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Seattle Opera Weblog: Black Opera

By Naomi André, Ph.D.

The solid from Nationwide Negro Opera Firm’s 1941 manufacturing of Aida.

The opera world is at present presenting extra productions that articulate African American experiences than ever earlier than. Firms across the nation are staging works corresponding to Fireplace Shut Up in My Bones, Charlie Parker’s Yardbird, and The Central Park 5, to call a number of. Due to this fact, Seattle Opera invited our Scholar-in-Residence, Naomi André, to put Black Opera in historic, up to date, and future views. This text by André is the primary of a three-part sequence. On this essay, André highlights a number of historic milestones in Black Opera. Her second article—to be revealed within the Blue program—will examine up to date titles and artists. In her ultimate piece—revealed in The Marriage of Figaro program—André speculates on future Black Opera tales and productions.


Naomi André is a professor on the College of Michigan, the place her instructing and analysis focuses on opera and points surrounding gender, voice, and race. Her writings embrace subjects on Italian opera, Schoenberg, girls composers, and instructing opera in prisons. Her newest publication is Black Opera: Historical past, Energy, Engagement.
How does one take into consideration a historical past of Blackness in opera? “Black Opera,” what I like to think about as the development of Black experiences in opera, encompasses a wide range of actions, corresponding to operas by Black composers and librettists with tales about Black folks sung by Black singers. But having Black folks concerned in all these aspects isn’t the one configuration. Black Opera also can embrace interracial partnerships that contain non-Black collaborators; for instance, works incorporating Black narratives by non-Black writers or productions the place, even when a personality’s race isn’t specified as Black, opera corporations give Black singers the chance to carry out.

African American achievement is commonly marginalized and misplaced to the passage of time. Due to this fact the historical past of Black Opera continues to be being researched and written, so any narrative goes to be incomplete till extra work is finished. Fortunately, quite a few restoration efforts are underway. To get a giant image of Black achievement in opera, it’s useful to give attention to the assorted elements of opera efficiency—compositional groups (composers and librettists), performers (singers, conductors, members of the orchestra), opera corporations, choral societies that feed into opera efficiency, and behind-the-scenes artists who direct, costume, mild, and construct the manufacturing.

The place lets begin? For this foundational background, I’m going to set the scene by specializing in Black participation in opera in the USA from 1819 to 1955. To prepare this dialogue, I’ll give attention to Black opera corporations, singers, and composers.

An image of Theodore Drury as Faust taken from a program for the 1902 efficiency by the Theodore Drury Grand Opera Firm.

EARLY 1800s–MID-1900s

Since opera principally remained segregated on stage till Marian Anderson’s historic efficiency on the Metropolitan Opera on January 7, 1955, the earliest circumstances we all know of Black folks performing in opera in the USA are within the all-Black corporations that started after the Civil Struggle. Along with occasional operatic scenes and numbers carried out in Black church buildings and civic venues, Black opera corporations reveal the curiosity and presence of opera within the Black group proper after slavery. Two large names that emerge are singer-impresarios Theodore Drury (1867–1943) and his Theodore Drury Grand Opera Firm (1900–1907 and sporadically till 1938) and Mary Cardwell Dawson (1894–1962) along with her Nationwide Negro Opera Firm (1941–1962). Drury and Dawson have been the primary Black opera producers who launched Black corporations that lasted a number of seasons within the US. With performances in New York Metropolis and Philadelphia, Theodore Drury was a baritone whose opera productions included scenes from Il trovatore (in 1889) and extra full variations of Aida, Carmen, Faust, Cavalleria rusticana, Pagliacci, and Il Guarany by Carlos Gomes. Mary Cardwell Dawson studied voice on the New England Conservatory and based the Cardwell Faculty of Music in Pittsburgh in 1927. Her award-winning choir (Cardwell Dawson Choir) led to the institution of the Nationwide Negro Opera Firm the place she produced Aida, La traviata, and Faust in addition to works by Black composers—Nathaniel Dett’s The Ordering of Moses and Clarence Cameron White’s Ouanga!

But even sooner than the Civil Struggle, Black involvement in opera contains vocalists who sang opera arias in live performance and recitals. Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield (c. 1819–1876) was born into slavery, manumitted, and given voice classes, finally changing into the primary Black singer to have worldwide success. Different Black opera singers of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries embrace Matilda Sissieretta Joyner Jones (1868–1933, often known as the “Black Patti”), Thomas Bowers (c. 1823–1885), Marie Selika Williams (c. 1849–1937), and a number of other others Black singers, regardless of the almost inconceivable odds towards them. Sissieretta Jones toured the USA, Canada, Europe, and components of the Caribbean. She sang for presidents Grover Cleveland, William McKinley, and Theodore Roosevelt. From 1896–1915 she was the main soloist of the Black Patti’s Troubadours, a troupe that carried out vaudeville acts in addition to arias and choruses from grand opera.


