Opera: The "Last Musical Bastion" Of Segregation

The death of the original "Bess" from Porgy & Bess comes at a time when people are reflecting on breaking the color barrier in classical music.

A Wall Street Journal interview with soprano Jessye Norman, who is heavily involved in a festival called "Honor! A Celebration of the African American Cultural Legacy," talks about the challenges of integrating the African American experience into the Classical Music world, and its fractured history. The story of Marion Anderson's 1939 barring from Washington's Constitution Hall - and subsequent concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial - is only one well-known example of a common phenomenon. Says the Journal,

The participation of African-American singers in classical music is perhaps one of the less-studied chapters in the history of American race relations. Unlike popular music, which with its danceable rhythms was considered the natural territory of black artists, the Eurocentric world of classical music represented the white establishment. It is telling that many African-American singers in the first half of the 20th century had to focus their careers around the concert repertoire, since they were barred from opera stages. Opera, with its pantheon of heroines and gods and the special adulation that divas seem to invite, was one of the last musical bastions to remain segregated.

The writer might well have been talking about Anne Brown, who died Friday at the age of 96. Gershwin personally selected Brown for the lead role in his opera Porgy and Bess. Although she'd been a star at Juilliard, operatic roles were nonexistent for an African-American opera singer at the time, and this was twenty years before the Met would cast Marian Anderson in an opera. Although the role was a plum one, it must have been a mixed blessing for Brown to learn that the only operatic lead she was allowed to interpret was one in a "black" opera by white men, however well-intended. Indeed, the Times says that in Brown's audition with Gershwin, she felt pigeon-holed: " When he asked her to sing a Negro spiritual, she blanched. She considered the request racial stereotyping, but finally sang "A City Called Heaven" without accompaniment." Despite her success in the role - Gershwin expanded the role for her, and agreed to let Bess sing the showstopper "Summertime" - Brown ultimately found American racism too much to bear and lived the rest of her life in Oslo.

As in all such things, it's not a matter of merely congratulating ourselves on how far we've come. Artists like Brown did difficult work of groundbreaking, and she was one of the fortunate ones. Says Norman:

"There was a wonderful speech that Dr. Martin Luther King made in Berlin for the opening of the jazz festival in 1964. In that speech he said that long before essayists and scholars had been writing about the problems that would develop out of a multiracial society, jazz musicians were already talking about this. They were already demonstrating that their voices were every bit as valid as any classical-music composer and speaking to the social ills of the time...And there is a poem by Arthur O'Shaughnessy called 'Ode.' In it, he talks about artists: 'We are the music-makers/[And] we are the dreamers of dreams,/ . . .Yet we are the movers and shakers.' I love that part.

In Praise Of Those Who Showed That Great Art Has No Color [Wall Street Journal]
Anne Brown, Soprano Who Was Gershwin's Bess, Is Dead at 96 [New York Times]