Black History Month 2017 Part 3: Historical Black Singers That Changed the Opera World

By David Salazar

For the past two weeks we have honored the black singers making strides in today’s diverse opera world.

But unfortunately, as has been the case in many social situations, the opera world was not always that diverse and the black community was not always a lock for representation on the biggest stages.

But throughout the years major operatic pioneers manage to not only gain footing in this industry but forever shape it, proving themselves among the greatest history has ever seen.

Here they are.

Marian Anderson

For many, this is the one who started it all. The contralto’s debut at the Metropolitan Opera on Jan. 7, 1955 marked the first time a black person had ever performed at the famous house. What few people realize is that that moment had come at the cost of much struggle from a great singer who saw tremendous racial injustice throughout her career. She was shut down by the Daughters of the American Revolution when seeking an opportunity to sing in Constitution Hall.

She broke numerous barriers throughout her career, working as a delegate to the UN Human Rights Committee and participated in the Civil Rights movement in the 60’s.

Leontyne Price

The soprano, who turned 90 last week, may be the single-most famous black opera singer in the history and ranks with the greatest sopranos of all time. Born in Mississippi, she was among the first black singers to become a leading artist at the Met where she was beloved for her work in Verdi operas such as “Aida” and “Il Trovatore.” She was also one of the best regarded “Tosca” interpreters, was a frequent performer of Mozart’s operas and struck up a close partnership with composer Samuel Barber that climaxed in her iconic portrayal of Cleopatra on the opening of the Met’s new house in Lincoln Center.

Shirley Verrett

Verrett was that rare genius who managed to make a smooth transition from dramatic mezzo-soprano to singing soprano repertoire. Her repertoire was varied as she took on roles in the French (“Les Troyens,” “Carmen,” “Samson and Dalila,” “Orpheus”) and Italian repertoire (Verdi, Donizetti, Puccini) with a few forays outside of it (“Bluebeard’s Castle”). One of her most iconic roles was in the soprano repertoire, her Lady Macbeth easily among the greatest interpretations of the work.

Grace Bumbry

Another fantastic mezzo-soprano who also successful sang soprano repertoire, Bumbry was among the singers that opened up the world of opera to black singers. She was the first black singer to appear at Bayreuth in 1961 and was subsequently invited to sing at the White House by Jacqueline Kennedy. Her career spanned a good three decades that saw her make major impact across different repertoire and near the end of her career was associated with lieder.

Simon Estes

The bass-baritone sang throughout the world in major opera houses and before important world leaders that include  Bill Clinton, Richard Nixon, Boris Yeltsin, Yasser Arafat, Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu among others. He also performed at the White House in 1966 for Lyndon B. Johnson after finishing third in Moscow’s Tcchaikovsky Competition. He sang the Met’s first production of “Porgy and Bess” and sang Wotan in the inauguration of the famed Otto Schenk production of Wagner’s “Ring” in New York.

Martina Arroyo

The soprano was best known for her work in Verdi and Puccini repertoire, becoming one of the Met Opera’s leading soprano’s in the 60’s and 70’s after being a last-minute substitution for Birgit Nilsson. She had success all around the world and often performed with Leonard Bernstein. In later years she would go on to teach a numerous institutions around the world. She also co-authored “Task Force Report on Music Education in the U.S.” President Gerald Ford appointed her to the National Council of the Arts and she founded the Martina Arroyo Foundation to help develop young singers.

Reri Grist

The New York native was part of the original cast of Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story” and came to prominence singing Mahler’s fourth symphony with Bernstein. The coloratura soprano has held an international career singing with the top conductors at the greatest opera houses in a wide ranging repertoire. Her Met Opera debut came in 1966 in “Il Barbiere di Siviglia” and she remained a fixture there for 13 seasons. She performed at the Vienna State Opera for 25 seasons and at the Salzburg Festival for 12.

Kathleen Battle

The lyric soprano is among the most controversial figures in the opera world, but few can ignore her brilliance onstage during her prime years. She had a tremendously varied repertoire, performing among many of the great conductors around the world in opera’s, recitals and choral and symphony works. Her work in Mahler’s fourth symphony is among the best-loved. She was a favorite of James Levine’s during her years at the Met. She has been a champion of George Gershwin’s music and spirituals and has performed for such major figures as Pope Benedict XVI and Pope John Paul II. She has also performed with Alicia Keys and Queen Latifah.

Jessye Norman

While most of the singers mentioned in this article have been closely linked with Italian opera, Norman is the standout, making her mark in German repertoire, specifically Wagner and Strauss. At one point she was hailed the greatest voice since German soprano Lotte Lehmann for her work in Wagner’s “Tannhäuser.” She would take on repertoire in other languages, her Cassandra in Berlioz’s “Les Troyens” of particular note. She has also experimented with other repertoire and has had the opportunity to sing for former U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Queen Elizabeth II. In 2003, she opened the Jessye Norman School of the Arts, a tuition-free performing arts program to help economically disadvantaged students in Augusta, Georgia.

Harolyn Blackwell

Blackwell’s career started in musical theater but by the late 80’s she was a well-establish coloratura soprano. She is a winner of the Met Opera National Council Auditions and made numerous appearances at the famed opera house. She is best known for her interpretation of the music of Leonard Bernstein and has been active in education in recent years, teaching at numerous music schools around the country.

Leona Mitchell

The soprano is a Grammy-award winner and has been granted Hall of Fame status from many major organizations in her home state of Oklahoma. She performed at the Metropolitan Opera for 18 years as one of its leading sopranos and also sang from four US Presidents. She also performed on the NY Philharmonic tribute to the 100th Anniversary of the Statue of Liberty.

Denyce Graves

The American mezzo-soprano is still active in a career that came into upon her Met Opera debut in 1995. She is best known for her interpretation of Bizet’s “Carmen,” famously getting praise from director Franco Zefirelli at the expense of Waltraud Meier. She performed for George W. Bush’s second inauguration in 2005 and has championed new operas. She currently teaches at the Peabody Conservatory of Music.

Barbara Hendricks

The soprano’s most famous performance took place in 1998 when she took on the role of Liu in “Turandot” at the Forbidden City in Beijing. She also made various film appearances, including “Disengagement” by Amos Gitai that also stars Juliette Binoche. She also became a major interpreter of jazz music, debuting at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1994. Hendricks has dedicated a lot of her time to humanitarian causes, giving performances in Dubrovnik and Sarajevo and founding the Barbara Hendricks Foundation for Peace and Reconciliation. She also performed at the Nobel Prize ceremony in 2001.

Maria Ewing

Ewing was known for being a passionate actress and singer, some of her greatest work onstage coming from her fascinating embodiments of her characters. Among her most famous work is her interpretation of Strauss’ “Salome,” where she thrust herself into one of the most physically intoxicating renditions of the Dance of the Seven Veils. She has also sung jazz throughout her career.

Check out our other articles that celebrate Black History Month 2017:


Black History MonthSpecial Features