Nobility of Spirit

Classic Arts Features   Nobility of Spirit
As the Metropolitan Opera celebrates the 50th anniversary of the company debut of African-American contralto Marian Anderson, Peter Clark looks back on the career of the remarkable woman who overcame the discrimination and prejudice of her time.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of one of the most significant events in the Metropolitan Opera's long history, the debut of Marian Anderson on January 7, 1955. Anderson was, of course, the first African-American to sing a role in a Metropolitan Opera performance, but her engagement by general manager Rudolf Bing was no act of mere tokenism. She was one of the great contraltos of the century, extremely famous as a concert and recording artist both here and abroad, a living legend in her own day. The wonder is that she had not been invited to sing at the Met earlier in her career.

Fifty years in historical terms is a very short time. Many of us were alive and remember those days well. Yet looking back now, we can barely believe the level of undisguised‹and officially sanctioned‹racial discrimination that existed in the United States then. But it was all too real. The Metropolitan Opera Archives contain hefty folders of letters sent in either protest or approval of Mr. Bing's hiring of Marian Anderson. The angriest of the letters are heart-chilling reminders of the vitriolic racism that was commonplace at the time.

By 1955 the cause of racial justice in the United States was just reaching a first stage in which legalized segregation and discrimination was being seriously challenged once and for all. With the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education case in May 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. The same year had also seen the final elimination of all racially segregated regiments in the armed forces, and individual black Americans were gaining new recognition for their achievements. Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., became the first black general in the U.S. Air Force, Ralph J. Bunche was named undersecretary general of the United Nations, Charles H. Mahoney became the first black American to serve as a full delegate to the U.N., and Harry Belafonte won the first Tony Award given a black person for his supporting role in a Broadway musical. Jackie Robinson had broken the race barrier in professional sports, and in December 1955, Rosa Parks would refuse to give up her seat on a bus in Alabama, giving fresh impetus to the Civil Rights Movement.

As the nation's flagship opera company, the Metropolitan had not shown much leadership in this area prior to 1955. When Louis Gruenberg's opera based on Eugene O'Neill's play, The Emperor Jones, had its world premiere in 1933, the Met missed the opportunity of casting Paul Robeson, a black bass with tremendous gifts as both singer and actor, and gave the role instead to Lawrence Tibbett, who had his own triumph in the part, but played it in blackface. The premiere was, however, the occasion of the first African-American debut with the company, in the person of Hemsley Winfield, who danced the role of the Witch Doctor. After Rudolf Bing had become general manager in 1950, he hired a black dancer, Janet Collins, as a prima ballerina with the Met. Then, in 1953 the young baritone Robert McFerrin was among the winners of the Auditions of the Air program and joined the Katharine Turney Long course at the Metropolitan. McFerrin was to make his Met debut as Amonasro in Aida shortly after Anderson's historic first performance. Actually Bing had made clear shortly after he was named general manager that he intended to hire singers without regard to racial prejudices. "My personal attitude toward Negro singers," he said in a 1950 interview, "has already been demonstrated when in 1947 I invited Todd Duncan to give a recital at my first Edinburgh Festival. As far as the Metropolitan Opera is concerned, I can only repeat that I shall be happy to engage Negro singers if I find the right voice for the right part." Having witnessed the human catastrophe that racism had visited on his Austrian homeland a few short years earlier, Bing was undoubtedly more sensitive to the issue than many Americans.

Into this confluence of political and artistic currents, Marian Anderson strode as a national icon, widely recognized for her magnificent voice and respected for her humility and dignity. She had already shouldered the burden of serving as a heroine in the cause of racial justice. In 1939, even though she was already a globally acclaimed artist, the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to let her sing in Washington's Constitution Hall, which they owned. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt promptly resigned her membership in the D.A.R., and Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, helped a group of black leaders organize an alternative concert for Anderson on Easter Sunday on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The cause célèbre brought more than 75,000 people to hear her sing what was surely the most famous recital of her very active musical life.

Rudolf Bing claimed that the idea of inviting Marian Anderson to make her Met debut came by an accident of fate. The Metropolitan Opera House had been rented for performances by London's Old Vic Theatre, and at a post-opening night party, Bing was seated next to Anderson. He was quoted as saying, "It occurred to me that Miss Anderson would be wonderful for Ulrica [in Un Ballo in Maschera]. I suggested it was time she sang at the Metropolitan. She said she'd love to." Anderson in fact demurred until she could study the role to see if it suited her. Her career had been solely as a concert and recital artist, and she had never performed any operatic role. After working on the music, and singing it for Dimitri Mitropoulos, who was to conduct the performances, she agreed.

