06 February 2013

PERSONAL PERSPECTIVES: Celebrating Black History Month in Music

Marian Anderson posing with her mother on the occasion of her Metropolitan Opera début as Ulrica in Verdi's UN BALLO IN MASCHERA

Throughout the 20th Century, the world’s opera houses and concert halls were among the most progressive institutions in terms of integrating artists of all races and creeds into their performances.  Though American theatres and especially New York’s Metropolitan Opera lagged behind European musical institutions in the engagement of artists of color, the MET début of Marian Anderson on 7 January 1955, as Ulrica in Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera, was a watershed moment in the history of Civil Rights in the United States and for minority artists throughout the world.  Even now, artists of color continue to constitute a lamentably small minority in comparison with Caucasian musicians, but their work has been irrefutably critical to the musical life of the past seventy years.  On an individual note, my own opera-going experiences have been meaningfully shaped by performances by minority singers: a tremendously memorable African-American Carmen; a moving and vocally brilliant South Korean Gilda; a powerfully machismo Tamerlano who happens to be gay.

To adapt the centuries-old axiom, artists of color in the 21st Century stand on the shoulders of giants.  The color of an artist’s skin is less likely to be a deciding factor in the development of his or her career in 2013 than it would have been in 1953, but the very fact that it is possible only to say ‘less likely’ rather than ‘never’ is a testament to the absolute necessity of celebrating minority involvement in the Performing Arts, both past and present.  In recognition of Black History Month, celebrated during February in the United States, I am proud to honor the work of twelve artists of color, all of whom have achieved the highest levels of artistic integrity through hard work, perseverance, and discipline.  Singers such as Martina Arroyo and Shirley Verrett need no introduction to opera lovers, but in an arts community that sadly turns its back on the past more each day, these ladies must be recognized not only for their achievements as artists but also for the shining example of their character.  These twelve are artists whose work is of great significance to me as a musician and a music lover.  They are people whose art has the power to transcend race, gender, religion, and sexual preference.  Rather than being a white man listening to a black singer, when I am in the company of Martina Arroyo, even on records, I am simply a man, listening not to a soprano but to Aida herself.

Martina_ArroyoMartina Arroyo (soprano) – Possessing one of America’s most exquisite voices, Martina Arroyo thrilled audiences throughout her career but inexplicably does not enjoy a commercial recorded legacy that reflects her importance to opera.  Thankfully, recordings of live performances document her finest work, perhaps none more tellingly than her thrilling 1972 La Scala Aida.  Writing of a MET performance, critic Harriett Johnson suggested that Ms. Arroyo’s voice ‘is at its best as Aida,’ and her singing at La Scala—opposite colleagues as accomplished as Fiorenza Cossotto and Plácido Domingo—is of a quality that rivals the finest Aidas ever recorded.  A lady of indomitable spirit and self-awareness atypical of great singers, she brought to roles that defeat even very fine singers commitment, intelligence, and a sense of humor that made her a beloved figure in the international musical community.  Since her retirement, Ms. Arroyo’s presence has been sorely missed among the ranks of Verdi singers, now more than ever, but her devotion to guiding America’s young singers through her Foundation continues her quest for uncompromising musicality.

North Carolina-born contralto Carol BriceCarol Brice (contralto, 1918 – 1985) – Born near the author’s residence, just east of Greensboro, North Carolina, Carol Brice was a remarkable contralto whose dulcet voice contributed memorably to Fritz Reiner’s 1946 recording of Manuel de Falla’s El Amor Brujo.  She was also featured in the premiere recording of Marc Blitzstein’s opera Regina, as well as the celebrated 1976 Houston Grand Opera production of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, which was subsequently recorded (and which remains, in the opinions of many listeners, the definitive performance of the opera).  Ms. Brice possessed a voice of great richness, allied with a carefully-schooled technique that enabled her to sing a wide repertory ranging from Bach to 20th Century music; and to shine in musical theatre, where her natural grace was particularly evident.  A truly exceptional native daughter of North Carolina, no artist is less deserving of the neglect that Ms. Brice receives from the State that first heard her beautiful tones.

