Why is opera important? Why is any art important? It offers us a reflection of who we are, how we relate to others, and what it means, collectively and individually, to be human. Opera performed live is a uniquely thrilling experience – at its best, it is hugely powerful and the most emotionally direct of all art forms. The combination of dramatic narrative, stagecraft and music, and especially the range and vulnerability of the human voice, make opera the art form that comes closest to expressing pure emotion. It is storytelling at its most vivid and manipulative. Opera seeps into popular consciousness and bleeds into other forms, sound-tracking TV shows, sports anthems, adverts and films – where its music is often used as a shortcut to create a heightened emotional tension at climactic moments. Those big moments in opera are usually the ones that deal most directly in the big human themes: life, love, death, loss, passion, joy, anger – but opera can be subtle as well as showy.
A Look at the Legacy of African Americans in Opera
In The Souls of Black Folk (1903), W.E.B. Du Bois portrays a newcomer to the world of opera, enthralled by the Prelude to Richard Wagner’s Lohengrin. John “sat in dreamland, and started when, after a hush, rose high and clear the music of Lohengrin’s swan. … Who had called him to be the slave and butt of all? And if he had called, what right had he to call when a world like this lay open before men?”
Du Bois was only one among the generations of Black artists and fans who, for over a century, composed, sang, and reveled in opera. “Our history jumps to 1955, with Marian Anderson breaking the Met’s color barrier,” says University of Michigan musicologist Naomi André, co-editor (with Karen M. Bryan and Eric Saylor) of Blackness in Opera. “But there were people born during Reconstruction, whose parents were slaves, who did jazz, ragtime, blues — and classical music. Nineteenth-century Black singers like Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield and Sissieretta Jones sang opera but gave recitals, because the opera houses weren’t hiring them. Black churches were doing Verdi’s Requiem with all-Black casts and musicians. Coretta Scott King went to the New England Conservatory, planning to be an opera singer,” she says. “Opera’s a way to write yourself in history, as a nation or an identity, like how the Russians wrote their folk stories into operas. There’s something special in writing Black opera in the US, putting our voices in there.”
George Shirley, the trailblazing singer who, in 1961, became the first Black tenor to sing leading roles at the Metropolitan Opera, says, “Opera, like any other theatrical form, reflects the human condition. There’s dignity and degradation, the entire range of what it means to be a human.” Shirley is a veteran of 11 Met seasons and a Grammy Award winner for the RCA recording of Così fan tutte. “What we call opera today is an extension of that fundamental, primal combination of music, drama, and dance that will be around as long as humans walk the earth,” he says. “That’s not going away.”
Inevitably, the history of Black American opera chronicles not just perseverance and accomplishment, but also racism and exclusion. In The Souls of Black Folk, white patrons and an usher tear Du Bois’s John from his dreamland. The scene got an uncanny replay this January, when writer Collier Meyerson attended Aida at the Met. There, two white audience members harassed her, demanding that she restrain her hair; one of them repeatedly called her “disgusting.” Ushers dismissed Meyerson’s reports of harassment. Later, the Met issued her an apology and free tickets, which she’s been reluctant to accept. “I’d been to the Met many times before, but this really — colored, for lack of a better word — my view of the opera.” It wasn’t her first disillusionment, either. “The last time, they painted the singer’s face black! What year was this?”
Opera’s blackface tradition spans two centuries, linking it with Bobby Deen, Al Jolson, minstrelsy — and the KKK, who, in their Reconstruction-era, pre-hood days, used to “black up” with burnt cork, then accuse Black people of having committed their own crimes. Incidentally, André also watched the Met’s 2012 Otello, via live cinema broadcast, alongside a scholar of South African opera, Dr. Brenda Mhlambi. “We’re watching Johan Botha as Otello: a white Afrikaner, blacked up, and I’m like, ‘Oh my God.’ Brenda’s a Zulu woman who grew up in the townships during apartheid, and her main question is, ‘How old he is? I bet he was in the Afrikaner military!’ I’m trying to show her that Otello is Verdi’s masterpiece, one of the best operas ever, but there was no way she could pay attention, seeing an Afrikaner blacken up.”
The blackface issue reignited this spring, when the Met mailed its 2015–16 season promotional package to subscribers. To advertise Bartlett Sher’s hugely anticipated, season-opening new production of Otello, the brochure featured a cover image of pale Latvian tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko looking … like he’d had a bronzer malfunction.
It was the face that launched a thousand angry emails, according to the robustly sympathetic Met press officer I spoke to. He revealed that, this fall, for the very first time since Otello’s 1891 Met premiere, the company’s production would shun blackface. “This is certainly a big change for us,” he said, adding that the Met was anticipating an August New York Times feature article exploring this historic moment.
