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Posted by on Feb 17, 2010 in Articles | 3 comments

The African-American Male & The Classical Color Line

The African-American Male & The Classical Color Line

by Erica Papillion-Posey

Recently, I was trolling the internet for inspiration for my upcoming article in honor of Black History month and our focus on African-Americans in the classical arts when I happened upon the following article by Greg Sandow, formerly of the Village Voice. Initially, I sought out to re-create or put my own spin on this ever touchy subject then decided this article’s need to be resurrected. After reading it I thought, “Wow, still, not much has changed.” I pondered the subject matter more. Are black men ostracized in the classical arts- more than African-American women? Well it didn’t take long to conclude…. As an African-American woman, I have been so pre-occupied with my own struggles, in day to day life and ‘classical life,’ it never occurred that my male counterpart has it worse.

Though the years have progressed, jobs changed, feelings may have waned and, sure, advances made, how much is really different? I can tell you that since reading this 1997 article and attending or performing in numerous events, I have taken time to ‘look around,’ survey the venues. The problem is as relevant today as ever. My appraisal- no, not much has changed where African-American male, classical artist are concerned. Whether the pit, the stage or the audience, you’re still not there. Read this thought provoking assessment and catch me on the other side:

The Classical Color Line

Placido Domingo performs 'Othello' in blackface at the MET.

Placido Domingo performs 'Othello' in blackface at the MET.

The message on my answering machine was from Vinson Cole, a respected black lyric tenor. To understand why his call was important, just repeat a list of names to yourself: Leontyne Price, Shirley Verrett, Grace Bumbry, Jessye Norman, and Kathleen Battle. These are black women who’ve been household names in opera, and the list could be extended to include not-quite-superstars like Martina Arroyo, Florence Quivar, and Barbara Hendricks.

Now ponder this name: Simon Estes. He’s the sole black male singer with an international operatic reputation, and he’s charged, often and publicly, that he doesn’t sing in America because our opera producers won’t hire black men. “There’s been a perception that African-American males can’t kiss or embrace white women onstage; Estes has said. “If I were to ask you to name me five African-American men singing in leading roles you would have a problem.”

It’s not that there aren’t black male opera singers; any company can fill a stage with them, whenever it produces Porgy and Bess. But is Estes right? Are black men less prominent in opera than black women because their careers are blocked by racism? Estes has spoken out so much that I didn’t want to call him. Instead, I thought, I’d speak to Cole.

I told Cole’s management what I wanted to talk about. Instead of a callback from the company to set up the interview, Cole called me himself- and from Australia, no less, where he was singing the tenor solo in the Verdi Requiem. He certainly had something to tell me.

Donald White

Donald White, Cellist

Nor was Cole alone, because nearly every African-American I approached was anxious to talk. I heard about the days when blacks were excluded from the classical world, days that- in a stunning rebuke to the presumption that high culture is morally superior- didn’t end until eight years after Jackie Robinson played major league baseball. Not until 1955 did the Metropolitan Opera have a black singer- Marian Anderson- in a leading role, and not until 1957 did the Cleveland Orchestra break the symphonic color line by hiring a black cellist, Donald White.

If Anderson were still alive, she’d be 100 this year, and on this anniversary it’s sad to report that, even now, the New York Philharmonic has just one black member, and the Chicago Symphony none. The Detroit Symphony, in a black-majority city, has just three. It’s no surprise that there’s a sense of estrangement between African-Americans and the classical music world. The African-American Yellow Pages, a national resource guide for the black community, doesn’t have a single listing for classical music. As Laurie Carter, associate vice president at the Juilliard School of Music (and a black woman), puts it, “For man” African-Americans, classical music simply doesn’t exist. It has no relevance to their lives at all.”

So when you ask why there aren’t more African-Americans in symphony orchestras, you also have to ask how man study classical music in the first place. Even Michael Morgan, music director of the Oakland East Bay Symphony, hasn’t hired many. An intensely committed black man, he conducted an orchestra for Louis Farrakhan when the leader of the Nation of Islam presented himself- improbably but convincingly- as soloist in the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto. (He’s not particularly a Farrakhan supporter, Morgan says, but he hoped that if “young people learned he’d been playing the violin his whole life, that would make them think differently about European culture.”)