Soprano Lisa Daltirus as Leonora in Verdi's IL TROVATORELisa Daltirus (soprano) – One of the most exciting voices heard in America’s opera houses during the past decade, Lisa Daltirus excels in Verdi repertory, continuing the legacies of Martina Arroyo and Leontyne Price in roles like Aida and Leonora in Il Trovatore.  The power of her interpretation of Puccini’s Tosca has captured the imaginations of audiences and the acclaim of critics, confirming that she is an actress of both poise and passion.  Writing of her Tosca for New York Grand Opera, performed in Central Park in 2002, New York Times critic Anne Midgette stated that ‘on a warm night in Central Park, when the heavy air seems just under blood temperature, it takes a lot to give you chills.  And yet at least one listener felt them when Lisa Daltirus made her first entrance.’  The beauty and reliability of her upper register are hallmarks of a great technique, and she is a treasure of American music who deserves to be heard in all of the world’s best opera houses.

Soprano Gloria Davy as Verdi's Aida

Gloria Davy (soprano, 1931 – 2012) – The wonderful Gloria Davy, a soprano with a glorious spinto voice that filled many of Europe’s theatres with rounded, bronzed sound, is another artist whose importance, especially as a Verdi singer, is overlooked.  Acclaimed in German-speaking Europe while opportunities for singers of color were still few in the United States, Ms. Davy sang Verdi heroines opposite many of the finest singers of the era, not least in Berlin.  In 1958, following a celebrated concert performance of Donizetti’s Anna Bolena for the American Opera Society, Ms. Davy became the first African-American artist to sing Aida at the MET, where she sang a further fourteen performances.  Sadly, Ms. Davy was largely overlooked by record labels, and even recordings of live performances featuring her artistry are difficult to find.  Thoroughly worth the search is a recording of a 1961 Aida from the Deutsche Oper, Berlin, in which Ms. Davy’s soaring Aida—sung auf Deutsch—loves the Radamès of Jess Thomas and endures the scorn of the Amneris of Christa Ludwig.

Coloratura soprano Mattiwilda DobbsMattiwilda Dobbs (soprano) – A coloratura soprano of great charm and vocal acumen whose début at the Metropolitan Opera as Gilda in Verdi’s Rigoletto made her the first African-American soprano to be engaged by the company, Mattiwilda Dobbs possessed a silvery timbre that recalled the coloratura songbirds of the early 20th Century but with greater power and flexibility.  Following her MET début, Ronald Dowd wrote in Musical America of Ms. Dobbs’s ‘beautifully schooled voice of considerable size and innate musicianship of the highest order.’  Unlike many artists of color of her generation, Ms. Dobbs made a number of fine recordings (most of which remain available), perhaps the most treasurable of which preserves her lovely Leïla in Bizet’s Les Pêcheurs de perles, conducted by René Leibowitz.  The freshness of Ms. Dobbs’s singing sparkles even in the least sonically impressive of her recordings.

Soprano Reri GristReri Grist (soprano) – Likewise a delightfully charming singer with a formidable coloratura technique, Reri Grist enjoyed a considerable career at the Metropolitan opera, débuting in 1966 as Rosina in Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia and retiring from the house in 1978 as Sophie in Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier.  Loved in Vienna and acclaimed throughout Europe, Ms. Grist sang Oscar in two of the most lauded recordings of Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera, as well as a moving and refreshingly accurate Gilda opposite the idiosyncratic Duca of Nicolai Gedda.  Ms. Grist was noticed early in her professional career by Igor Stravinsky, who invited her to sing the title role in his opera Le Rossignol in Washington, D.C.  Few roles could have been more appropriate for such a lovely singer than that of an operatic nightingale.