Two hours later, Met General Manager Peter Gelb called me from Hanover, Germany. “We recently came to the conclusion that it would make sense, that this production should not employ any [dark] makeup. I realize it’s a sensitive issue. We feel that it’s the appropriate direction for this production and we’re happy with that decision. Quite frankly, Bart and I have talked about this for some time, how [Otello] should look in this production, so it’s a decision that has evolved over time.” Regarding the brochure photo, which had been shot independently of, and months in advance of, the production itself: “The look that was achieved was mostly through shadowy lighting. It was meant to be very moody and atmospheric. It wasn’t meant to launch a controversy or represent the actual production.” When I mentioned how awful it was to see that brochure in this time of anti-racist urgency, Gelb said, “If it’s a marketing misstep, the important thing is the production itself.” Oh.
Over the past decade, I’ve spent some of my happiest moments at the Met. I want to believe that, despite being dogged by accusations of elitism, archaism, and racism, opera can change. I’d prefer to regard the Met’s abandonment of blackface as an earnest step toward enlightenment, not just a tactical response. It’s a necessary, welcome shift in an art form eagerly seeking new audiences and funding.
But the celebration of a white man not putting on blackface shouldn’t dominate the story. Too many Black artists have devoted their lives to opera, working inside and outside the establishment, sharing their insights, pleasure, and critiques, to allow their art to be sidestepped in this way. Besides more opportunities for Black singers on stage, says Dr. Gregory Hopkins, artistic director of Harlem Opera Theater, there needs to be recognition of works in which Black artists can “tell our own stories, without need of makeup, where we’re not being dressed up to look like someone else.”
George Shirley, who had a major international career singing the classic repertory, believes in the aesthetic and popular appeal of new operatic stories, including those of social justice. “We don’t need more works about antiquity. You’ve got to create new works with which young audiences can identify. American history is full of operatic plots, addressed in music that is strong and evocative and helps to make a point about the great issues that human beings face.” Among those issues are “the facts of life and death in the United States.”
In Freeman’s Voodoo, operatic voices sing of a Reconstruction-era Louisiana plantation. Elsewhere, they sing of Ferguson, New York, and Sanford, Florida. In February, soprano Janinah Burnett (who sang the role of Lolo in Voodoo) collaborated with baritone Kenneth Overton on I, Too, Sing America: An Artistic Tribute to Victims of Police Brutality, performing spirituals, art songs, and freedom songs by African-American composers — “songs used as part of the struggle, and for healing.” They included Burnett’s own spoken word soliloquies and photographs of the dead. “With all the recent things happening, all the young men dying, we have a responsibility to our community as artists,” she says.
“There are works that focus a bright light on the human condition, that profoundly address issues of social justice,” Shirley points out. In 2013, shortly before his 80th birthday, he sang in Eugene Opera’s production of Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking (2000, based on Sister Helen Prejean’s book). Other works highlighting Black history, critical response, and artistry today include Anthony Davis’s X, The Life and Times of Malcolm X (1986), Nkeiru Okoye’s Harriet Tubman: When I Crossed that Line to Freedom (2013), and Richard Danielpour’s Margaret Garner (2005, libretto by Toni Morrison). “New works are costly, and after all the sweat, blood and tears, they may go over like a lead balloon,” says Shirley. “But not every work by Verdi or Puccini was a success. It’s a huge gamble, but the only way opera can survive is by taking risks.”
(While we’re on the subject of believability: there’s something jarring about the New York Times’ use of the words “campy,” “ridiculous,” and “sheer melodrama” to describe the plot of Voodoo, when some of opera’s greatest hits have revolved around a magic potion switcheroo [Wagner, Tristan und Isolde], the setting of New Orleans in a desert [Puccini, Manon Lescaut], and a woman accidentally tossing her own baby, instead of that of her enemy, into a bonfire [Verdi, Il trovatore].)
Shirley relates mid-century casting standards to the contemporary development of ‘Live in HD’ opera telecasting. “It’s very disturbing, how the whole ‘looks’ issue has become more important than the voice. Opera exists for only one reason: the singing voice — and traditionally, those were not always housed in bodies with matinee idol looks. My special concern is that this focus on how one looks will be a new attack on those of non-Caucasian background. They have the voices to sing Violetta, Mimi, or Elsa, but they don’t physically look German or Italian or whatever. It’s not just Blacks, Asians, but people who seem too large, too small, too corpulent. That’s unfair and unfortunate.”
The first time André, as a young student, attended the Met, she heard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier sung by operatic luminaries Kiri Te Kanawa and Kathleen Battle, who are of Māori and African-American descent, respectively. “I was in standing room. It’s super long, but it was entrancing.” She reeled off a list of other iconic Black singers she has heard: Martina Arroyo, Grace Bumbry, Leona Mitchell. “But there haven’t been as many Black men allowed to make it to the top. When I started, it was just Simon Estes at the Met. We know the talent and the voices are there, but there’s the problem of getting the education. And of survival.”