Perhaps it took a singer of unimpeachable vocal credentials to break the barriers of prejudice. But it was certainly Anderson's personal grace and unpretentious yet dignified manner that undoubtedly won many hearts and swayed many biased views. The injustices she suffered were all the more outrageous for the admirable way she responded to them. Many times in her career she had been denied hotel rooms, restaurant seats, and sleeping berths in trains due to her race, even outside the South. She might have been bitter from the humiliations, but a response she once gave a journalist who questioned her about it is typically philosophical and gentle in tone. "We have learned, in the course of the years, that to be upset to the point where you devote a lot of time to it is not a recommended diet. My mother was a very, very serene person, and she tried to give us a good basic philosophy to live by. Serenity is not anything we feel we've 'come to.' A person is as he is."

Although like any performing artist, Anderson must have been aware of her standing, she seems to have been free from the stereotypical star capriciousness. Her manager, the legendary Sol Hurok, was once quoted as saying, "Miss Anderson is virtually the only artist I've handled who has never turned temperamental on me. Fannie Hurst once said the contralto hadn't simply grown great, she'd grown great simply‹and that about sums it up." Her "simple" manner of dealing with the world, as it comes across in her autobiography from 1956, is the sort of thing philosophers and religious leaders often strive for. It seems rooted in a wisdom born of experience, faith, and an extraordinary ability to retain her sense of self in the face of adversity.

Not surprisingly, Anderson's singing reflected the same nobility of spirit and restrained but intense emotional truth that characterized her as a human being. To quote Peter G. Davis, author of the book The American Opera Singer, "her serene simplicity conveyed a quiet, almost elemental dramatic force that audiences everywhere seemed to find utterly hypnotic." In purely vocal terms, Anderson was extraordinary as well. New York Times critic Harold Schonberg once wrote that those who heard her at the height of her career "can never forget that big, resonant voice, with those low notes almost visceral in nature, and with that easy, unforced ascent to the top register. A natural voice, a hauntingly colorful one, it was one of the vocal phenomena of its time."

By the time of her Met debut, Marian Anderson was 57 years old, although at the time her management only admitted to 52. As with many performers then, publicists had shaved off years early in her career. She was no longer in her vocal prime, and was not satisfied with her debut performance. The pressure must have been enormous. The pre-performance publicity had created a huge demand for tickets, and the sold-out audience included Eleanor Roosevelt, Margaret Truman, and the Duchess of Windsor. Over two thousand telegrams of congratulations arrived at the Met stage door, along with many bouquets of flowers from well-wishers. As planned, Mitropoulos conducted, and the first-rate cast included Zinka Milanov as Amelia, Roberta Peters as Oscar, Richard Tucker as Riccardo, and Leonard Warren as Renato. Newspapers the next day excitedly reported the event as the historic moment it was. "When the curtain went up on the second scene, there was Ulrica stirring her witch's cauldron," wrote The New York Times. "Miss Anderson was a grim, taut figure on the stage. The audience broke into a tremendous ovation, applauding and shouting. Mr. Mitropoulos stopped the orchestra… At the end of the act there was relative silence, but the audience was apparently waiting for the singers to come out for their curtain calls. There was outburst after outburst as Miss Anderson kept returning with her colleagues for her bows. She took one curtain call alone with Miss Milanov. When the soprano threw her arms around Miss Anderson and kissed her on the cheek there was a tremendous demonstration… It was to be noted that men as well as women in the audience were dabbing at their eyes."

It is difficult not to write about Marian Anderson as if she were a saint. Certainly her autobiography and the many interviews she gave tell of a resilient, courageous, forgiving, and totally unpretentious woman, but a whole, rounded personal portrait is discreetly withheld. Anderson never saw herself as a spokesperson for a cause. She let her actions and her art speak for her. Listening today to her many recordings, we are impressed by her mastery of the art of singing: a seamless transition from a rich, dark lower register to clear soprano-like high notes; steady tone and unswerving pitch; easy flexibility; wonderful dynamic control; and a beautiful legato. Her performances of Schubert songs and Bach arias are glorious and heartfelt. But when she sings the Spirituals that she included in every program, she becomes one with the music, and we hear the suffering, hope, faith, and determination of both the individual singer and her whole people. This is perhaps as complete a portrait of the person as is available to us, and that is, in all likelihood, exactly the way she wanted us to know her.

Anderson's autobiography ends with a beautiful, simple valedictory that deserves repeating today as much as when she wrote it nearly half a century ago. "There are many persons ready to do what is right because in their hearts they know it is right. But they hesitate, waiting for the other fellow to make the first move‹and he, in turn, waits for you. The minute a person whose word means a great deal dares to take the open-hearted and courageous way, many others follow. Not everyone can be turned aside from meanness and hatred, but the great majority of Americans is heading in that direction. I have a great belief in the future of my people and my country."

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