Black Pioneers in the world of Opera
Hall of Fame
For over 160 years, African-Americans and other Black opera singers have been making a significant contribution to the world of Opera, inspite of the tremendous obstacles and difficulties they faced in their careers. Such achievements must be acknowledged and celebrated.
We must ensure that this generation and all future generations learn of these positive role models, and the legacy they have created for Black, multi-ethnic and all other artists worldwide through their art.
Pegasus Opera is proud to present some of the pioneers and role-models who have carved a path in history, a path we can all be proud to follow in the world of opera.
We thank them and WE - SPEAK - THEIR - NAME!
Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield
She was born a slave in the South (Natchez, Mississippi) in the 1820’s and was a self taught singer. She had phenomenal range from a low G in the bass clef to an E above high C. She was insulted for her looks by many critics though they all agreed her voice had great purity and flexibility. A Cincinnati Enquirer journalist called her an ‘African Crow’
Despite the criticism her performances were popular, and in 1853 she made her New York City debut at Metropolitan Hall, drawing a crowd of 4,000. However, blacks were not allowed to watch the performance. After Greenfield made a trip to England to hone her vocal technique and escape the savagery of the American press and public. Here her looks and singing was praised and in 1854 she gave a command performance for Queen Victoria at Buckingham Palace. When she returned to America the Greenfield gained new found respect from the critics. She eventually returned to Philadelphia where she continued to give concerts and set up a studio for private teaching. Nicknamed the ‘Black Swan’ Greenfield died in 1876 and left a legacy that would have far reaching effects, including one of her students, Thomas Bowers who went on to have a highly successful professional career.
Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield on wikipedia
Matilda Sissieretta Joyner was born in Portsmouth, Virginia, on January 5 1869. Known as the greatest black performer of the nineteenth century who was compared to the reigning white diva Adelina Patti and dubbed the Black Patti. She performed before four US presidents. On her tours in South America and the West Indies, heads of governments and wealthy private citizens showered her with diamonds, gold, rubies and pearls as tokens of admiration. Such was her popularity at a concert in New Jersey 1000 people were turned away. She performed in many places including National Theatre of Washington. She was the first black performer to perform at Wallack’s Theatre in New York and also performed world-wide including a command performance for the Prince of Wales and at the Royal Opera House.
On 24 June, 1933, at Rhode Island Hospital in Providence, Sissieretta Jones died of cancer. She was buried by friends to escape ‘Potter’s Field’. Although she never reached the heights of Adelina Patti, she forced whites to see blacks as potentially talented, capable, dignified beings.
WE SPEAK YOUR NAME....! Marie Selika; Emma Hyers & Madah Hyers.
Sissieritta Jones in black history pages
She was born in 1902, and had a principled up bringing in Philadelphia. Her father was a sales man who died when she was 12 years old. Her mother was a teacher but when she lost her certificates in a fire was unable to teach so took in washing. To help her mother Marian sang for money under the pseudonym ‘Baby Contralto’. The family’s Union Baptist Church was the setting for her public debut. Roland Hayes the successful black tenor and graduate of Fisk and Harvard universities was a frequent performer at Union Baptist and became Anderson’s mentor. During this time, Anderson became the breadwinner for the family earning 5 dollars per concert on Sundays and performing three concerts per day. A precocious child Anderson wanted formal training and approached a music school in Philadelphia but was turned down because of her colour. Undeterred, she sought private tutoring from Giuseppe Boghetti who continued a teacher-pupil relationship with her for over 20 years. Boghetti entered her into competitions, which she usually won. One of which resulted in an appearance at Lewisohn Stadium in New York where, in August 1925, she performed in front of 7,500 people. Many concerts followed but Anderson was unhappily on a musical plateau. She decided to go to Europe on the Ile de France and studied in London, then securing more concerts in Berlin and Finland. Over the next several years Anderson conquered European capitals occasionally returning to the USA. By the mid 1930’s the impact of her music on pre-Hitler Europe extended well beyond the limitations of a singer. Anderson vocalised the tragic suffering of a remote, unfamiliar race and made the experience of a disconsolate people painfully real to her listeners. In Europe she found a new manager who organised a proper home coming for her in America and within a few years, Anderson became one of the five highest paid concert artists in the country. On Variety’s box office score for 1939 she was topped only by Nelson Eddy and Lily Pons. But despite her success she still faced racism, and was not allowed to stay at New York's whites only hotels and eat in restaurants. She reluctantly became leader of afledgling movement for equal rights. The philosophy which shaped Anderson’s life is best characterized in her own words, expressing her reliance on an implacable faith and simple truths.
