Six Black Voices that Transformed Opera
As Black History Month comes to a close, we honor six legendary singers who graced our stages over the past century.
Marian Anderson, Roland Hayes, Jessye Norman, Leontyne Price, Paul Robeson, and George Shirley are just a few of many Black trailblazers in the world of opera who overcame countless barriers in the face of adversity. Their talents, tenacity, and powerful voices on and off the stage paved the way for generations of great artists to come.
UMS is honored to be a part of their musical history. We also acknowledge that in our own 142-year-old history as a performing arts institution, many works we have presented — including classical and operatic repertoire brilliantly performed by singers of color — are rooted in racist origins from Western European traditions.
We owe it to our great artists to elevate past and present Black art and culture, and to educate ourselves and our audiences with an unwavering commitment to anti-racism.
Please join us in celebrating the stories and voices of these magnificent performers. We encourage you to follow linked articles and media for further exploration.
Marian Anderson (1897–1993)
Marian Anderson, the pioneering contralto, fought throughout her career to break barriers and make music history. Though Anderson had success in high-profile voice competitions in the mid-1920s, she was infrequently recognized on American stages until a string of successful European tours between 1930–35. She made her UMS debut in 1937 with a program featuring arias from Handel, Schubert, and Sibelius, and concluded with four spirituals. Anderson returned to UMS the following three years, performing during the May Festival with the Philadelphia Orchestra and on the Choral Union series.
Between her 1938 and 1939 UMS performances, Anderson was thrust onto the national stage. On Easter Sunday 1939, Anderson had been scheduled to perform at Constitution Hall in Washington, DC. However, the owners of the hall, the Daughters of the American Revolution, prohibited her from performing due to their “white performers-only” policy. This decision angered First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who subsequently renounced her membership and invited Anderson to give an open-air concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. 75,000 people were in attendance and over a million tuned in over radio for the critically acclaimed recital.
Throughout her career, Anderson continued to make history. She was the first Black artist to sing a leading role with the Metropolitan Opera, served as a delegate to the United Nations Human Rights Committee, and sang at the March on Washington. By her final UMS performance in 1965, she had inspired generations.
Roland Hayes (1887–1977)
Tenor Roland Hayes was born in Curryville, GA, in 1887, to parents who were former slaves. At an early age, Hayes sang African American spirituals that he learned from his elders. In his teenage years in Chattanooga, TN, he continued this tradition, teaching spirituals to the congregation at church.
Hayes received vocal training with a local organist and choir director in Chattanooga, who introduced him to recordings of great singers of the time, including Enrico Caruso. In Hayes’s own words, Caruso’s voice ” opened the heavens for me….the beauty of what could be done with the voice just overwhelmed me.” He was determined to make singing a career and pursued studies at Fisk University, joining the Fisk Jubilee Singers. The ensemble gave him his first glimpse of touring life as an artist.
His career is beautifully summarized by the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery:
“Initially rebuffed by professional managers because of his race, Hayes arranged and promoted his own concerts, steadily gaining recognition while touring from coast to coast. In 1920 he traveled to Europe, where he gave a command performance for British royalty and won over a hostile crowd in Berlin. Returning to the United States in 1923, Hayes continued to break new ground, appearing as a soloist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and pushing for integrated seating at his concerts in southern cities.”
Hayes performed twice in Hill Auditorium under UMS auspices, in 1926 and 1929.
Jessye Norman (1945 – 2019)
Jessye Norman, legendary American soprano, five-time Grammy Award winner, National Medal of Arts and Kennedy Center Honors recipient, and University of Michigan alumna, performed on nine programs over her 39-year performance history in Ann Arbor.
Norman credited Marian Anderson as one of her earliest inspirations. Norman once recounted, “At age 10 I heard, for the first time, the singing of Marian Anderson on a recording. I listened, thinking, ‘This can’t be just a voice, so rich and beautiful.’ It was a revelation. And I wept.”
