6 Black Opera Singers Who Changed the Game

February is the month of many things; scrambling to find a decent gift for your significant other for Valentine’s Day, praising the heavens for that three-day weekend for Presidents’ Day and — of course — Black History Month. From Jesse Owens’ historic achievements at the 1936 Summer Olympics to Bessie Coleman’s accomplishment of becoming the first Black female pilot in 1922 — achievements by Black individuals throughout American history are abundant.

But what about the opera world? We’ve rounded up six (although there are plenty more!) opera singers who changed the landscape of the art!

Tenor George Shirley and soprano Leontyne Price rehearse for"Così fan tutte" (Photo Rights: RCA Victor Records)

Tenor George Shirley and soprano Leontyne Price rehearse for Così fan tutte (Photo Rights: RCA Victor Records)

Camilla Williams

Photo: Carl Van Vechten (1946)

Soprano Camilla Williams (Photo: Carl Van Vechten 1946)

Camilla Williams was an American soprano who regularly performed around the world. She was the first African-American to receive a regular contract with a major American opera company — the New York City Opera — as well as the first African-American to sing a major role with the Vienna State Opera. As a soloist, Williams toured throughout the United States, as well as in Asia and Australia. After retiring from opera, she was the first African-American appointed as Professor of Voice at Indiana University. Williams died in 2012 leaving behind a decorated legacy.

Learn more about Camilla Williams here.

Simon Estes

Simon Estes in 2017

Born in 1938, Estes began his operatic career as a bass-baritone in the 1960s, singing at numerous opera houses around the world and for various political figures and presidents — including Bill Clinton, Desmond Tutu, and Nelson Mandela. During the 1960 and 70s, Estes performed at prestigious European opera houses: La Scala, Hamburg State Opera, and Vienna State Opera to name a few. In 1978, Estes became the first Black male to sing a leading role at the Bayreuth Festival when he sang the title role in Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman. At 79, Estes is currently a visiting Professor of Music at the Des Moines Area Community College (DMACC) Ankeny Campus.

Learn more about Simon Estes here.

Leontyne Price

Soprano Leontyne Price (Photo: Carl Van Vechten 1953)

Soprano Leontyne Price (Photo: Carl Van Vechten 1953)

Perhaps no American opera singer in history, regardless of race, has achieved as much universal respect as soprano Leontyne Price. Born in Laurel, Miss. in 1927, Price’s career began as a student at The Juilliard School, where her performance as Alice Ford in Verdi’s Falstaff in 1952 garnered her early acclaim. She is best known for her operatic interpretations of operas by Giuseppe Verdi and Giacomo Puccini, not to mention her proclivity for new works from composers such as Samuel Barber. In 1966, Price sang at the inaugural performance at the new Metropolitan Opera house at Lincoln Center, starring as Cleopatra in the world premiere of Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra. She would eventually sing 201 performances at the Met in 16 productions, and has also been honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Kennedy Center Honor, the National Medal of Arts and many more. Price recently celebrated her 91st birthday and can be seen in Susan Froemke’s 2017 documentary The Opera House.

Learn more about Leontyne Price and her first performance at Lincoln Center here.

George Shirley

Tenor George Shirley

Detroit native George Shirley paved the way for many young African-American tenors in the industry, and not just on the operatic stage — in 1955, he became the first African-American to serve as a high school music teacher in Detroit. In addition, he was the first Black singer to win the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions in 1961, and well as the first African-American tenor to sing a leading role at the Met when he made his debut there as Ferrando in Così fan tutte later that year. Shirley would go on to sing 28 roles in 26 operas during his 11 seasons at the Met, and he eventually joined the voice faculty at University of Maryland. He then assumed the position as Director of Vocal Arts at University of Michigan. In 2015, he was presented a National Medal of the Arts from then-President of the United States Barack Obama.

Learn more about George Shirley here.

