black Patti”), and tenor Roland Hayes—found great celebrity in the concert arena. Others performed with opera companies, such as the Theodore Drury Opera Company, the National Negro Opera Company, Opera Ebony, and Opera South, which were founded by African Americans to provide performance opportunities for African American singers.2

One of the first black singers to perform with an established American opera company was bass-baritone Jules Bledsoe (1897–1943), who sang the role of Amonasro in Aida with the Cleveland Stadium Opera in 1932.3 In 1933, he reprised the role and was joined by Caterina Jarboro (1898–1986) as Aida in a production presented by Alfredo Salmaggi’s new opera company at the Hippodrome in New York. Despite their success, segregation in opera was to remain for another 12 years. Enter baritone Todd Duncan and New York City Opera.

Todd Duncan

When George Gershwin was preparing for the premiere of Porgy and Bess, he was unhappy with the 100 baritones who auditioned for the role of Porgy. He eventually learned about Todd Duncan (1903–1998), a baritone who had sung Alfio in an all-black production of Cavalleria rusticana during the single season of New York’s Aeolian Opera Association.4 The 31-year-old Duncan was a music professor at Howard University in Washington, D.C., who Gershwin persuaded to come to New York to sing for him. After hearing 12 bars of “Lungi dal caro bene” by Sarti—Gershwin knew he had found his Porgy.5 Duncan’s place in opera history was secured on September 30, 1935, when he created the role of Porgy in the world premiere of Porgy and Bess in Boston. He subsequently sang it in the Broadway premiere 10 days later.

As notable as this accomplishment was for Duncan, perhaps even more notable was when he sang the role of Tonio in Pagliacci with the New York City Opera in 1945. With that performance, he became the first African American to sing a featured role with a prominent American opera company. He would go on to sing Escamillo in Carmen as well as Rigoletto with the company.

Duncan’s primary artistic focus, however, was as a recitalist. He sang some 2,000 recitals in 56 countries over the course of a career that lasted more than 25 years.

Camilla Williams

Todd Duncan’s 1945 groundbreaking debut at New York City Opera had been enabled by the young company’s first music director, Laszlo Halasz. The next year, Halasz facilitated another milestone: on May 15, 1946, Camilla Williams (1919–2012)—an unknown soprano from Danville, Virginia—sang the title role in Madama Butterfly with New York City Opera. That night she became the first African American woman to appear with a major opera company in the U.S.

Williams graduated from Virginia State College in 1941, after which she taught third grade and elementary music for a year. Then, through an alumni scholarship, she moved to Philadelphia to study voice with the renowned teacher Marion Szekely Freschl. In 1943, Williams tied for the inaugural Marian Anderson Award; she entered again the next year and won it outright. Anderson would prove to be a faithful mentor to Williams.

Fate played its hand when Metropolitan Opera star Geraldine Farrar was invited through various connections to attend an early concert appearance by Williams. Farrar enthusiastically wrote on Williams’ behalf to her influential concert manager, Arthur Judson, who arranged for Williams to audition for Maestro Halasz at the New York City Opera.

Farrar was in the audience for Williams’ debut, which received excellent reviews. Williams would go on to sing Nedda in Pagliacci, Mimì in La bohème, Marguerite in Faust, Micaëla in Carmen, and Aida with City Opera. So, even if she was not the first black artist to sing with a major American opera company, she was the first to receive a regular contract with one.

Williams took her Butterfly to the Vienna State Opera in 1954 and, in doing so, became the first African American artist to sing a major role with that venerable company. Her career was full of many other “firsts” and was punctuated with numerous honors and awards. In 1977, Williams became the first black professor of voice at Indiana University, where she remained until 1997.

Robert McFerrin

Baritone Robert McFerrin (1921–2006), father of the Grammy Award-winner Bobby McFerrin, notably made his Metropolitan Opera debut just 20 days after Marian Anderson’s debut.

McFerrin began an association with Boris Goldovsky, the noted Russian impresario, in 1949. For Goldovsky, McFerrin performed the title role in Rigoletto at the Tanglewood Music Festival and Valentin in Faust with the New England Opera Theater. He sang regularly with the National Negro Opera Company and the New York City Opera in the 1940s and 1950s.

A crucial advance in McFerrin’s career occurred in 1953, when he won the Metropolitan Opera Auditions of the Air. It was not uncommon at the time for winners of the prestigious competition to subsequently receive contracts with the company, but no black singer had yet performed on the Met stage. Met General Manager Rudolf Bing, however, was determined to integrate his company’s casts.

On January 27, 1955, Robert McFerrin became the first African American male singer to perform with the Metropolitan Opera, appearing as Amonasro in Aida. Although Anderson’s debut preceded McFerrin’s by 20 days, he had already been under contract when Anderson was signed. Thus, McFerrin was the first black singer to receive a contract with the Met, a detail that is often overlooked.