Morgan is outspoken about the difficulties black conductors face, saying, perhaps generously, that “when a board of directors has to choose someone who will be the physical representation of an orchestra, it’s hard to go out on a limb.” So he’s convincing when he says that the problem with orchestral hiring isn’t racism; it’s that there are too few black musicians in the pipeline. Henry Fogel, executive director of the Chicago Symphony, swears, with unabashed naiveté, that he’d “kill to have a black in this orchestra” I’d laugh if Morgan didn’t say that Fogel means it. If the Chicago Symphony needs a new bassoonist and 150 people apply, maybe one or two will be African-American; the chance of one prevailing even in completely blind auditions is clearly very small.

So if you want more blacks in orchestras, you have to start in the community. You have to fight the loss of arts programs in the schools. You have to fight the isolation black classical musicians face, once they enter this mostly white world. Norman Johns, a 46-vear-old black cellist with the Cincinnati Symphony, told me he never knew other black string players until 1972, when he played a gig with Aretha Franklin near Philadelphia. “She was going to cancel if there were not more blacks in the orchestra,” Johns reminisces. “We had folks from New York and D.C. coming down to fill up the string section, and that’s when we began networking.”

In Chicago, a white woman named Jeanette Kreston runs the Chicago Youth Symphony, which, as she tells it, used to be mainly “from the suburbs.” So she started the Chicago Youth Concert Orchestra to train minorities; it’s fed a dozen members into the Youth Symphony. Dorothy Jackson, a black Chicago elementary school and part-time college teacher, whose niece Euletta went through both orchestras, can’t praise Kreston strongly enough: “She’s bending backwards to involve the African-Americans.”

The St. Louis Symphony runs a music school, with branches all over town, including the heart of the inner city. Even more strikingly, the orchestra has relationships with 23 black churches. The result, says Community Relations Manager Kevin Smoot (who grew up in the black community not far from the orchestra’s downtown office), has been “broad participation by African-Americans in nearly every facet of the symphony, even volunteer work.”

The Detroit Symphony does much the same, working through public schools. Like many classical music institutions, it was pushed by funders, most dramatically by two African-American members of the Michigan legislature, who in 1988 held up more than $2 million in funding until the orchestra hired another African-American musician. (They promoted a substitute bass player.)

But now Mark Volpe, the Detroit Symphony’s executive director, sounds like an evangelist. “I forced the issue” he told me. “I told the staff and musicians, `Your job is going to change.”‘ Fully aware of the people whom he hopes will be his future Detroit audience; he won’t allow auditions for new members until minorities apply. He engages black soloists and conductors; his staff is 35 per cent black, his board of directors 20 per cent.

In Chicago, by contrast, Dorothy Jackson wonders “whether there’s a silent agreement that African-Americans won’t be in the symphony” Henry Fogel, admitting that his own outreach is only just beginning, can only say: “If I came from her perspective, I’d probably share that view.”

And what planet is New York on? It’s not that outreach efforts aren’t happening. But can anyone imagine the Philharmonic opening a music school in Bed-Stuy? Given the racial composition of New York’s elite, African-Americans aren’t the standout candidates for board membership, as they are in a smaller, blacker city like Detroit. Still, when I spent a morning with Betty Allen-once a distinguished mezzo soprano, now the president emeritus of the Harlem School of the Arts- I was meeting one of two African-Americans on the 32-member New York City Opera board, one of three on Carnegie Hall’s, which is almost twice as large, and the only one on the 22-member board of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.

This, said Susan Wozel, City Opera’s press director, is something the company’s new general director, Paul Kellog, “wants to address in the future.” Jay Golan, director of development and planning at Carnegie Hall, notes that “every institution has to try to work with the black community in different ways.” Carnegie’s way, he said, is educational outreach in the public schools, and “our board members, black and white, support what we’re doing: Donaldson C. Pillsbury, chairman of the Chamber Music Society’s board, says he has approached  African-Americans but has been turned down. He thinks the problem begins with the training of black musicians: “If there were more African-Americans on the stage, there might be more in the audience, and then we might have more to talk to about joining the board.”

Still, Allen won’t be anybody’s token. She’s proud of how hard she pushes, insisting, for instance, that the Chamber Music Society sponsor a black string quartet. But I can’t help thinking that, by comparison with African-Americans I spoke to in St. Louis, she’s swimming upstream.

Vinson Cole and Evelyn Pollack in 'Rigolette'

Vinson Cole and Evelyn Pollack in 'Rigolette'

This brings me back to Vinson Cole, who said two opera companies had “told my management that they couldn’t hire a black singer with a [white] female partner. It hurts.” He thought of taking legal action, but decided he’d rather be a singer than a cause.

