A Life at the Opera

Alicia Hall Moran’s subjective history of Black excellence in classical music’s most profound storytelling tradition.

by
Marian Anderson on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial; Easter Sunday, 1939. Credit: Universal History Archive/Getty Images.

Two tremendous flashpoints in opera history seem to return to the mainstream every Black History Month: Leontyne Price’s sonic and visual triumph as the Ethiopian princess Aida, and Marian Anderson singing on Easter Sunday, 1939, before an integrated audience of 75,000 from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

Each February, you’re more likely to hear the magnificent voices of Robert McFerrin, George Shirley and Simon Estes ring out in American culture. You might also hear Roland Hayes, who created a great archive of art song, or Paul Robeson, who did not aspire to opera but altered its history nonetheless. All of these voices continue to pave the way for stars like Eric Owens and Russell Thomas, whose own recorded legacies should be required listening. (Start here: John Adams’ A Flowering Tree.)

Another requisite recording: this jaw-dropping collaboration between Jessye Norman and Kathleen Battle, bolstered by the forces of the Metropolitan Opera Chorus and Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic and arrangers ranging from Sylvia Olden Lee and Hubert Laws to Nina Simone, my great, great uncle Hall Johnson, Margaret Bonds and Hale Smith. 

Drawing a picture of what matters to me in opera, I start to see a kind of soundtrack of my life: performances and voices I could listen to on repeat forever, because they confirm my love for this art while also presenting the difficulty of its past and the challenging histories opera tackles when it is most brave. There are as many angles on opera as there are singers, but here are a few select moments I come back to again and again.

Grace Bumbry

In the summer of 1961, 24-year-old mezzo-soprano Grace Bumbry, hired to play the goddess of love, took the grand stage at the Bayreuth Festival. Established in 1876 by composer Richard Wagner and his wife, Cosima, the Bayreuth Festival was then still a shrine to German nationalism. But Wieland Wagner, the composer’s grandson who had inherited directorship of the festival, and whose own denazification hearing was in 1948, understood it was time to change. Advancing the image of the theater, he invited the American singer to Germany to sing the role of Venus in his grandfather’s famed opera Tannhäuser. She accepted, injecting herself into the canon of Black women whose voices have embodied liberty in the face of swirling storms of injustice and intolerance.  

This is a live recording with footsteps, coughing and audience hubbub. The orchestra is deeply out of tune at the outset — ghosts speaking? — but they lock in quickly. The Chorus of Sirens call to Tannhäuser, “Come, by the shore!” — voices floating in the acoustic distance. “Let all the pain fly from your limbs, let coolness fan your heated brow,” Venus beckons. Overtly feminine and manipulative, with a beguiling warmth and the energy of a young star, Bumbry’s Venus fights to lull Tannhäuser into a dream of love, her words providing ironic armor for a woman who is also singlehandedly integrating the shrine of Wagner for the very first time in its history. Bumbry, in the form of Venus, cries out, “You must not dedicate a timid offering to the festival of love! Indulge in society with the goddess of love!”

Grace Bumbry as Venus in Wagner’s Tannhäuser in 1961. Credit: Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images.

Shirley Verrett

Shirley Verrett was capable of voluptuous phrases down low, a quicksilver midrange and metallic force leaning into the highest register. Ms. Verrett sings her coloratura (ribbons of cascading fast notes) like a hawk wrapping talons around prey: exerting the necessary force to feed, but no more. Shakespeare’s lady is calculated hunger, and Verrett adds a unique and delicious glamour to Lady Macbeth. She debuted the role at La Scala in 1975, conducted by Claudio Abbado. Listen to her sing La luce langue (The light is fading).

The performance receives three minutes of ovation, with stemmed roses flying onto the stage. “After the applause died down, I swept aside some of the flowers with my huge cape,” Verrett wrote in her autobiography, I Never Walked Alone. “Under different circumstances it would have been an offense not to acknowledge the thrown flowers, but it was consistent with the single-mindedness of Lady Macbeth. If it made some members of the audience upset with ‘her,’ it was okay. I proceeded with my portrayal.”

