(Alison Kinney’s article appeared on Hyperallergic.com, 8/3; via Pam Green.)
In The Souls of Black Folk (1903), W.E.B. Du Bois portrays a newcomer to the world of opera, enthralled by the Prelude to Richard Wagner’s Lohengrin. John “sat in dreamland, and started when, after a hush, rose high and clear the music of Lohengrin’s swan. … Who had called him to be the slave and butt of all? And if he had called, what right had he to call when a world like this lay open before men?”
Du Bois was only one among the generations of Black artists and fans who, for over a century, composed, sang, and reveled in opera. “Our history jumps to 1955, with Marian Anderson breaking the Met’s color barrier,” says University of Michigan musicologist Naomi André, co-editor (with Karen M. Bryan and Eric Saylor) of Blackness in Opera. “But there were people born during Reconstruction, whose parents were slaves, who did jazz, ragtime, blues — and classical music. Nineteenth-century Black singers like Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield and Sissieretta Jones sang opera but gave recitals, because the opera houses weren’t hiring them. Black churches were doing Verdi’s Requiem with all-Black casts and musicians. Coretta Scott King went to the New England Conservatory, planning to be an opera singer,” she says. “Opera’s a way to write yourself in history, as a nation or an identity, like how the Russians wrote their folk stories into operas. There’s something special in writing Black opera in the US, putting our voices in there.”
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