In the middle of October, I got some amazing news: I had been nominated for the Marian Anderson Awards 2016! To be nominated for an award named after the great and courageous American contralto who broke barriers and changed the world with her singing was a heartening surprise. I was, and still am, thoroughly moved and deeply honored. About a week before this news appeared in my inbox, I had been feeling that I wanted and needed some formal acknowledgement for my work, so I resumed my practice of forgiveness. At some point, I finally learned that whenever I feel stuck, going deeper with forgiveness opens a new path for me. So, I started with that. Then, within days, this nomination came literally OUT OF THE BLUE! And, this recognition was so perfect.
For some reason, I have always felt deeply connected to Marian Anderson. I imagine that Marian Anderson means the world to all singers (and all people for that matter), but she certainly means the world to me for so many reasons. She busted barriers not through violence but rather with her extraordinary inner and outer beauty and God-given, God-blessed extraordinary gift of singing for which she persevered with grace and glory through so much ignorance. Her example always gives me inspiration. But where did she find the inner and outer resources to stay so clear and focused to continue nurturing her talent and give so deeply of herself?
Years ago, I found out about Roland Hayes. I was fascinated, so I bought a CD of his singing. I felt surprised and fortunate to have found it. Here was a singer, born in 1887 to freed slaves, who had found artistic and financial success, as well as prestige, at a time when people from the African race could not make a career in opera. Certainly, no African-American classical singer had been signed with any kind of artistic management nor offered any recording contract. However, Roland Hayes was such an ingenious and resourceful man that, by 1924, he became one of the highest paid singers in the world. In 1932, he was one of the wealthiest concert singers in the United States. That first time I listened to the CD of Roland Hayes, I heard a tenor with enormous sincerity and purpose who expressed a depth of emotion conveyed through his power of communication.
But, I’m writing today about Marian Anderson, so I need to get back to the question of where she found that deep well within her that could keep her going in a world that appeared so deeply antagonistic toward her because of the color of her skin. I remember, years ago, finding a wonderful documentary on Marian Anderson’s life which I love. In that documentary, she describes herself as a very young singer getting to sing in a recital at her church with the very famous Roland Hayes. She was so excited she couldn’t sleep. She describes how he carried himself with so much dignity and explains what his example meant to her. So, there is a clue. In the face of all the racism of the 20th century, she learned from Roland Hayes’ example that if she could focus on doing something worthwhile and share it with the world, perhaps she could make a difference. And, so she did!
It really was Anderson’s own perseverance and fame that helped pave the way for herself and other Black artists. She quietly and purposefully insisted on changing the racist seating rules in concert halls, and because so many people of all races wanted to hear her, by 1950, she would refuse to sing in segregated halls. Herein lies the lesson for us all. Many singers face enormous challenges in ‘getting in.’ So often, the business of singing seems to be full of manipulation, dysfunction, arbitrary decision-making and closed doors. Doors were tightly shut for Roland Hayes, Marian Anderson and other Black artists at that time, but somehow, they found a way, an opening into a much richer singing world with a deeper purpose. When Anderson was barred from singing at Constitution Hall, Eleanor Roosevelt opened the door to an audience of thousands who could hear the great Marian Anderson perform in front of the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday in 1939. Even after such a momentous occasion, it took the Metropolitan Opera another 16 years before they welcomed her into the fold. Finally, on January 7, 1955, she broke the ‘color barrier’ and made history as the first African-American artist to sing on the Metropolitan Opera stage, singing Ulrica in Verdi’s UN BALLO IN MASCHERA.
Certainly, it is a pity for the Met that they kept such splendid artists as Roland Hayes, Marian Anderson and Todd Duncan from making rich contributions to their productions. Their audiences missed out, and these artists missed the opportunity to create their operatic characters and express their glorious artistry on the stage of their country’s most treasured opera theater. Their frustration and disappointment must have been severe, but through forgiveness and faith, they brought us something so much more.
When I was still a student at Eastman School of Music, I went to Washington, D.C. to sing to Todd Duncan. I was connected to him through a former student of his, and I was hoping he could teach me the following year. I remember going into his studio, singing to him and feeling a sense of safety and peace. He was a gentle giant with huge hands and a very kind and warm heart. He said he would teach me, but in the end, I decided not to go. About 2 years after I made the decision not to go to Washington, D.C. to study with Todd Duncan, I moved across the country in my packed 6 year old Nissan Sentra to study with the great mezzo soprano Blanche Thebom in San Francisco. When I was studying with her, I found out how her career started. As a teenager, she was on a boat traveling to Sweden with her parents where she was heard singing in the ship’s lounge by the Finnish composer and pianist Kosti Vehanen, who often accompanied Marian Anderson. Impressed with Thebom’s talent, Vehanen arranged for Thebom to study singing in NYC and eventually got her signed with the great impressario Sol Hurok who also managed Anderson’s career. What I learned only recently is that the teacher Vehanen arranged for Thebom to study with was Giuseppe Boghetti, who also had a strong connection to Marian Anderson, as he taught Anderson from 1919 until his early death in 1941.
Interestingly enough, over the years, I have worked with several singers who had strong connections with Todd Duncan. In fact, at the time that Duncan passed away, I was working with a dramatic coach who had been a student of Duncan and gave a eulogy to him in class. I have often thought about how it must have felt for Todd Duncan to have been ignored by the opera world. It must have been extremely difficult to watch others get opportunities that could have and should have belonged to him. Yet, Todd Duncan got something more profound than any conventional operatic career could have brought him. He got to work with George Gershwin while gaining world-renown and a place in history as the original Porgy in Gershwin’s PORGY and BESS. And so, we remember him.
I often hear that the greater the struggle, the greater the reward. Indeed, these singular artists were uniquely rewarded, and all of us reap the benefits from the legacy they left behind. They paved the way for the incomparable Leontyne Price to make her mark, as well as William Warfield, Shirley Verrett, George Shirley, a beloved teacher of mine Seth McCoy, and many others. I love how Leontyne Price responds to a question about how it felt to make her Metropolitan Opera debut. She says, “I felt so totally American! That’s the only way I can describe it. So richly American! My country gave me this opportunity and this space, and I was thrilled beyond belief. . . . My country gave me that space, and I claimed it. And I will never, ever, ever forget it!”
Alan Rickman, the great actor who died last week, said, “Actors are agents of change. A film, a piece of theater, a piece of music, or a book can make a difference. It can change the world.” If you are a classical singer, how are you focused on making a difference in the world? Where is your focus? If you are focused on ‘being famous’ or ‘singing at the Met,’ I invite you to go deeper and ask yourself different questions. How are you serving your art form which in turn serves humanity? How does your life and work inspire others to become an agent of change? We are all links in a chain to make the world a more lovely place to be, and only you can do your part. With clarity of purpose lighting your way, you, too, can navigate through uncharted territory and find the path that only you can take.