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  • Blake Hill-Saya

Still, We Rise

Black History Month 2021 has yielded an enthusiastic effort in the operatic community to celebrate the forgotten history of Black classical musicians. It has been gratifying to see these infrequently spoken names being mined like newly precious ore: Le Chevalier de Saint-George “The Black Mozart”; Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield, “The Black Swan”; Matilda Sissieretta Joyner Jones, “The Black Patti”; Marian Anderson; Jules Bledsoe; Robert McFerrin; Caterina Jarboro; Paul Robeson; Mattiwilda Dobbs; Camilla Williams; George Shirley; Leontyne Price; Grace Bumbry; Roland Hayes; William Warfield; Shirley Verrett “The Black Callas”; Reri Grist; Simon Estes; Martina Arroyo. There are so many more.

Black voices and musicianship have been a vital and irreplaceable part of music history since the mid 18th Century; Mozart and “Black Mozart”, Italian soprano Adelina Patti, and “Black Patti”. These contributions existed in tandem but never on the same footing. The social construct of race and the white supremacist caste system based around it has historically viewed Black classical talent as legitimate only in reference to white or European talent. Even in the 1960s, we had to qualify a towering operatic talent like Shirley Verrett as the “Black Callas”, comparing her to an utterly incomparable Greek soprano who sang some of the same repertoire (Callas was not called “The Greek Verrett”). These two extraordinary talents needed no point of reference to be equally enjoyed. Only one needed a qualifier.

Black American singers and classical artists have been present, capable and in the public eye since Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield embarked on her national tour in 1851, and her European tour in 1854 which included Buckingham Palace. American society, classical music history, and the gatekeepers of opera in particular, however, have been unwilling to dilute the institutionalized myth of white supremacy with 170 years of Black musical excellence. Black contributions to classical music history are still viewed as if they happened in a parallel universe or as an aberration. The mainstream opera consciousness usually only sheds light on these names, for instance, within the framework of Black History Month. This duality framework causes classical musical genius that happens to blossom in Black bodies to be limited to a few slots in order to not undermine the very myths that European classical arts are rooted in. Given half a chance the natural Iconoclasm of social progress can and will refresh these myths and modernize these timeless human stories. Massive successes in the last five years have been achieved through reimagined historic storytelling; the recent phenomenon of Bridgerton, Hamilton, The Black Panther franchise, the increasing popularity of Black ballet dancers, and the social media outcry for a Black James Bond are just a few examples. The question of whether audiences can relate to historically European characters if inhabited by interpreters of color and with more modern sensibilities, has been answered with a resounding YES. Notwithstanding these other winds of change, Opera in many cases has still chosen to justify its gatekeeping by implying that Black singers with world class professional preparation and talent are rare.

This is a lie we must stop telling, hearing and allowing.

The existence of every Black voice in the history of opera proves that music and the ability to interpret it, embody it, and keep it alive at an outstanding level knows no color. Only the American caste system based on race makes it necessary to sort genius into greater and lesser lanes of access and contribution.

These default institutional settings are why my incredibly expensive musical education did not cover even one of these Black contributors to classical music history. Unexamined white supremacist norms are why I have to find out about Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield, Sissieretta Jones, Antoinette Garnes, Ruby Elzy, Madame Dawson’s Opera Company and the Black Swan record label on my own. My conservatory education should have included how Minstrel shows derailed and diluted the nobility of Black classical talent into a mockery of itself to restore the myth of white dominance, every bit as much as the monuments to confederate generals did in the town square. The myth that historic Black excellence is the exception to the rule, and the unwillingness to put that rule in context, is as insidious and damaging as any overt racial slur.

In the last 20 years Black opera singers have been regarded not unlike exceptional athletes in the public eye; admired and even idolized unless they “take a knee” become “difficult”, “political” or “ungrateful”. Any singer’s career can disappear in a single interaction. Challenge the wrong administrator or powerful colleague and your talent will never be world class enough to overcome their personal vendetta or displeasure. This fear of losing everything too often acts as a deterrent to the conversations around representation and cultural sensitivity that could bring real change. Living with that suppressive underpinning (along with the daily challenges of race in this country) can be exhausting in a way that can simply shut artists and their talent down. Those who have broken through are that much more to be admired for their vision. Thankfully, organizations like the Black Opera Alliance have stepped up to challenge the industry on behalf of Black classical artists; to educate and elevate the conversation around diversity and push for real change so that individual singers don’t suffer career ending defamation through their activism. This, as well as the elevation of many Black candidates this year to leadership roles, is a massive development in the landscape of the industry. There is hope on the horizon, but the road to real change is long.

We need to start asking the deeper questions like why “it is the way it is”. We need to find out what nurtures and welcomes Black, Indigenous, & People of Color (BIPOC) who dream of participating in opera. We should love this art form hard enough to risk the discomfort and vulnerability of exploratory surgery to find out where the healing can begin. I applaud all of those already fully engaged in this work.

I too am working harder to make up for what my education omitted. This week I discovered a stunning Black voice I had never heard of. When I listen to this recording of Mrs. Antoinette Garnes from 1922 (the first Black soprano to join a major American company) singing Caro Nome with a glorious technique, I feel like she is a long lost link in my soprano lineage that has at last clicked into place. Her legato displays perfect breath pressure, her staccato, precise and easy, pings on my eardrums and my forehead in all the right places. I think of every audition I ever sang this for, and how she must have too, against more odds than I will ever know. Here she is, spinning on a victrola on YouTube ninety-nine years later, because historian Bill Doggett cared enough to save her work as a precious artifact of Black operatic nobility. I will not forget her name, her talent or her rightful place in operatic history on March 1st, or ever again. Join me in recovering and respecting the rightful place of Black classical voices in American history on an equal footing and in plain sight from this day forward.

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