Opera and the Black Singer
This article by the one and only George Shirley was featured back in February 2010 in honor of Black History Month. Today, we feature it in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and hope that the legacies of such great thinkers continue to be celebrated in this country and in our art. “Free at last!”
by George Shirley
It took us a long time to get in. Are we looking at a fast exit? 1945 was the point of entry, a mere 65 years ago when Todd Duncan broke the color barrier with his debut with the New York City Opera, the first instance of an established opera company signing a black singer to a performance contract in America.
The intervening years have seen a steady parade of entrants into the field, and roles have gratefully not been limited to “black” characters like Aida, Otello, and Monostatos. However, I sense in today’s casting trends a burgeoning focus upon physical presence akin to that which rules in the film, TV, and musical theatre genres. If, at the time of audition, one does not by birth or surgical alteration look like the director’s vision of the character, one’s chances of being hired are practically nil.
The recent departure of Italian soprano Daniela Dessi from a production of La Traviata scheduled for the Rome Opera resulted from the director Franco Zeffirelli’s criticism of her physical size: “She is not exactly the kind of woman who is likely to die of tuberculosis.” An old criticism to be sure, the same as was leveled at Sra. Salvini-Donatelli who sang the premiere of the opera in 1853. Both audience and critics, however, praised Sra. Salvatini-Donatelli’s singing. In spite of her avoirdupois, which occasioned at least one rude response from the audience during the performance, her vocal artistry carried the day. The fact remains that many of history’s greatest interpreters of the role of Violetta would have been denied an opportunity to perform the role if general managers of opera companies had prized their singers’ physiques over their ability to sing the score.
In a misguided attempt to bring “reality” into operatic production, many directors are following Zeffirelli’s lead in demanding that singers look like the director’s idea of the character even before they put on make-up and costume. This attitude strikes at the very heart of the essence of opera, subordinating the voice –the primary interest in opera– to the shallow realm of visual looks. Verdi, Puccini, and Wagner wrote for voices, not for looks. The art of the costumier, wig master, and make-up artist has historically provided the visual eye candy to compensate for whatever Nature has failed to bestow upon possessors of great voices that can sing the music. Why go for glamour over the quality of voice great composers doubtless had in mind when they created the masterworks we love to perform and hear? Do the visuals validate opera, or does the reality sought by directors live supremely within the music?
Opera is the most unreal of all theatrical art forms and, arguably, one of –if not the– most powerful. We humans don’t go around singing to each other in everyday life; thus, any attempt to claim reality in opera by insisting that performers look the part is defeated from the outset. In real life, stout people are loved by thin, and short by tall; Blacks, Whites, Catholics and Jews intermarry; criminals don’t always look like stereotypical villains. This is reality. In opera, however, sopranos, altos, tenors, baritones, and basses portray characters fundamentally through singing. Their voices must be capable of meeting the technical and expressive demands of the music, and their interpretative skill must bring the music to life in a manner that rings true to life as portrayed in the musical score. The audience must consent to play its part in the game by suspending disbelief, accepting the stout Violetta with a great voice as a consumptive heroine, and the black Des Grieux as a French nobleman. Within this synergy exists the sole reality of which opera is capable.
My great concern in all the current “Hollywood-izing” of opera is that African Americans, who, after all, don’t generally look Caucasian, will now be faced with yet another hurdle to leap when the director says, “Wonderful voice, but you don’t look like Mimì or Rodolfo!” Observing the successes of singers like Leontyne Price, Simon Estes, Vinson Cole, Shirley Verrett, Jessye Norman, Denyce Graves, Lawrence Brownlee, Grace Bumbry, and Martina Arroyo, to name but a few who have made their operatic mark over the past six-and-a-half decades, I am concerned for the future of young black singers who train for operatic careers today. Do they stand to encounter a new-old barrier erected on their path, one that, although spawned from a different fish, bears the same old smell of denial of access due to circumstances beyond their control? While it is true that the reject bin created by today’s penchant for physical typecasting will not be populated exclusively with birds of dark hue, to what extent might the return of this old wolf in sheep’s clothing bode ill for the operatic future of black singers? Alternatively, might this sharpening focus on physical type provide an opportunity to strengthen the art form, expand its reach, and secure the future of operatic performance in America and globally through the creation of new works that make capital of our racial diversity?
Operas like Danielpour’s Margaret Garner and Davis’s X (The Life and Times of Malcolm X) point the way to the growth of an operatic repertoire that has the advantages of being based upon American history and representing Americans of all races in roles that range from hero/heroine to villain. If looks are becoming the driver of the operatic enterprise, then the time is ripe for composers black and white to step up to the plate and swat out music dramas that tell our story with honesty, power, and with great music that requires great singing. Casting of such works will require hiring black singers for leading roles, thus ensuring our place in the operatic sun. Let this trend become an opportunity to create opera anew in the American image, thereby giving the world a fresh and powerful operatic repertoire that reflects the best and worst of the human condition American style. Our rich heritage can produce opera libretti galore that, once mined and set to music, will ensure for every Rigoletto contract awarded to a non-minority baritone, one role of like significance assigned perforce to a baritone of color because, like that of Porgy, the role demands it.
To young singers who desire careers, I say, “Be ultra-prepared.” In studying, build perfection in layers.
Solidify your vocal technique; master every detail and nuance of every language you sing in; know the score as perfectly as the conductor; develop your interpretative ideas from the score and libretto so that you don’t arrive at the first rehearsal an empty vessel waiting to be filled; in sum, don’t give anyone a legitimate opportunity to criticize any aspect of your artistry. A tall order? Yes, but not impossible! See to those things you can do to become competitive, and don’t sweat the petty stuff!
Barriers of one sort or another will always be players in this game; given this verity, one must determine to destroy, go around, go over, or go through them in order to realize one’s potential and live the life one is given. Under no circumstances should one throw in the towel until life itself dictates it must be done; until such time, my advice to young singers of color is to pursue your dream come hell or tsunami!
© 2010 George Shirley
The black American tenor and teacher, George Irving Shirley, began music lessons at age 6, when his family relocated to Detroit, Michigan. He was active as a vocalist at churches in the area and as a baritone horn player in a local band. He entered Wayne State University in Detroit as a music education major, receiving his bachelors degree in 1955. He was drafted into the military the following year and became the first African-American member of the United States Army Chorus. After his discharge in 1959, he continued studying voice with Therny Georgi in Washington, D.C.; then he moved to New York, continuing his vocal training there with Cornelius Reid. In New York his professional career began.
George Shirley made his debut with a small opera troupe at Woodstock, New York, as Eisenstein in their production of Die Fledermaus. He then journeyed to Italy and made his European debut as Rodolfo in the Puccini opera, La Boheme. In 1961, he won the Metropolitan Opera Auditions by performing Nessum dorma, beginning an eleven-year association with the house. While at the Met, he sang a 28 different roles from 26 operas, especially those of Mozart, Verdi, Puccini, Strauss and Wagner.
From the 1960’s to the present, George Shirley has performed on the concert stage, singing recitals and oratorios. He has premiered several works during his career, on both the concert and operatic stages. In recent years, he again became involved with education. He taught at the University of Maryland from 1980 until he accepted a position at the University of Michigan in 1987, where he currently serves as the Joseph Edgar Maddy Distinguished University Emeritus Professor of Voice.
George Shirley is a tenor whose voice has been known for its vibrancy and flexibility. His power and richness of sound easily filled a opera house or a concert hall.