I also called George Shirley, a soaring lyric tenor who somehow did sing leading roles at the Met in the ’60s. “I cannot begin to tell you why,’ he said when I asked how he’d account for his success. But overall he sounded bitter. “It was my experience, he told me, “that the darker the skin color of a [black male] singer, the less likely the singer was to have a successful operatic career.” He advises younger colleagues never to accept a role in Porgy and Bess unless they’re also offered a role from the standard repertory.

Barbara Hendricks, speaking from her home in Switzerland, observed that “black women have been allowed to integrate across the board in a way that black men haven’t. We don’t intimidate, nobody thinks we’re going to jump them” Her words, I realized afterward, were stronger than her tone. She’d nailed that ghastly white fear: black men are sexually dangerous.

What do opera companies say? The Met has always stated that its casting is completely color-blind. On the other hand, Speight Jenkins, who runs the Seattle Opera and does choose black men for leading roles, says straight out that, “Yes, there is racism in the opera world,” though he thinks other company directors aren’t themselves biased. Instead, he says, they worry needlessly about what their white audience will think.

Marc Skorka, president of Opera America, which represents the nation’s opera companies, says he’s “perplexed” Skorka notes “an urgent desire on the part of opera companies to hire singers of color, because audiences are increasingly of color.” But he adds: “How practice may differ from articulated belief, I don’t know.”

It’s possible; of course, opera companies may just be exercising their artistic judgment. Simon Estes, I’m told off the record, simply isn’t very good. Vinson Cole, it’s said, has a small voice and is best at singing French operas, which aren’t often staged. But why aren’t black men singing leading roles when so many black women are? It’s not enough for opera producers to say they don’t discriminate, even if that’s true. The feeling that they’re racist runs so deep among African-Americans in classical music that it has to be addressed, strongly, publicly, and now.

Sandow, Greg. The Classical Color Line. The Village Voice 42:14 (8 April 1997) p. 71-72. Durable URL:

Greg Sandow currently writes classical music reviews for the Wall Street Journal; a column in the NewMusicBox webzine; writing for many other places, including Symphony magazine, the publication of the American Symphony Orchestra League composer, resuming my career after a long hiatus, with a new opera (my fifth) in progress, along with other works consultant for the Philadelphia Orchestra, working on special projects to be announced; I’ve also worked with the St. Louis Symphony and the Philadelphia Orchestra, writing marketing copy for their season brochures that describes the music at each concert; I’m about to do the same for the Pittsburgh Symphony member of the Graduate Studies faculty at Juilliard, teaching two courses — “Music Criticism” and “Classical Music in an Age of Pop.” My detailed account of how I teach that second course appeared in the Journal of Popular Music Studies (Volume 9-10, 1997-1998), published by the U.S. branch of the International Association for the Study of Popular Music.

Greg gives his time to consulting, public speaking, radio broadcasts, chairman of panel discussions for a variety of organizations, including Lincoln Center, the Cleveland Orchestra, the St. Louis Symphony, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Mellon Foundation, Opera America, the American Symphony Orchestra League (I’ve spoken at their national conference in each for the past four years, and one year did an all-day workshop on how to talk about music), the Scottsdale Center for the Arts, the Voice of America, New York Kids (a New York radio show, on which I taught kids to be music critics) and the New York State Council on the Arts


FavPicErica Papillion-Posey is one of the founders and directors of You can learn more about Erica under the ‘About Us’ tab at the top of the page. Her articles are featured on every other Wednesday. Erica welcomes you to comment on her article or email her privately at

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  1. Thank you so very much for writing this article. I am a young African American baritone (23), that has found much discouragement during the auditioning season. I do believe I am a good singer. I have been a member of very good summer training programs such as Brevard and University of Miami in Salzburg, HOWEVER as of late I am not finding much success for the higher caliber training summer institutions. I did a small survery last summer to see how many black male singers were in the top young artist programs. I looked up the roster for several: Washington National, San Francisco, LA, Seattle, Houston and Pittsburgh. There were NO black male singers present, with the exception of Donovan Singletary at the MET.. I love what I do, but each day Europe becomes more appealing. Which is fine. I just find it sad that black singers STILL have to go abroad to find success in the operatic world, atleast for black men it seems that way.

  2. Thank you for posting this. As an Opera Singer of color, it’s difficult to explain to people that this is still an issue.

  3. Thank you for this insightful article. I am an African American male classical/jazz singer. I am still pursuing my undergraduate degree in music education because of this reason. The U.S. would rather have a black male music teacher, rather than a black male in an operatic leading role. My goal in life is to sing at least one leading role or supporting role at the MET even if I have to take legal action. Thank you, and have a great one!!!!!!

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