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The Road Less Traveled - The Contribution of African Americans to the American Opera Industry

by Tislam Swift


Despite the plethora of obstacles faced, the contribution of African American opera singers to the American opera world as we know it today has been vast. As a teenager growing up in New York City and attending Fiorello H. LaGuardia High school for Music, Art and Performing Arts, I became obsessed with learning about classical singing and wanted to know about all the Black singers who had come before me. Of course, I would come to discover who many American singers deem to be the Godmother of ALL American singers, Ms. Leontyne Price herself. I’d find myself spending countless hours at the New York Public Library, before the days of YouTube, obsessing over recordings of Ms. Price’s glorious floating tones. The older I got and the more I studied and pursued classical singing, I began to ponder. Where were the other Black singers? Were there any unsung heroes?


During my own Journey, I was inspired to know of so many African American singers that had come before me. In 1939, just at the start of World War II, Contralto Marian Anderson was denied access to perform at Constitution Hall by the daughters of the American Revolution due to a law that denied the rights of Black performers in the space. Ms. Anderson would then be granted the opportunity to sing a concert on April 9, 1939, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial where she offered one of the most soul-stirring performances of ‘My Country Tis of Thee.” She would go on and make American opera history again as the first African American singer to sing at the Metropolitan Opera House in her 1955 performance as Ulrica in Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera. Shortly after in 1961, tenor George Shirley would become the first African American Singer to win the prestigious Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions (now the Metropolitan Opera Eric and Dominique Laffont Competition). He was the second African American man to sing leading roles for the company. He was preceded by baritone Robert McFerrin who sang the title role of Verdi’s Rigoletto in 1956. Mr. Shirley would sing with The Metropolitan Opera for 11 seasons following his debut. This would be the start of a new Horizon for Black Opera singers as this was only the beginning of what we see today in the American Opera scene.


Today, we are witnessing a great change in the opera industry. Opera companies, universities and other arts organizations have committed to progressive initiatives that highlight access and privilege for African American opera singers. With opera houses and concert halls closed due to Covid-19, many singers took matters into their own hands and began creating platforms that highlighted and discussed the issues, successes and stories of Black artists. Baritone Kenneth Overton launched his Black Opera Live virtual platform, in which the singer highlighted weekly conversations that highlighted the successes of the Black opera stars of the day. While we love Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess and the space the Opera provided for Black singers worldwide, it is not a work written by a Black composer. In 2019, Opera Theater St. Louis premiered Terrence Blanchard’s “Fire Shut up in my Bones,” which featured St. Louis native Julia Bullock and Bass-Baritone Davon Tines in the Debut cast. OTSL would also produce William Grant Still’s Highway 1 USA in their 2021 Summer Festival season and honored more works by Black composers in their first ever concert honoring the Juneteenth holiday. The Indiana University Jacobs School of Music would also produce Still’s opera as part of their 2021-2022 season, making it the first time the University would produce an opera in the school’s 100-year history. African American singers also understand that the work and progress it takes to achieve actual equity in the business starts with leadership off the stage. In 2021, singer Afton Battle was appointed General Director of the Fort Worth Opera Company after having a successful opera singing career. In the same year, Tenor Rusell Thomas was named an Artist in Residence for the LA Opera where he also leads the company’s HBCU Opera Career comprehensive, a training program geared toward providing adequate training and bridging the gap between singers who are current students or recent graduates of Historically Black Colleges and Universities and the opera industry. Last but certainly not least, organizations such as the Black Opera Alliance have committed themselves to empowering Black classical artists and administrators by exposing systems of racial inequity in the opera industry. From the pioneers who paved the way for many, to the current movers and shakers of generation, the contributions of African Americans to the American opera industry are vast and ever-changing and will only get greater as we progress.