He sang with the Met for three more years as Amonasro, Valentin, and Rigoletto, but performances came sparingly, so he left the company and headed for California. While there, he provided the singing voice for Sidney Poitier’s Porgy in the 1959 film adaptation of Porgy and Bess and he continued to perform and began to teach.

After returning to his boyhood home of St. Louis in 1973, he held the position of artist-in-residence at the St. Louis Conservatory of Music.

Marian Anderson

In many ways, Anderson was the right person at the right time for her momentous debut at the Met. The contralto was 57 years old and was widely known and highly regarded due to her already long and distinguished concert career.

Anderson conquered Europe by the mid 1930s, more than 20 years before for her Met debut, giving 142 concerts in the Nordic countries from September 1933 to April 1934 alone.6 Her appearance at Austria’s Salzburg Festival in 1935 was abruptly cancelled due to “a ‘non-Aryan’ rule, particularly aimed against people of color.”7 A privately arranged concert took place at the Hotel de l’Europe instead, with renowned soprano Lotte Lehmann and conductors Arturo Toscanini and Bruno Walter, as well as the Archbishop of Salzburg in attendance. The success of the Salzburg concert was so great that word soon spread to the U.S. The Russian-born impresario Sol Hurok took Anderson under his management and arranged for a homecoming concert at New York’s Town Hall. Soon after, a ticket to a concert by Anderson was a prized commodity, and she became one of the highest-paid concerts artists in the country.8

Wider national attention came to Anderson in 1939 when the Daughters of the American Revolution barred her from singing at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C. The DAR, which owned the hall, was at first evasive in its reasoning, but in the end it upheld its policy to not allow blacks to perform there. The media was sent into a frenzy, and eventually First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt resigned from the DAR over its refusal to allow Anderson to perform in its hall.

Amidst all of this controversy, Anderson remained passive and continued with her concert schedule. Her manager, Hurok, however, proposed that she bring the episode to a close by giving an open-air concert. At first Anderson was hesitant, but she eventually capitulated and performed for a crowd of 75,000—and a radio crowd of millions—from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.9 It was an iconic moment.

Anderson’s Metropolitan Opera debut in 1955, nearly 16 years after the Lincoln Memorial concert, was long overdue. The company had a policy of not hiring black singers, which persisted despite the success several African Americans had found elsewhere. When Rudolf Bing took the helm at the Met in 1950, however, things began to change. He brought black ballerina Janet Collins to the Met stage in Aida in his first season and was undaunted in his desire to hire Anderson, despite her advancing age and lack of operatic stage experience.

“No other black singer had the universal appeal, both artistically and personally, of Anderson,” explains her biographer, Allen Keiler. “No other black singer would serve the Met as well in preparing the way for others. The weight of history and of conscience went into Bing’s decision.”10

Anderson sang her last performance with the Met as Ulrica on tour in Cleveland on April 24, 1956, and it was her last season in opera. After more than 30 years before the public, Marian Anderson gave her farewell concert at Carnegie Hall on April 18, 1965.

It is perhaps worth noting that the debuts of Duncan, Williams, Anderson, and McFerrin were all brought about by the forward-thinking decisions of Europeans, Laszlo Halasz and Rudolf Bing, who came to America to lead major opera companies. The Hungarian Halasz studied at the Liszt Academy in Budapest and later served as assistant to George Szell in Prague and Toscanini and Walter in Salzburg. Bing was an Austrian, who worked in Darmstadt and Berlin before helping to found England’s Glyndebourne Festival.

Regardless, once those stage doors were opened, they were not to be closed again. Anderson and McFerrin were quickly followed at the Met by lyric coloratura soprano Mattiwilda Dobbs who, in 1956, became the first black soprano to sing with—and to secure a long-term contract with—the company. George Shirley sang with the Met for 11 seasons after becoming the first African American tenor to sing a leading role with the company in 1961. That same year, Leontyne Price made her house debut at the Met, having first sung with the company at a fundraiser at the Ritz Theater in 1953, two years prior to Anderson’s historic debut.

These bold pioneers left an inspiring artistic legacy, which challenged the operatic world and changed it for the better.

1 George Shirley, “Il Rodolfo Nero, or The Masque of Blackness,” in Blackness in Opera, eds. Naomi André, Karen M. Bryan, and Eric Saylor (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2014), 260–261.
2 Eric Ledell Smith, Blacks in Opera: An Encyclopedia of People and Companies, 1873–1993 (Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Co., 1995), 1.
3 Shirley, 263.
4 Walter Rimler, George Gershwin: An Intimate Portrait (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2009), 93–94.
5 Ibid., 95.
6 Rosalyn M. Story, And So I Sing: African-American Divas of Opera and Concert (New York: Warner Books, 1990), 45.
7 Ibid.
8 Ibid., 46–48.
9 Ibid., 48–52.
10 Allan Keiler, Marian Anderson: A Singer’s Journey (New York: Scribner, 2000), 271.

Dean Southern

Dean Southern, DMA, is on the voice faculties of the Cleveland Institute of Music and the American Institute of Musical Studies (AIMS) in Graz, Austria.