WE SPEAK YOUR NAME.... ! Jules Bledscoe; & Camilla Williams.
On the heels of Anderson's conquests in Europe and America, soprano Dorothy Maynor arrived on the concert scene. She was one of the greatest singers of her generation. Just as Toscanni’s endorsement had elevated Andersons career, Koussevitzky’s public praise of Maynor accelerated her's in 1939. She learned 23 Operas but was never allowed to perform in one, which resulted in her decision to end her recital career in the mid 1960's. After marrying a Presbyterian minister Maynor made what many felt was her greatest artistic contribution: she founded the Harlem School of Arts. Established in 1964 the educational arts facility provided a platform for black and Hispanic children with what Maynor calls ‘ a cultural oasis in a sea of despair’ It now offers artistic refuge to over 1,000 students of all ages and races under the leadership of mezzo-soprano Betty Allen. Born in Norfolk, Virginia in 1910 Maynor performed with the country’s leading orchestras including New York Philarmonic, Boston Symphony, and Philadelphia Orchestra’s and after a successful career and legacy of the Harlem School of Art became a semi recluse in 1979.
WE SPEAK YOUR NAME.... !
Abbi Mitchell; Carol Bryce; Florence Cole Talbert; & Lilian Evanti.
Dorothy Maynor on bach-cantatas.com
In January 28 1961, 34-year-old Leontyne Price debuted with a stunning performance of Leonora in Verdi’s Il Trovatore. The Mississippi born singer inspired one of the most protracted and vociferous ovations in Metropolitan Opera history, 42 minutes long. The fact that the first true black prima donna of grand opera of the century emerged from the race sensitive South seemed ironically appropriate. Born Mary Violet Leontyne on February 10 1927, her formal singing training began at three years old. Her favourite heroine to perform was Aida. Price felt the Verdi suited her voice, temperament and complexion. ‘In Aida, my skin is my costume’ she once said. She was first offered the Metropolitan in 1958 but declined, feeling the time was not right. But in 1961 the offer came again and Price announced ‘I’m better prepared now’. Through all her success and media praise, Price would still find time to return to the St Paul's Methodist Church in the South where she made her stage debut.
She gave a benefit concert that made history, seeing blacks and whites sit together for the first time in her hometown, Laurel.
After debuting with the Metropolitan, she was contracted to do four more roles; Aida, Madame Butterfly, Donna Anna in Don Giovanni and Liu in Turandot. With Price's performance as Minnie in The Girl of the Golden West, she became the first black artist to open a Metropolitan season. Leontyne Price has performed in all the major opera houses in the world, including La scala, Milano; Royal Opera House, Covent Garden; Vienna Staatsoper; San Francisco Opera; Paris Opera, Rome Opera, to name but a few. In 1964, she was awarded the Presidential Freedom Award, and the following year, she won the Italian Award of Merit. Her roles includes Tosca, Norma, Carmen, Leonora's in Il Travatore and La Forza del Destino, Madame Lidoine, Manon Lescaut, Ernani, Amelia, Cleopatra (Barber's) Ariadne, among many other major roles. In 1985, after 25 years with the Metropolitan opera, she took her last bow as an opera diva in the house she opened. Price’s final Aida played to a television audience of millions. She once said ‘ If you’re going to think black, think positive of it, don’t think down about it’.
Truly, the legendary Leontyne Price must be viewed as the incomparable - greatest Verdian, or otherwise Soprano of the 20th Century. Words become almost insignificant when one tries to describe the voice of this noble and wonderful singer, one must experience it to grasp this God given gift and talent. Her legacy must be preserved in order to continue to inspire and elevate the human spirit and the world of opera.
Thank you Leontyne Price - Prima Donna Assoluta.
After Price, the second most noteworthy addition to the Met’s roster of black stars was Martina Arroyo. Her debut actually preceded Price’s by three years (she was the offstage Celestial Voice in Don Carlos in 1958), but it was Price, the newer member of the company who caught the opera world’s attention. When she filled in for an indisposed Birgit Nilsson at the Met in 1965, she was elevated from being an unknown singer who trekked around Europe singing low-budget one-nighters to having a name in the business.
