The final days of Black History Month coincide with the birthday of one of the great black singers in the history of opera, quite possibly the most important.
While Leontyne Price belongs in the pantheon of the world’s greatest singers and is quite possibly the most famous ever, Marian Anderson, born on Feb. 27, 1897, was the one that allowed Price the opportunity to shine. Without Anderson, who knows if we ever get to enjoy and revel in the greatness of the latter. Or of any of the other great black singers of the past and today!
Anderson was best recognized for her work in recitals and concerts, often turning down roles at opera companies because of her lack of training in acting.
But that did not stop the great contralto from entering into history precisely for stepping onto the stage of one of the great opera houses in the world.
That of course was on Jan. 7, 1955, a day that will live forever.
On that day, Anderson took on the role of Ulrica in Verdi’s “Un Ballo in Maschera” at the Metropolitan Opera, becoming the first black artist to perform on the famed stage. Regarding her performance that evening, she stated that “The curtain rose on the second scene and I was there on stage, mixing the witch’s brew. I trembled, and when the audience applauded and applauded before I could sing a note, I felt myself tightening into a knot.”
A NY Times reporter at the time stated “Men as well as women were dabbing at their eyes.”
That of course is the big operatic moment in Anderson’s career…
Singing For a Nation
… but she had one other major moment that stands, possibly above the rest in her battle for race equality.
After being rejected from performing for a mixed audience at Constitution Hall by the Daughters of the American Revolution, much political debate (led by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt) allowed the famed Philadelphia artist to sing an open-air concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on East Sunday April 9, 1939. The event was heard by over 75,000, causing a frenzy on the radio. She would go on to perform for the troops during the war, but this event allowed Anderson to establish herself to a massive American audiences, precipitating her Met debut almost two decades later.
When she was introduced before the nationwide audience, Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes stated that “In this great auditorium under the sky, all of us are free. Genius, like justice, is blind. Genius draws no color lines.”
Truer words were never spoken when referring to this great artist.
Here are some excerpts of her gorgeous singing.
Black History Month may be drawing to a close, but great black artists and their cultures must continued to be recognized and honored on a daily basis!