10 Essential & Historic Opera Recordings of Music by Black Composers (Updated with Addendum)By David Salazar
June 8th marks the start of African-American Music Appreciation Month.
While the talent and musical accomplishments of the black community cannot possibly be summarized in one article, we have compiled a list of notable recordings of not only great singers, but also composers whose works have been overlooked for decades, even centuries.
In recent years more attention has finally been paid to the works of black composers including Anthony Davis’ “The Central Park Five,” Terrence Blanchard’s “Champion” and “Fire Shut Up in My Bones,” and Daniel Schnyder and Bridgette A. Wimberly’s “Charlie Parker’s YARDBIRD.” Due to their relative newness, they have yet to receive commercial recordings.
Perhaps one of the most egregious omissions from recorded repertory is “L’Amant Anonyme” by Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges–a prominent composer of his time, often called the “Black Mozart”–none of which have been fully recorded. While the other five operas he composed throughout his later life are either lost or incomplete, a full score of “L’Amant Anonyme” remains in existence, but the work has yet to be championed substantially in audio recordings.
As for recordings that are currently available, we recommend the following, listed in chronological order of release or performance date.
Marian Anderson’s “Let Freedom Ring”
This is undeniably one of the iconic moments in the history of music in America. After having been denied the opportunity to perform at Constitution Hall in Washington D.C., Marion Anderson performed in front of the Lincoln Memorial to a crowd of over 75,000 people. The image of Anderson in front of this national symbol is an enduring image; fortunately, the essential performance has also been preserved for posterity.
Perhaps the most notable piece performed was a spiritual arrangement of “My Soul’s Been Anchored in the Lord” by influential African-American composer Florence Price.
The following recording also includes the first release of the contralto’s 1961 live concert in Copenhagen.
William Grant Still’s “Troubled Island”
“Troubled Island” remains a rather unknown work in the operatic canon despite being one of the most important works. It was the first opera by an African-American composer performed by a major company; the work had its world premiere on March 31, 1949, with the New York City Opera. You can check out an early recording of the work below.
Grant Still composed several other works as well including “Minette Fontaine,” and “Highway I, USA;” his 1981 opera “A Bayou Legend” was the first by an African-American composer to be performed on television.
Leontyne Price’s “A Program of Song”
Technically, this does not feature a black composer (making it the exception on this list), but this album is essential in the context of its release and what it meant for Price as an artist. This was Price’s very first album and she made her mark not by showcasing the great opera arias of her repertory, but by going with a more subdued recital program.
The album was so beloved that it went on to win a Grammy for Best Classical Performance – Vocal Soloist and was inducted into the National Recording Registry in 2012.
Scott Joplin’s “Treemonisha”
Joplin, one of the great composers of his time, never got a chance to see his opera fully-staged during his lifetime. The work would have to wait 56 years before that big event, earning the composer a posthumous Pulitzer Prize in 1976. The 1976 production at the Houston Grand Opera would receive an audio recording and a revival in 1982 would be recorded on video, as seen below.
Jessye Norman & Kathleen Battle’s “Spirituals in Concert”
A historic performance at Carnegie Hall on March 18, 1990, featuring two of opera’s great stars of their time. Norman was a champion of performing spirituals throughout her career and when Battle returned to the Metropolitan Opera for the first time in 22 years back in 2016, she dedicated the entire concert to the same repertory.
This historic performance was recorded and released on CD, but it was also presented on PBS, a recording available for online viewing.
Anthony Davis’ “Amistad” / “Life and Times of Malcolm X”
Recent Pulitzer Prize-winner Anthony Davis has composed several operas that deal with racial issues throughout American history. Two of his earliest works, “Amistad” and “Life and Times of Malcolm X” have been released on CD; “Amistad” can be heard via Primephonic, while “Malcolm X” can be purchased online, with major highlights available digitally on Soundcloud.
Here is a talk that Davis gave at Opera America regarding “Life and Times of Malcolm X,” which includes excerpts from the work.
And here is a similar video on the Pulitzer Prize-winning opera “The Central Park Five” created by the University of California.
George Walker’s “Lilacs”
George Walker was the first black composer to win the Pulitzer Prize in Music, an honor that he earned due to his famed piece for soprano and orchestra. That work was premiered by the Boson Symphony Orchestra in 1996, but the work itself was not released in a commercial recording until 2000 when it was committed to recorded history by Summit Records.
The recording features the Arizona State University Symphony Orchestra under the musical direction of Timothy Russell. Faye Robinson performs the solo.
Joel Thompson’s “Seven Last Words of the Unarmed”
Joel Thompson’s piece honors the memories of Kenneth Chamberlain, Trayvon Martin, Amadou Diallo, Michael Brown, Oscar Grant, John Crawford, and Eric Garner. In creating the work, Thompson used the liturgical structure of Haydn’s “Seven Last Words of Christ.” The work had its world premiere in 2016 with the University of Michigan Men’s Glee Club under the musical direction of Eugene Rogers.
Here is a performance from 2017 featuring the ensemble with Rogers.
Lester Lynch’s “On My Journey”
One of the more recent entries on this list, the bass-baritone performs a recital of 25 spirituals and hymns including “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen,” “Amazing Grace” and “Deep River.” Lynch himself noted that his intentions behind this album were to engage openly with the continued racial injustice in our world today.
As the baritone noted back in a 2017 interview with OperaWire, “One of the main reasons I began to think more seriously about recording these songs is because of the violence against minorities that has been coming more blatant over the past few years as more of us have smartphones to recording these terrible events in real-time while they unfold. I am from the Greater Cleveland area in Ohio and having grown up in a small town called, Elyria, just 25 minutes from downtown Cleveland. I felt deeply disturbed by the story of little 12-year-old Tamir Rice who was shot down by police for playing with a toy gun. I played with toy guns when I was a child in that same part of the country; that could have been me. We need these songs to be sung now more than ever to empower us and help us to understand we have a need for justice, freedom, liberty, and peace in this world.”
Christine Jobson’s “Nearly Lost: Art Songs by Florence Price”
Florence Price’s symphonic works, particularly her first symphony, are often cited in reference to her artistic contributions. And while many black singers throughout history have championed the songs of iconic composer Florence, including Marion Anderson, they have never been given the center stage in her output. Few artists have dedicated a full album to her songs. Christine Jobson changed this in 2019 with this album, which offers a breadth of her approach to vocal writing.
Upon further exploration and conversation, we realize that there were quite a few recordings we missed on that first pass. We know that this list can in no way be all-encompassing, but we felt it important nonetheless to add a few other recordings that really stood out.
Adolphus Hailstork’s “Done Made My Vow”
Hailstork has a wide-ranging compositional output that includes arguably his most famed work “An American Port of Call.” But he also has a number of famed choral works which include “Shout for Joy,” “I will Life Up Mine Eyes,” and of course, “Done Made My Vow.”
The latter piece is included here in a performance featuring text based on the writings of President Barack Obama and relates very closely with the national conversation taking place at this very moment.
Richard Thompson’s “The Mask in the Mirror”
This chamber opera presents the life of poet Paul Laurence Dunbar with an emphasis on his relationship with his wife Alice Ruth Moore. Throughout the work, Thompson touches on the couples burgeoning love, their difficulties, and Dunbar’s ultimate death at the age of 33 from alcoholism and tuberculosis.
This recording dates from 2019.
Kenneth Overton’s “Been in the de Storm Too Long (Songs My Father Taught Me”
Baritone Kenneth Overton’s debut album with pianist Kevin Miller takes listeners on a journey through a number of spirituals.