Nontraditional casting has opened the way for such glories as Jessye Norman’s portrayal of the Irish princess of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, or more recently, the suggestively triumphal Ring Cycle progression of the bass-baritone Eric Owens, from singing the wicked (and, um, dreadlocked) Nibelung Alberich at the Met to singing Wotan, king of the gods, at Chicago’s Lyric Opera in 2016. Lest we assume it’s all a smooth ride up the Rainbow Bridge to Valhalla, however, there have always been exceptions made for stars, and their struggles often go overlooked. Some artists also fear that nontraditional — formerly called “colorblind” — casting serves too often not to open opportunities for singers of color in roles coded as “white,” but instead to justify the casting of white singers in the few roles written specifically as non-white characters.
Burnett, who debuted at the Met as Bianca in La rondine in 2013, approaches the casting issue with great caution. “In opera, the voices serve the music. The composers weren’t saying, ‘I need this particular ethnicity,’ but ‘I need this kind of soprano.’ Serving the music means being inclusive of the people who are able to sing this music. How do we get the opportunities to people who can sing?”
That caution recurs in a statement from star tenor Lawrence Brownlee, who utterly owns the bel canto repertoire, has sung with every leading international opera house, and just premiered the role of Charlie Parker in Opera Philadelphia’s production of Yardbird (music by Daniel Schnyder). He emailed: “During my studies and in the beginning of my career I was often deterred from pursuing my dream of becoming an opera singer, mainly by other singers of color who had experienced racism or discrimination. They told me to ‘temper my expectations,’ especially as a leading tenor. Many believed I had the talent but were skeptical of the opportunities that might be available to me. At the same time, there were others who pushed me and told me that I had to wholeheartedly pursue this career.” He wrote warmly of his mentors George Shirley and Vinson Cole. “I remember Vinson saying ‘You have to keep knocking on doors, and the right door will open up.’ Although there have undoubtedly been doors closed to me, I am grateful for the doors that have opened, and that continue to open.’ I love my job and I feel that I am doing what I was born to do. I am so thankful that my talent and not my race has played the most important role in my career.”
Everybody who loves opera should be grateful for the success of such extraordinary artists as Brownlee. Yet it’s impossible not to wonder about even a superstar’s vulnerability. Who gets to control the conversation on race and opera, and on what terms? How much dissent, of even the mildest kind, is permissible for singers employed by the big houses? Though I don’t doubt Brownlee’s sincerity, his statement hauntingly evokes Shirley’s comment when he was interviewed by the composer Dr. Wallace Cheatham in the late 1980s: “Managements will often tell their young up-and-coming artists: ‘Keep your nose clean; don’t get involved with the controversial and political situations.’ If you happen to be black, you will be told to soft-pedal responses to questions concerning race that you may be asked by an enterprising journalist during an interview.”
“When I started singing classical music, I felt there was no other place where people understood me. There’s a silence where people listen to me, where I’d never been listened to before,” says Baltimore mezzo-soprano Tia Price. “When I sing a piece, I’m touching hundreds of years of history. I have to understand its context, what events led to its creation. The critical thinking from my musical education is what led me to understand what happened with Freddie Gray.”
Price and her fellow recent Peabody Institute graduates Tariq Al-Sabir and Frances Pollock were rehearsing Pollock’s opera Stinney when Freddie Gray’s death in police custody prompted outrage and mourning. All were unnerved by the political resonance of the opera, which commemorates George Stinney, the child whose legal lynching in 1944 made him the youngest American executed in the 20th century. Of her aria “Lullaby” (“Baby boy, where you gone?”) Price says, “Working on a project where my character’s son was executed as a result of hate and ignorance, when my background, growing up in poverty, was so close to it: I can’t even explain what that was like. I was able to keep a distance, till the riots occurred.”
Al-Sabir, who was 12 when he sang The Wire’s fourth season theme, reflects, “In Stinney, we put our emotions into something that happened 70 years ago but is still real and relevant.” Now he’s starting a master’s in composition at NYU. “Opera’s the whole package. When Verdi wrote Nabucco, it was to get people riled up for the Risorgimento. ‘Va, pensiero’ — that was relevant! Shouldn’t we be writing and performing operas about things that get people riled up and involved?”
Not just things that spark, perhaps, but also things that honor, help, and heal. Members of the Stinney family attended the opera. “We were very honored to perform it for them — and worried, a little scared. While I was backstage, I got to look at them, at their emotion, crying, wailing. But they were so honored we cared, and,” Al-Sabir adds wonderingly, “they even came the second night.”