Adele Addison, William Warfield

These performances from Handel’s Messiah were delivered before “early music” became a fixture of the contemporary scene. Brandishing bolts of completely original interpretation, each is worth examining for different reasons. Consider the iconic baritone William Warfield singing Why Do the Nations So Furiously Rage Together? (Part 1, No. 36) with an easy excellence that embraces both the spectrum of Americanness and the extraordinary distinctions of African-Americanness. Or take in the divine voice of soprano Adele Addison. Her Rejoice Greatly and recitatives are of the most delectable variety, gentle and sweetly threaded, with a specific, plaintive reediness. Her coloratura is like golden drizzles on baklava in an Athens bakery; if only you could eat the word “peace.” All voices are made with air, but Addison’s voice is of the air.  

It’s a joy to hear these Messiah texts freshly delivered by Warfield and Addison, to the baton of Bernstein. Captured in New York City in 1956, these recordings exemplify both generosity and complexity. They’re worth shouting about, greatly.

William Warfield in the early 1950s. Credit: Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images.

Florence Quivar

“They come as if from the heavens,” sings the Goddess of the Waters, portrayed by opera legend Florence Quivar in contemporary composer Anthony Davis’ Amistad, which premiered in 1997. The plot revolves around the 1839 revolt by Africans aboard a Spanish slave ship. Quivar, the goddess, knows their situation and deposits layers of understanding like ancient sands onto the profound language of librettist Thulani Davis. As an ocean wave, Quivar’s voice gathers and recedes in powerful arcs; deep, dark tonal information swims beneath the surface. The goddess performs an array of singing feats. Stamina and ingenuity are required to embody the horrors of the transatlantic slave trade from the point of view of the water. Quivar, experienced in both grand opera and folk traditions, responds to the demands of this opera with liquid facility.

Composer Anthony Davis went on to win the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Music for The Central Park Five. His virtuosic output across jazz and classical music continues to require deft rhythmic work from singers, plus the ability to expressively move atop the undercurrent. Davis writes newer music, so you must give it a few listens to really feel it all. Ms. Quivar’s voice is a touchstone for the depths of Davis’ art; it will give you access.

Also essential is her monumental recording Ride On, King Jesus: Florence Quivar Sings Black Music of America, which includes arrangements by Margaret Bonds and Hall Johnson, and features fine piano by Larry Woodard and Joseph Joubert accompanying the Boys Choir of Harlem conducted by the late Walter Turnbull. In Ms. Quivar’s voice, an entire history is told.

Sheryl Sutton, Helga Davis

I am grateful to the Black women who played Character 1 in Philip Glass’ Einstein on the Beach, both directed by Robert Wilson: Sheryl Sutton, who created and premiered the role in 1976, and Helga Davis, who assumed it in 2012. Their virtuosity is total and dynamic: part mathematician, part muse, part dancer. Hanging on their tone is the whole universe of this opera: the full ensemble, other solo voices, the instruments and the machine of the total visual design. The diva exposed, unusual and liberating. Sutton and Davis each embody a new kind of goddess who wears pants — a comportment for the future.

Einstein on the Beach premiered in the mid-1970s, as the music that would become known as hip-hop was coalescing. Today, hip-hop is one context for noticing how often the flood of facts in Einstein — science, church, government, children’s songs, fairytales, advertisements — is beside the point. What is repeated, on the other hand, is fantastic: It’s all about the rules, the service, the attachment, the memory, the desire, the mission.

The opera offers unexpected lessons in how to listen. Old habits fall. Voices presenting numbers, seemingly random, are set to an obsessively specific musical score. Listening to them for the first time is a way to learn not what they think about Einstein, or anything else, but a way to hear yourself anew. Let them be your guide into another part of you.

Sheryl Sutton, at right, performs alongside Lucinda Childs in Einstein on the Beach
at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1984. Credit: Jack Vartoogian/Getty Images.

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