After studying at Interlochen Center for the Arts, Norman attended Howard University, the Peabody Conservatory, and the University of Michigan where she earned her Master’s degree in 1968 (and an Honorary Doctorate in 1987). As was noted at the time of her 1973 UMS debut, “In the few short years since she attended the University of Michigan,” [Norman has] become a world-celebrated singer” with performances at major opera houses in Munich, Berlin, Rome and Milan.
Norman remained fiercely individual in her repertoire throughout her career. In a 1987 interview with the New York Times, she explained, “I’m not interested in so-called mainstream repertory…To sing roles with which I have no empathy would be wrong. I sing ‘Aida’ because it’s right for me. I sing Mozart, Wagner and Richard Strauss because I love them. But what really interests me is the music of Monteverdi, Rameau, Purcell, Berlioz, Stravinsky. It’s music I can relate to, and it’s music of immense beauty.”
This was clearly reflected in the immensity and variety of works Norman performed in Hill Auditorium, with recitals that ranged from Handel to Berg on the same program. In her final UMS appearance in 2012, she performed John Cage’s Song Books with the San Francisco Symphony, Meredith Monk, and others.
Leontyne Price (1927–)
Born in Laurel, MS, Leontyne Price was captivated by music from a young age, listening to the choir at St. Paul Methodist Church and beginning piano lessons at age 5. She attended Juilliard, and subsequently had a thriving early career on Broadway in various productions including Ira Gershwin’s 1952 revival of Porgy and Bess. In 1955, she starred in the title role of NBC’s TV production of Tosca, launching her into public notoriety.
Two years later, Price made her UMS debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra. About the performance, UMS Programming Director Michael Kondziolka wrote, “Price had a double debut when she first came to UMS for the May Festival in 1957. Not only was it her first performance in Ann Arbor, but it was also her first public performance of the title role of Aida, a character she went on to own and dominate in every important opera house in the world.” Price would go on to visit Ann Arbor eight times during her career.
Beyond her performances of Aida, Price is remembered as the first Black singer to become a leading performer at the Metropolitan Opera. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1964, the Kennedy Center Honors in 1980, and the National Medal of Arts in 1985.
Paul Robeson (1898–1976)
Scholar, athlete, singer, actor, and activist Paul Robeson was a true Renaissance man, who first performed with UMS in 1931 in a program of spirituals, show tunes, and classical songs.
Born in Princeton, NJ, Robeson was only the third African American student admitted to Rutgers University, where he was both a football star and valedictorian of his class. At his 1919 Commencement, he delivered a speech entitled “The New Idealism,” which challenged a mostly white audience to have “a greater openness of mind, a greater willingness to try new lines of advancement, a greater desire to do the right things and to serve social ends” toward national unity.
While continuing law studies at Columbia University, Robeson explored acting — which would propel his life over the next decades as a theatrical performer and concert singer. “Ol’ Man River” in Show Boat was written for Robeson’s bass-baritone voice, and he became the first African American to play Othello on Broadway.
Alongside his artistic career, Robeson became a fierce warrior for social justice. He notably launched an antilynching crusade to put pressure on President Truman as new legislation remained unpopular in the South. In the 1950s, Robeson would become blacklisted during the paranoia of McCarthyism upon suspicion of communist sympathies.
George Shirley (1934–)
George Shirley is a distinguished professor emeritus of voice at the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance. He first joined the U-M faculty in 1987.
Born in Indianapolis and raised in Detroit, Shirley became the first African American to be appointed to a high school teaching post in music in Detroit. He was also the first African American member of the United States Army Chorus in Washington, DC, and the first African American tenor and second African American male to sing leading roles with the Metropolitan Opera, where he remained for eleven years.
In a career that spanned five decades, Shirley performed more than 80 operatic roles in major opera houses around the globe with many of the world’s most renowned conductors. He received a Grammy Award in 1968 for his role (Ferrando) in the RCA recording of Mozart’s Così fan tutte.
In 2014, George Shirley received a National Medal of Arts award, our nation’s highest award for artists and arts patrons, from President Barack Obama.
Shirley’s performances with UMS date back to 1973. Learn more from our 2019 interview about his life and career: