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The Slow but Triumphant Path of the African American Opera Singer
For as long as Americans have sung opera, there have been great African American
singers, but their engagement by the largest US opera companies was a long time coming.
In the first part of the 20th century, such remarkable artists as the mezzo-soprano
Marian Anderson, the tenor Roland Hayes, and the bass-baritone Paul Robeson were not
engaged. Many others, such as an artist of the caliber of Josephine Baker, never tried.
The glass ceiling for women singers was shattered in 1961 with the Metropolitan Opera debut of Leontyne Price. Other talented sopranos and mezzos followed, but where were the men? General directors of opera companies across the country were frankly afraid of audience reaction in putting male African Americans in romantic situations with Caucasian females. Only since the turn of this century, when colorblind casting became frequent, have superb tenors such as Lawrence Brownlee or Russell Thomas been given the roles they deserved. In this lecture, the successful paths of these and other African American opera singers will be discussed, with examples of what we missed and what we have recently gained.
Speight Jenkins, General Director of Seattle Opera, Emeritus
Speight Jenkins led Seattle Opera from 1983 through 2014, producing ninety-two separate operas and traveling extensively in Europe and the United States. In 1981, he became the Metropolitan Opera’s host on the nationally televised Live from the Met broadcasts. He received a JD from Columbia and honorary doctorates from Seattle University, the University of Puget Sound, and the New England Conservatory.