Soprano Lenora LafayetteLenora Lafayette (soprano, 1926 – 1975) – Born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, the early death of Lenora Lafayette deprived the world of a phenomenal voice.  Substituting for an indisposed colleague, Ms. Lafayette became the first African-American to sing at London’s Royal Opera House when she took the title role in Verdi's Aida in 1953.  Ms. Lafayette’s portrayal of Aida is preserved in a performance recorded for German radio and conducted by Clemens Krauss, revealing a firm, beautiful voice and a ravishing top C.  Regrettably, this extraordinary American voice was infrequently heard in the United States and never at the MET, cancer preventing Ms. Lafayette from conquering the stages of her native land.

Tenor George ShirleyGeorge Shirley (tenor) – ‘Here is a sensitive musician, an expert actor and an intelligent artist who approaches every assignment with taste and resourceful technique.’  This was Robert Sabin’s assessment in Musical America of George Shirley’s MET début as Ferrando in Mozart’s Così fan tutte in October 1961, an occasion that introduced MET audiences to the first African-American tenor to sing leading roles in that house.  Mr. Shirley’s artistry was well served by his even, unfailingly elegant lyric voice, the beauty of which remained unimpaired until his retirement from the stage.  Though Mr. Shirley was not recorded as widely as his achievements deserved, his Idomeneo in Sir Colin Davis’s earlier Philips recording remains the standard by which performances of the role are judged, one of the very few performances of the role—on stage or on records—in which all of Mozart’s challenges are met with style to spare.  Mr. Shirley sang his distinguished Pinkerton opposite such famed MET Cio-Cio-Sans as Dorothy Kirsten, Licia Albanese, Gabriella Tucci, Teresa Stratas, Renata Scotto, and Pilar Lorengar.  After retiring from opera, Mr. Shirley began a teaching career at the University of Michigan, where he remains one of America’s most respected Professors of Voice.

Tenor Kenneth Tarver [Photo by Joan Tomas]Kenneth Tarver (tenor) – In many ways the natural successor to George Shirley, Kenneth Tarver possesses a lyric tenor voice of great beauty and extensive range, ideally suited to bel canto.  A versatile performer, Mr. Tarver’s performance of Iopas’s ‘O blonde Cérès’ in Sir Colin Davis’s LSO Live recording of Les Troyens is one of the finest examples of lyric tenor singing on records, crowned with a gorgeous top C that has its appropriate place as the zenith of Berlioz’s musical phrase rather than merely being a display of a singer’s upper register.  Equally impressive in the title role of Opera Rara’s recording of Rossini’s Aureliano in Palmira, as Giacomo in Rossini’s Donna del lago (also on Opera Rara), and as Don Ottavio in René Jacobs’s harmonia mundi recording of Don Giovanni, Mr. Tarver is a dashing presence on stage and on records, his artistry built upon the foundation of an uncommonly sound technique.  American music lovers are indebted to Mr. Tarver for his ideal accounts of Songs by Charles Ives, recorded for NAXOS: even among some of America’s best singers, Mr. Tarver’s work stands out compellingly.

Tenor Russell ThomasRussell Thomas (tenor) – Like many of the great American singers of the past, Russell Thomas made his MET début in a minor role, in his case the Herald in Verdi’s Don Carlo.  His Malcolm in Adrian Noble’s production of Verdi’s Macbeth two years later heralded the addition of a wonderful (and sorely-needed) tenor voice to the MET’s roster.  Mr. Thomas recently sang Offenbach’s Hoffmann to great acclaim, and his ringing voice will be heard in Opera Rara’s forthcoming studio recording of Donizetti’s Belisario.  One of the most promising singers of the current generation, Mr. Thomas possesses a strong, honeyed voice that conjures memories of artists of previous generations such as Gianni Raimondi, whose singing combined security, sweetness of tone, and excellent projection.  Mr. Thomas has only just begun a journey through what seems destined to be a great career.

Mezzo-soprano Shirley Verrett in the title role of Bizet's CARMENShirley Verrett (mezzo-soprano, 1931 – 2010) – Like Ms. Arroyo, the incomparable Shirley Verrett is remembered with great fondness by opera lovers in the United States and abroad.  It was as Bizet’s Carmen that Ms. Verrett was first heard at the MET in 1968, but her MET career spanned a wide array of both mezzo-soprano and soprano roles.  She performed the remarkable feat of singing both Cassandre and Didon in the MET premiere of Berlioz’s Les Troyens in 1973, replacing an indisposed Christa Ludwig in the latter role.  It was noted by Alan Rich in New York Magazine that she had ‘stunning triumph[s] in both roles.’  Mr. Rich went on to write that Ms. Verrett was ‘glorious to behold’ and sang in a manner that ranked ‘as one of the great personal “tours de force” in the company’s 90-year history.’  She also sang Judith in the first MET performances of Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle (which, in the MET’s first production, was paired with Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi!).  In 1975, Ms. Verrett sang Neocle in Rossini’s L’Assedio di Corinto, the opera in which Beverly Sills—a frequent colleague—made her MET début.  The opera was Ms. Sills’s vehicle, but Ms. Verrett earned her share of the laurels.  ‘A particularly demanding example [of Rossini’s music] is Neocle’s “E d’un trono alla speranza,” which requires high Cs and very difficult coloratura passages from the mezzo-soprano.  Shirley Verrett tore into it with commendable sang froid.  I don’t ever recall hearing anything like it,’ Manuela Hoelterhoff wrote in The Wall Street Journal.  Similar sentiments of wonder greeted virtually all of Ms. Verrett’s MET performances, including her Madame Lidoine in the MET premiere of Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites.  Her Norma possessed the dignity requisite of a Druid priestess, and her Tosca smoldered with passion and jealousy.  Ms. Verrett retired from the MET after performances of Azucena in Verdi’s Il Trovatore in 1990, when she was praised for the continuing good condition of her voice.  There are those who debate the wisdom of Ms. Verrett’s performances of soprano roles, but there is no question that hers was an awesome, once-in-a-generation voice or that she was one of the greatest Americans of the 20th Century.

Conductor Willie Anthony WatersWillie Anthony Waters (conductor) – One of the most devastating blows dealt to the American musical community by the ‘Great Recession’ was the closure of Connecticut Opera, where Willie Anthony Waters conducted more than thirty productions during his twelve-year tenure as Artistic Director.  A consistently-inspired conductor of both unfamiliar repertory—Franchetti’s Cristoforo Colombo, for instance—and operatic warhorses, Maestro Waters possesses baton technique and rhythmic precision that are rare among conductors trained after 1950.  In addition to his acclaimed conducting, he has nurtured the voices and careers of many young singers and has lent his talents as a coach and conductor to the Martina Arroyo Foundation.  Indicative of Maestro Waters’s gifts for intelligent, insightful conducting and management of voices was his leadership of New York City Opera’s 2003 revival of Carlisle Floyd’s Of Mice and Men, in which he thoughtfully paced Anthony Dean Griffey’s fascinating Lennie.  Anne Midgette wrote in the New York Times that Maestro Waters ‘echoed the humanity of Mr. Griffey’s portrayal with warm energy in the orchestra.’  Also writing for the Times, Bernard Holland wrote that the Martina Arroyo Foundation’s 2007 production of Così fan tutte ‘owed ultimate success to its conductor, Willie Anthony Waters.’  Displaying an encyclopædic knowledge of operatic and orchestral repertories, as well as intimate acquaintance with and understanding of voices past and present, Maestro Waters is among the ranks of America’s most brilliant native-born conductors, one whose work frankly shames that of many of the conductors who regularly appear on the podiums of America’s orchestras and opera houses.