In the early sixties Arroyo married an Italian violist named Emilio Poggioni and acquired a bicontinental lifestyle; shuttling between homes in Zurich and a New York apartment. Arroyo’s image countered the popular stereotype of the preening mannered prima donna; hers was that of a down to earth unpretentious star, an anti-diva characterized by jovial wit, warmth and self-deprecating humour. This made her become a natural talk show host guest including twenty appearances on NBC’s ‘The Tonight Show’ with Johnny Carson.
In spite of Arroyo’s amiable personality the press in the 1960’s alluded to a tense rivalry between her and Price but Arroyo’s insisted the rivalry was contrived and said ‘I have admired Leontyne Price from the moment I heard the lady open her mouth. She knows that, I hope.’ Arroyo’s urban, lower middleclass background centred on Harlem’s 111th Street, where she grew up. Both her parents sang, though not professionally. She always described her family as close knit.
In the late 1970’s a shift in power at the Met and her own ill health (tumors on her back) meant Arroyo was absent from the New York opera and concert scene. But returned for the Met’s 100th Anniversary ‘Gala with Stars’ and a well received Carnegie Hall recital meant her career regained momentum. She divided her time between performances and teaching at Louisiana State University.
WE SPEAK YOUR NAME.... !
Mattiwilda Dobbs; Gloria Davy; Reri Grist; Felicia Weathers; Betty Allen & Adele Addison.
If Leontyne Price defined the essence of a prima donna, Grace Bumbry, a singer who combined talent with dramatic flair, further shaped its meaning. Her artistic self assurance may be traced to her childhood in St Louis, where she lead the protected life of a fragile gifted child. Aware of Grace’s talent and its implications, her parents taught their daughter early on that special talent deserved special care. Bumbry describes her childhood as falling somewhere between poor and middle class. At seventeen Bumbry sang for her idol Marian Anderson and was awe-struck. Anderson was impressed and said ‘She has a magnificent voice of great beauty’. Anderson’s manager Sol Hurok kept an eye on Bumbry’s career from then on and years later they worked together.
Through local radio station KMOX, Bumbry’s voice was heard and offers of a scholarship poured in from major universities. Grace chose Boston but later transferred to Northwestern University. Here Grace met a woman who would transform her career. She began to attend Lotte Lehmann’s master classes. Lehmann had been a star soprano at the Vienna Hofoper from 1916-1938. Lehmann saw Bumbry’s musical gift but felt her then shyness would pose a problem as her stilted movement left her singing lacking in interpretation and dramatic projection. So Lehmann coaxed, scolded and cojoled Bumbry to be more demonstrative. At the age of seven Lehmann presented a gift to Bumbry, a recital at the Little Theatre of California Palace of the Legion of Honor – the diva emerita passing the torch to the incipient star before an audience of respected peers. Bumbry sang Schubert to enthusiastic critics and audiences. Over time Lehmann shared Bumbry’s attention with the student’s voice teacher Armand Tokatyan. The two pedagogues, both with imposing personalities, had considerable rift over weather Bumbry was a soprano or messo-soprano. Bumbry had no preference, citing that she just wanted to sing.
When Tokatyan died in 1960 the dispute ended and Bumbry studied the mezzo soprano and began her rise to recognition. She won the Kimber Foundation Award in San Francisco, the Marian Anderson Award and the Metropolitan Opera Auditions of the Air. In 1960 she made her operatic debut as Amneris in Aida at the Paris Opera, receiving a standing ovation.
In Germany there was much controversy as Bumbry was due to perform in Wagner’s Tannhauser in Bayreuth. There had never been a black performer at Bayreuth. But Wieland Wagner said ‘my grandfather did not write for skin colours he wrote for vocal colours.’ After the performance in July 1961 Bumbry commanded forty two curtain calls during a thirty minute ovation.
Although many thought Bumbry’s appearance might herald a new era of black voices at Bayreuth, the next black singer to perform there was bass baritone Simon Estes in a 1978 production ofThe Flying Dutchman.
Born in the pre-civil rights South of America in 1931, Verrett was uprooted from her birthplace by her father whose hatred of the South fuelled a determination to seek a better life for his family. Her self-perceived role of maverick was born of a rebellious spirit, an exploring analytical mind and a refusal to live her musical life according to the limitations of others.
