The story of American black singers is one of triumph of talent over racial prejudice.
Marian Anderson(1897-1993) was a contralto whose voice was described as rich and vibrant.
Her parents were devout Baptists and she started singing in their church’s choir at age 10. She was paid 25 cents a song. As a teen she applied to the all-white Philadelphia Music Academy but was told, “we don’t take colored.” In 1925 she won 1st prize in a singing competition. She had her formal debut in 1933 in London at the Wigmore Hall .
Anderson then started performing in concerts and recitals. In 1939 she made history when the Daughters of the American Revolution refused her permission to sing in Constitution Hall. With help from Eleanor Roosevelt, she performed at an open-air concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial before a crowd of 75,000 people and a radio audience in the millions. She was the first African-American to sing at the Metropolitan Opera. She also participated in the March on Washington in 1963. In 1961 she sang at John F. Kennedy’s inaugural ceremony. Throughout this long career, Marian Anderson broke down barriers for other black performers.
Marilyn Horne (1934- ) is a mezzo-soprano opera singer who was born in Pennsylvania but grew up in California. She studied at the University of Southern California and sang in the Los Angeles Concert Youth Chorus. After many years as a background singer, she was discovered by Igor Stravinsky and performed at the 1956 Venice Festival. She remained in Europe for three seasons. Like many of the black singers of the day, she waited until she was well established abroad before starting a career in the United States.
She returned in 1964 to appear in Alban Berg’s Wozzeck at the San Francisco Opera. Her debut at the Metropolitan Opera wasn’t until 1970. She has since performed all the major bel canto roles, although she also sings traditional and contemporary American music. On July 5, 1986 Marilyn Horn performed in a televised New York Philharmonic tribute to the 100th anniversary of the Statue of Liberty. The performance in Central Park was conducted by Zubin Mehta.
Kathleen Battle (1948- ) was born in Portsmouth, Ohio in 1948. She is a lyric soprano and started her career singing Brahms’ German Requiem in 1972. James Levine selected her to sing in Mahler’s 8th Symphony. She went on to a career in opera and recitals. She was “Rosina” in The Barber of Seville and “Suzanna” in The Marriage of Figaro. By then it was acceptable for a black woman to sing white roles. She also sings spirituals, sometimes with Jessye Norman. Kathleen Battle has been accused of behaving capriciously like the stereotypical caricature of the “prima donna.”
Jessye Norman (1945- ) was born in Augusta Georgia. She is a dramatic soprano and was inspired by both Marian Anderson and Leontyne Price. Her statuesque build, regal bearing and opulent voice make her perfect for Wagnerian roles. She first established herself in Europe and sang the Marseillaise in France to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution. Jessye Norman can sing both soprano and the deeper range of the mezzo-soprano. She is a perfectionist and has been called a “grande dame.” Jessye Norman is also active in civil rights movements. Her autobiography is called: Stand Up Straight and Sing, her mother’s advice to her.
There are now many more wonderful black opera singers. Because of these four pioneers they have become part of the mainstream classical musical scene.