Marian Anderson

Contralto Marian Anderson (Photo: Carl Van Vechten 1940)

Marian Anderson is, undoubtedly, one of the most celebrated classical singers in the 20th century. A beautiful contralto (there aren’t nearly enough in the world!), Anderson preferred to sing in concert and recital, but made one groundbreaking operatic appearance at the Metropolitan Opera in 1955, as Ulrica in Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera, when she became the Met’s first Black soloist. Her most iconic performance came even earlier, however. After the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to let Anderson sing at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C., First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and President Franklin D. Roosevelt aided in making arrangements for Anderson to perform in a critically acclaimed open-air concert on Easter Sunday, April 9, 1939, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Anderson died at 96 in 1993.

Learn more about Marian Anderson here.

Grace Bumbry

Grace Bumbry

Grace Bumbry

Mezzo-soprano Grace Bumbry was known for her fiery passion and dramatic performances on the stage. With a career spanning over 60 years, Bumbry was part of the pioneering generation of Black opera singers that followed Marian Anderson, paving the road for later classical musicians and opera singers. With her mastery of the bel canto technique, Bumbry is one of the more successful singers who made the difficult transition from mezzo-soprano to high soprano. She has performed at such opera houses at Royal Opera House, La Scala, Met Opera, Basel Opera, and Philadelphia Lyric Opera Company among many (many, many, many) others. Bumbry even sang at LA Opera, performing the role of Lady Macbeth in Verdi’s Macbeth in 1987. On Dec. 6, 2009, she was among those honored with the 2009 Kennedy Center Honors, for her many contributions to the performing arts. Bumbry is currently 81.

Learn more about Grace Bumbry here.

Bonus! Conductor Henry Lewis

Conductor Henry Lewis

Conductor Henry Lewis

Henry Lewis may not be an opera singer, but he was vital in the development of classical music here in Los Angeles. Joining the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the age of 16, Lewis was the first African-American instrumentalist in a major symphony orchestra. In 1968, Lewis founded the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra and  toured as a guest conductor in all of the major opera houses, where he often conducted performances starring his wife, the sensational mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne. Through it all, he remained a true local boy, living for many years in Echo Park before his death in 1996.

Learn more about Henry Lewis here.

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27 Responses to 6 Black Opera Singers Who Changed the Game

  1. P. Phillips says:

    What about Thomas Young – tenor?

  2. Renita says:

    Thank for sharing!

  3. Thank you for putting some attention in these prolific opera singers.
    I met Leontyne when I was 20 and having problems with learning Italian. She was doing a recital at El Camino College and I was a vocal arts major at USC. I asked her if she ever had a problem learning Italian. She stopped the autograph line and took me aside and spoke to me. My life was changed in an instant.
    I’ve had a pretty good career as an classical/opera singer and vocal instructor for many years now. She saw how important it was for a young black singer to continue in the business and not let the languages stop me.

  4. Sheila Anne Dawson-Jones says:

    Robert McFerrin Sr…Great Baritone…1st at Met..

  5. Sheila Anne Dawson-Jones says:

    Robert McFerrin Sr…Great Baritone…1st at Met..

  6. George Xenias says:

    Shouldn’t Martina Arroyo and Shirley Verett be in the list too?

  7. Damjan says:

    Wonderful post!
    However, there is one huge and important name mussing…Shirley Verrett! The only singer in the history of Scala to receive an Open Contract for three seasons, after her immeasurable success as Lady Macbeth at the Opening Night of the 73/74 Season. This is just but a drop in the sea of huge firsts and enormous successes for La Verrett.

  8. Harriet Lindblom says:

    What about Robert McFerrin, the first male African American to sing at the Metropolitan Opera, in the 1950’s. His son is Bobby McFerrin.

  9. Carrington Bibuld says:

    Where is the great Ben Matthews!!!

