Throughout 2018, the New York Times has been running a series of stories called “Overlooked,” which are the obituaries of notable women from the past who the paper declined to acknowledge at the time of their deaths. In August, the Times published an overdue obituary for Sissieretta Jones, the first black opera singer to appear at Carnegie Hall. Jones was marketed as “The Black Patti” — i.e., the black counterpart to the reigning opera diva of the day, Adelina Patti, below.
Jones was the daughter of former slaves. The obituary notes that, while Jones performed opera excerpts in concert widely across the United States and Europe, as a black soprano she was prohibited from appearing in fully-staged opera productions with white singer colleagues. An interviewer at the time suggested that she “whiten up” with makeup, but Jones refused.
“Try to hide my race and deny my own people?” she responded in the interview, which was published by The San Francisco Call in 1896. “Oh, I would never do that.” She added: “I am proud of belonging to them and would not hide what I am even for an evening.”
Jones was preceded in forging a new path for black classically-trained singers by Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield, who was born a slave in Mississippi sometime around 1820, and later taken to Philadelphia and freed when her owners divorced. She toured the United States in 1851, singing programs of opera arias and art songs, and was managed by a white man who was evidently a racist and a supporter of the Fugitive Slave Act, and who prohibited black audiences from attending her concerts.
As the music critic for the Buffalo Commercial Advertiser enthused after Greenfield’s debut concert in that city:
A Black Swan!
Among the musical novelties of the day, the public are soon to be astonished by the debut of a young lady of African extraction, by the name of Eliza[beth] Greenfield. We had the pleasure last evening in company with a party of Musical Amateurs, of listening to her performance and must confess we were completely surprised and delighted.
Miss Greenfield possesses a voice of great purity and flexibility, and of extraordinary compass; singing the notes in alto, with brilliancy and sweetness, and descending to the bass notes with a power and volume perfectly astonishing. She sang among other pieces “When the gloom if night retiring,” with a degree of artistic finish that many of our celebrated Prima Donnas might envy.
The critic undoubtedly meant Sir Henry Bishop’s “Like the Gloom of Night Retiring”; there is documentary evidence of Greenfield having sung the piece in Buffalo.
There is also evidence that a Buffalo police phalanx had to be called in to protect the singer, the audience, and the concert hall after threats of “dire disasters to the building if the dark lady were permitted to sing.”
Indeed, The Buffalo Daily Express was constrained to plead, in its review of her concert:
May we not hope that her music may tend to soften the hearts of the free and lighten the shackles of her race enslaved.
When Greenfield appeared in Cleveland, the music critic for the Cleveland Plain Dealer noted the astonishment of the audience as they heard “white” sounds emanating from a black body:
It was amusing to behold the utter surprise and intense pleasure which were depicted on the faces of her listeners; they seemed to express – ‘Why, we see the face of a black woman, but hear the voice of an angel, what does it mean?’
Sadly, there are no recordings of Sissieretta Jones or Elizabeth Greenfield; the latter died before the advent of recording, and the former, tragically, though she died as late as the 1930s, apparently chose not to record.
We have the examples, however, of many great black sopranos who have followed in the course laid down by these pioneering prima donnas.
Jessye Norman, for instance, is my absolute favorite singer in my aboslute favorite composer, Johannes Brahms — not to mention being unsurpassed in Wagner and other operatic repertoire.
Here she is singing “Divinités du Styx,” from the 1767 opera Alceste by Christoph Willibald Gluck:
In spite of the success of the success of black women singers, black men have traditionally fared less well in opera. A 1972 New York Times article, “When Will the Black Male Make It in Opera?”, describes the predicament of
Therman Bailey, a tall, good‐looking man in his early forties, [who] was signed by the Cologne Opera a few years ago. After he arrived there he was assigned a large number of roles to prepare in German. As the weeks went by, he was given more and more to learn but never a performance. He complained and finally worked up the long chain of bureaucracy to the artistic administrator, who said, “Really, we’re not sure how you’re going to look onstage.” Bailey said, “Then why the hell did you hire me? I haven’t suddenly changed color!”
Inspired by his anger, Bailey reached over and pointed to a list of the company’s repertory. “Look at these operas! Almost every one is set in a Mediterranean country where blacks have always lived, Why can’t I do one?”
And George Shirley, the first black tenor to perform a leading role at the Metropolitan Opera, suggests that
white men erroneously see the black male “as a sort of superhuman sex machine. Maybe because of this, we’re a threat in all areas. No white man is threatened by a black woman, but when a black man is raised into a position of equal competition, the white man doesn’t like it. He says to himself, ‘Why should I open my world up to this guy when I al ready have to deal with so many white guys?”
This has been especially true for tenors, who sing the romantic male leads in opera, and thus are paired with (usually white) sopranos, which, in the United States especially, has been perceived as threatening and unsavory by (predominantly white) opera audiences.
Fortunately, things are changing, but opera is not only tradition-bound; it’s also not especially woke.
What does it mean to sound black? To sound white?