Tariq Al-Sabir in 'Stinney'
Price feels more conflicted about classical music’s healing and communicative power. “Learning about music’s not so different from learning about racism: we take the time to learn the challenges people have faced, what they’ve experienced. Sometimes this learning brings us close, but … those moments are so brief.” Working with Baltimore kids on a song cycle, “I wanted to speak with them with classical music, but I had distanced myself from my community. Why aren’t we studying Beyoncé and Jay Z at the conservatory, learning with people who speak musical languages different than ours, using our own voices, our words, to speak what we know?”
The participation of doubting, dissenting, passionate artists like Price and Al-Sabir keeps opera vital, but being an advocate takes a toll. “Some artists have the privilege of separating themselves from the issues, just doing art purely, and some of us don’t. Being a Black guy doing all these types of music, including opera, I don’t have the choice. Tia and I, and lots of the cast of Stinney, we don’t have the choice not to be advocates. What’s happening socially in this country, the arts go hand in hand with that,” says Al-Sabir.
He makes it clear: change must come from managing boards and music conservatories, not just from emerging artists — and not just from Black artists. “The people on the artistic boards, what do they know about the people who don’t listen to opera? There’s an extremely alive culture of new classical artists, venues opening up everywhere. Opera’s changing, even if it’s not about Black issues. It’s about wondering: what is this art form doing to reach people, to move them to action? Is opera just for the opera lovers, or for the world?”
Art imagines new realities. Whose realities are deemed worthy, inspire thought and action, convey truths, pleasures, and pains — whose art matters: these questions have always challenged opera. For the art form to keep evoking, as it did for Du Bois’s John, “the movement of power within” will require the imagination of opera’s old guard, and the dedication of the very young.
Thus courage has triumphed and virtue will rise,
The laurels of wisdom receiving as prize.
When the audience cheered, the chorus erupted in giggles.
The singers were the third-graders of PS 129, who took a crash course in opera music, constructed the opening scene’s dragon costume and glittered the eponymous flute, and rehearsed with visiting artists from Opera on Tap’s (OOT) six-week Playground Opera program. “When we asked, ‘How many of you love opera now?’ everybody said, ‘Yay!’” says their teacher, Tracey Fuller. “They took real ownership of it. One girl said, ‘This is like being a real adult. We get to do all the things real adults do.’”
A drawing of 'Magic Flute' character Pamina by one of the kid participants in Opera on Tap
“The goal was for them to feel like they were part of a professional company, and part of a cross-generational community,” says music teacher and OOT President Krista Wozniak. When she read them a Magic Flute storybook, “One of the kids said, ‘Sarastro’s black? I didn’t know he was black!’ I said Sarastro can be whatever you want. We’re introducing kids to the idea of the possible. If the playground can be an opera stage, they can be anything they decide they can be.”
Evaluating “Playground Opera” afterwards, the kids generally agreed that their favorite part had been the singing. Least favorite? “Nothing,” though one child disliked it when the Queen of the Night said “kill Sarastro.”
Another child noted, “That was the best thing of ever in my life.”
“He’s eight years old! Maybe this was the best thing ever in his life!” says Wozniak. It brings a tear to your eye, hoping that they’ll fall in love with this work.”
Opera’s as vibrant for these children as it was for another Queen of the Night, Charlotte Wesley Holloman. “Being a Black opera performer, I never felt bad doing it. And someone still needs to do it,” she said, phoning me from her nursing home in Washington, DC, two weeks ago. “You make who you are and bring it out from within. Opera is more than just inward speaking. It’s a body condition from within, like a shaking.”
Born in 1922, Holloman perched in a tree to witness Marian Anderson’s historic 1939 concert at the Lincoln Memorial, after the Daughters of the American Revolution barred Anderson from Constitution Hall. She studied with pioneer baritone Todd Duncan (the original Porgy, and New York City Opera’s first Black singer), then went to Europe to sing the bravura role of Queen of the Night, among 20 other parts. At the age of 93, from her bed, she was still advising former students and savoring new talent. “Listen to Issachah Savage,” she commanded me: Savage — whom she lovingly dubbed the “Black Pavarotti” — is the rising dramatic tenor who won the 2014 Seattle International Wagner Competition.
When I told her about the YouTube video of Savage singing “Mein lieber Schwan,” the literal swan song of Lohengrin — Du Bois’s dreamland of “the free air where birds sang and setting suns had no touch of blood” — she gasped. Would she like me to send the link?
“Oh, my, yes!” she cried. “This world needs it! Oh, my, YES!”
Mrs. Holloman passed away on July 30, 2015. A celebration of her life, featuring some of the musicians she taught, was held on Thursday, August 6, on the campus of Howard University Law School.