Operas by Black composers give voice to new narratives and current alternatives to work inside the conventions of European opera in addition to to develop the rising custom of an unique American opera on the flip of the twentieth century. Recurring tropes and essential subjects start to create a brand new aesthetic through the use of people melodies, rhythms, and types; particular places (e.g., New Orleans, former plantations, Haiti, western African nations); and to multi-dimensional honorable portrayals of Black folks in distinction to the damaging stereotypes of minstrelsy. A couple of central themes have emerged in operas by Black composers from the top of the nineteenth century by the center of the twentieth century. The Tom Tom drum as a hyperlink to Africa (particularly by the primary generations coming of age through the Harlem Renaissance, born free after the Civil Struggle) figures in Shirley Graham DuBois’s Tom Tom (1932) and William Grant Nonetheless’s Blue Metal (1934). Variations of Black Atlantic diasporic religions (corresponding to Vodoun and connections to the supernatural by superstition and conjure) as a supply of empowerment and resistance function in Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha (1911), Harry Lawrence Freeman’s Voodoo (1914, rev. 1928), Clarence Cameron White’s Ouanga! (1932), and Nonetheless’s Minette Fontaine (1958).

On Easter Sunday 1939, Marian Anderson carried out on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in entrance of an viewers of greater than 75,000 folks.

Marian Anderson, 1897–1993

These singers, corporations, composers, and compositions anchored the stage upon which Marian Anderson stood in her historic and groundbreaking profession. The distinguished recital profession of Roland Hayes (1887–1977), who toured Europe singing artwork songs by European and Black composers, made Anderson’s profession in Germany simpler. By means of the work of different African American singers like Lillian Evanti (1890–1967) whose operatic repertory overseas included Délibe’s Lakmé and Violetta (La traviata) and Caterina Jarboro (1903–1986), who sang throughout style in common theatre in addition to in opera in Europe as Aida and Selika (Meyerbeer’s L’Africaine), Anderson noticed up to date Black girls singing in main live performance halls and opera homes in Europe. After being denied the prospect to carry out in Structure Corridor by the Daughters of the Revolution, Anderson was given permission to sing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on April 9, 1939, a live performance in entrance of 1000’s and much more over the radio. Her historic debut on the Metropolitan Opera stage on January 7, 1955 as Ulrica in Verdi’s opera Un ballo in maschera trenchantly and symbolically desegregated opera phases in the USA in addition to internationally. This led to a welcome, but restricted, opening of the opera home to extra Black singers, artists, and audiences in subsequent a long time. This highly effective legacy serves as a agency basis supporting the rise of many excellent Black opera singers, composers, and producers, whose work we take pleasure in at this time. I sit up for sharing my ideas on our present era of artists in my subsequent essay within the Blue program.

A portrait of Mary Cardwell Dawson, founding father of the Nationwide Negro Opera Firm.

SPOTLIGHT: Saving the Legacy of Mary Cardwell Dawson

Lately the performances and work of Mary Cardwell Dawson have gained new pursuits. The Victorian home the place she based the Nationwide Negro Opera Firm in Pittsburgh has been added to the Most Endangered Locations Checklist by the Nationwide Belief for Historic Preservationists. What’s extra, acclaimed mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves just lately starred within the Glimmerglass manufacturing of The Ardour of Mary Cardwell Dawson, a play with music composed by Carlos Simon and libretto by Sandra Seaton. Graves’ basis has a lead function in saving and celebrating the legacy of this exceptional artist.

Advised Studying about Black opera

  • And So I Sing: African American Divas of Opera and Live performance, Grand Central Publishing (1990) by Rosalyn Story.
  • “Turning into the ‘Black Swan’ in Mid-Nineteeth-Century America: Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield’s Early Life and Debut Live performance Tour,” Journal of the American Musicology Society, vol. 67, no. 1 (Spring 2014) by Julia J. Chybowski.
  • Black Opera: Historical past, Energy Engagment, College of Illinois Press (2018) by Naomi André.
  • “Class, Race, and Uplift within the Opera Home: Theodore Drury and His Firm Cross the Shade Line,” Journal of Musicological Analysis, vol. 34 (2015) by Kristin Turner.



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