A New York Times headline in 1973 summed up her career ‘Verrett Takes Up the Challenge’ when she was set to perform both the mezzo and soprano roles in Berlioz’s Les Troyens in a single evening. Such an event in opera is rare and difficult but Verrett switched from mezzo to soprano in midcareer and was not afraid to test the limits of her musical and artistic elasticity. Over the years her repertoire has included the contralto roles of Delilah and Orfeo, the mezzo roles of Amneris, Princess Eboli, Azucena and Carmen and the soprano roles of Elisabetta in Maria Stuarda, Lady Macbeth and Norma. After winning a vocal competition in the early 1960’s, she turned down a chance to study with Lotte Lehmann because she felt she wasn’t ready yet. And also turned down two opportunities at the Metropolitan before accepting the role of Carmen.
After moving from New Orleans to California, Verrett found the rules of the Adventist Church constricting and enjoyed listening to jazz music like Billie Holiday. As a student at Los Angeles State College, Verrett tabled music study to real estate law. She married an older real estate businessman but the marriage was short lived. After college she sold real estate, a lucrative business during the southern California building boom days of the 1950’s. But after a while she decided to further her talents and find a music teacher. Her church did not approve of the musical direction she was going into but Verrett said ‘God gave me a voice, he gave me a talent’ and was influenced by the music of Marian Anderson that she had grown up listening to. With her parents blessing Verrett made her opera debut was in 1957 with the title role in Britten’s 'The Rape of Lucretia' and the following year she portrayed Irina in Kurt Weill’s 'Lost in the Stars' at the New York City Opera. Her second marriage was to a Brooklyn born artist of Italian decent, who protected her from the racism she might have encountered. At Covent Garden she became a house favourite with her performances of Ulrica, Amneris, Azucena and Eboli. She was also a favourite in France performing Medea and Iphigenie en Tauride at Paris Opera. At La Scala, Milano she was favourite for the roles of Lady Macbeth. Her other roles include Tosca, Aida, Desdemona, among many others and she has performed at all the world's major opera houses. Despite her success, Verrett's career was plagued with health problems including colds, flu and sinus issues. She always maintained a headstrong, non compromising personality once saying ‘We all need heroes and heroines who carry themselves beautifully and sing beautifully’ she said of the older black opera singers.
Thank you Shirley Verrett - Prima Donna Assoluta
At the end of the vocal spectrum is Jessye Norman, a dramatic soprano of stentorian power who rocketed to fame and accrued an enormous international following. A native of Augusta, Georgia, Norman is one of five children. Her early singing experience took place in Mount Calvary Baptist Church. At sixteen she entered the Marian Anderson Award contest, singing to arias - although she did not win, she gained positive feedback from the judging panel. She began voice training in 1963and by 1969 settled into a lifestyle of a young diva. In Europe she signed a three year contract with the Deutsche Opera in Berlin, having debuted as Elisabeth in Wagner’s. Years passed and Norman abandoned opera, temporarily filing her calendar with recital dates and recording sessions in Europe. She settled in London and carved a niche into the international music community.
Her legions of fans in Europe showered her with accolades – at Salzburg Festival she was once called for six encores. She was the inspiration for Jean-Jacques Beineix’s film Diva. Norman returned to opera, and by the time she made her Metropolitan debut as Cassandra in Les Troyens in 1983, she was already a figure of great stature both metaphorically and literally.
But it is chiefly as a recitalist exploring the music of Poulene, Satie, Brahms, Schubert and Straus that Norman continues to garner her world wide acclaim.
WE SPEAK YOUR NAME.... !
Leona Mitchell; Barbara Hendrix; Gwendolyn Bradley; Marvis Martin; Roberta Alexander; Hilda Harris & Kathleen Battle.
Mezzo Soprano Florence Quivar established herself in the 1970’s and 1980’s as a major artist specialising in recitals and orchestral appearances but her opera performances have also given her recognition. Born in Philadelphia, Quivar became interested in music with exposure to her mother’s private piano teaching. She moved to New York, won the Marian Anderson Award and signed to Harold Shaw Management and later Columbia Artists. Shewas soon in demand as a recitalist and oratorio singer internationally.
Quivar sang Serena in 1976 with the Cleveland Orchestra's production of Gershwin's Porgy and Bess.
The recording won a Grammy Award for best opera recording. The following year she made her debut at the Tanglewood Festival singing in the world premiere of Roger Sessions
'When Lilacs Last In The Dooryard Bloom'd' with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
She also made her Metropolitan Opera début on October 10, 1977 as Marina in Boris Godunov. She became a regular at the Met during the 1980s and 1990s, appearing as Jocasta in Oedipus Rex, Suzuki in Madama Butterfly, Isabella in L'italiana in Algeri, Federica in Luisa Miller, Fidès in Le prophète, Frugola in Il tabarro, Mother Marie in Dialogues des Carmélites, Louis XV Chair in L'enfant et les sortilèges, the Princess in Suor Angelica, Ulrica in Un ballo in maschera, and Serena in Porgy and Bess. Her 101st and last performance at the Met was in a concert performance of Verdi's Requiem in 1997 where she sang the mezzo soprano solos under the baton of James Levine.
She has sung with all the leading opera houses in the world, the Deutsche Oper Berlin, Bavarian State Opera, La Scala, Teatro la Fenice, Teatro dell'Opera di Roma, the Theatro Municipal in Rio de Janeiro, Teatro Colón, Royal Opera at Covent Garden, Houston Grand Opera, Seattle Opera, and Los Angeles Opera among others.
Her other roles includes Adalgisa in Norma, the title role in Carmen, Erda in Siegfried and Das Rheingold, Brangäne in Tristan und Isolde and Orpheus in Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice, the latter being a role with which she became particularly associated.
She has also performed with many of the world's premiere orchestras, including the New York Philharmonic, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Cincinnati Symphony, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Philadelphia Orchestra, Cleveland Orchestra, San Francisco Symphony, Toronto Symphony, Orchestre de Paris, Berlin Philharmonic, London Philharmonic, Montreal Symphony and the BBC Symphony Orchestra to name just a few.
Florence Quivar was one of the world's greatest mezzo-sopranos in the 20th Century.
WE SPEAK YOUR NAME.... ! Harolyn Blackwell & Cynthia Haymon
Born in Georgia, he was a successful tenor and graduate of Fisk and Harvard university, as well as a frequent performer at Union Baptist. He was a touring member of the Jubilee Singers. Determined he rented Boston Symphony Hall for a recital which paid off for him. He then went to England and performed for the King and Queen and worked successfully across Europe.
His recitals always included several spirituals. He gave many recitals in Carnegie Hall and in 1926 was described by New York Times as ‘sold out to the doors, he also sang at Craig's Pre-Lenten Recitals.
He made his official debut that year in Boston's Symphony Hall which received critical acclaim. He performed with the Philadelphia Concert Orchestra, at the Atlanta Colored Music Festivals and at the Washington, D.C. Washington Conservatory concerts.
Hayes was singing in capital cities across Europe and was quite famous when he returned to the United States in 1923. He was awarded the Spingarn Medal in 1924.
WE SPEAK YOUR NAME....!
Edward Boatner (Baritone and Composer of Negro Spirituals)
Known for being a commanding presence as a baritone, Simon Estes did not make his debut at the Metropolitan opera until well into his forties. He is outspoken in the issues of race and opera and in particular of black men. "There seems to be some fear of romantic involvement between black men and white women" he told Opera News in 1983.
He was renown for performing leading roles in operas by Richard Wagner. He appeared at such houses as The Metropolitan Opera, La Scala, Covent Garden, Opéra National de Paris, Lyric Opera Chicago, the Liceu, the Hamburg State Opera, the Bavarian State Opera, the Vienna State Opera, the Zurich Opera, Deutsche Oper Berlin, among many others. He also sang at several notable music festivals, including the Salzburg Festival and the Glyndebourne Festival.
In 1978 he notably became the first black male, African-American or otherwise, to sing a leading role at the prestigious Bayreuth Festival when he sang the title role in Wagner's The Flying Dutchman. The performance was a personal triumph for him, and he went on to sing at Bayreuth for the next six consecutive years. Among his numerous roles are: Flying Dutchman, Nino, Don Pedro, Marke, Amonasro, Escamillo, Hermann, Porgy, and Riamondo. Estes was truly one of the world's greatest baritones of the 20th Century.
WE SPEAK YOUR NAME....! George Shirley; Robert McFerrin & Sir Willard White