  10. Thea Derks says:

    Thanks for sharing! Recently Julia Bullock deeply impressed me as Anne Trulove at Dutch National Opera. https://theaderks.wordpress.com/2018/01/31/julia-bullock-sings-anne-truelove-in-therakesprogress-anne-is-a-very-mature-woman/

  11. Clint Rosemond says:

    If my memory serves me correctly, the father of pop star Bobby McFerrin sang with the Met back in 1947 or thereabouts. Am I correct or am I imaging things. His name was Robert McFerrin and he was a baritone. The family lived in Los Angeles around Pico and Gramercy Place.

  12. Clint Rosemond says:

    I checked and yes, Robert McFerrin, father of pop star “Bobby” McFerrin did sing with the Met in 1953. He was the first African American male to achieve that status, following Marion Anderson. He sang in several productions before leaving the Met.

  13. Elizabeth Taylor says:

    How about Todd Duncan-Gershwin’s personally chosen, original Porgy. He refused to sing where he could not buy a ticket, thus integrating National Theater in DC. An amazing man, singer, & teacher.

  14. Alison Trainer says:

    Wonderful! So happy to see my former teacher Camilla Williams mentioned here. Boy did she go through it. She told me that when she started singing, she was not allowed into the front entrance of the opera house.

  15. Bill Doggett says:

    Thank you for posting this. This is Bill Doggett, one of the founding members of Peter Hemmings’ 1994 Initiative:African Americans for LA Opera. I served for 5 years 1994-99 as the youngest member. I am also a Black Opera historian and archivist with a extraordinary independent Archive dedicated to The Black Opera Singer history on The West Coast 1925-1975. This is the first time in LA Opera’s 30+ year history that I have seen this Congratulations. For a future exhibition at Dorothy Chandler Pavillion, I would invite LA Opera to also consider my well received treatise on African American Concert/Opera Singers published by The San Francisco History Museum in Summer 2015 in their Journal, The Argonaut. Available on Amazon https://www.amazon.com/dp/1495186008

  16. David E.Starkey says:

    Great post! Check also the current great African-American singers, especially Lawrence Brownlee-Tenor Thanks David E.Starkey

  17. John Woodford says:

    No Robeson? He was the definitive game-changer in more than one game.

  18. Stephen West says:

    And George Shirley continues to teach today as Distinguished Emeritus Professor of Voice in the School of Music, Theatre & Dance at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. More than that, he is still singing! The man is an historical figure, and a great human being.

  19. Rosenda Moore says:

    Thanks for posting this, about these great artists of opera music. A few years ago I saw a wonderful documentary about Black opera singers titled Aida’s Brothers and Sister that featured wonderful fascinating interviews with many, including Grace Bumbry, Simon Estes, and George Shirley.

  20. Trudy B. Taliaferro says:

    Simon Estes continues to teach as well, colleges in Iowa primarily, where he is their revered native son. He just concertized and taught a master class in Sacramento, California on February 4th and 5th. Still singing, he’ll be 80 in two weeks! A wonderful artist, teacher and humanitarian!

  21. Barbara Suggs Mason says:

    What about Mattiwilda Dobbs? One of the first Black singers to perform at the Met. Spelman grad. Spent a lot of time in Europe – part of the Black Expatriates. Light soprano voice. I studied with her at the University of Illinois. She left there and spent the reminder of her teaching career at Howard. A quiet, but delightful woman!

    • Shelley Hill says:

      Along with Mattiwilda Dobbs, Reri Grist is an incredible soprano decades before Kathleen Battle, who is also missing in this article.

  22. Simmons says:

    There’s a 1963 recording of William Warfied and Leontyne Price singing “Bess, You Is My Woman Now” from Porgy & Bess. I was driving when I heard it on the local PBS station in honor of Black History month. I had to pull over and weep. I could not stop crying. It was beyond breathtaking and I knew what both of them had to endure along their way. The voices. So much.

  23. Rob says:

    Also: Gloria Davy, Matiwilda Dobbs, Martina Arroyo, Margaret Tyne’s, Felicia Weathers other great ones besides those already mentioned.

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