Out in the Open
It was 1939, and Marian Anderson was told the concert she was meant to perform at the 4,000-seat Constitution Hall wouldn’t happen there after all. The contralto singer had just left her training in Germany because of the growing danger of fascism. A famous performer recognized in Europe and the U.S. for her skill, Anderson returned home to find herself barred from a stage in her own country’s capital because she was black. The Daughters of the American Revolution, the owners of the space, wouldn’t sponsor a black American’s performance in the building, placing her at the center of a national civil rights controversy.
A new venue had to be arranged. The executive secretary of the NAACP, Walter White, suggested they move the concert outside. They worked with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who had resigned from the Daughters of the American Revolution in protest, and Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes to secure permission to perform on federal land.
By the time Anderson walked down the steps of the Lincoln Memorial that Easter Sunday, 75,000 people had amassed to hear her sing. Her performance included patriotic songs such as “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee,” an aria from Donizetti’s La favorite and Schubert’s Ave Maria, and spirituals such as “Gospel Train.” The concert was broadcast by NBC Radio across the country to millions of listeners.
Sixteen years later, Anderson debuted in the role of Ulrica in Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera on the Metropolitan Opera House stage, the first African American artist to perform at the Met in a major role. That moment in 1955 was an intersection between what André terms “shadow culture,” the parallel yet obscured world where black opera performers were constrained by legal and social limitations, and dominant culture, where white singers enjoyed access to the world’s major stages.
“It happened much more slowly than it should’ve happened,” says André. “But she opened the door for more wonderful black talent to take that stage.”
Today, performers like Pretty Yende, a South African singer born during apartheid, are performing in leading roles around the world—but in the opera world African and African American singers still face an uphill climb. André says understanding why requires a more complex discussion of the issues involved in casting.
“Some roles, like Verdi’s Otello, a tenor role, are monstrously hard and nearly impossible because of the wide range and power needed for the highest notes while also being able to soar over a late-Verdian orchestra,” André says. “Why there aren’t more black tenors for casting directors to choose from is a good question, and it has to do with training. It’s not an equal playing field with voice lessons and who gets the education.” In opera, like ballet and classical music, disciplined training starts early; lack of access to that training entrenches the disparity in representation on stage decades before opening night.
Acknowledging the disparity is the first step, and researchers like André are playing a role in pushing the conversation about these issues forward. As Seattle Opera’s inaugural scholar in residence, she speaks to issues of race and gender in opera, which is one way her research has a tangible role in the work companies are doing today.