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Peter Quantrill
Gramophone, November 2009

An engaging and thought-provoking history from Jan Schmidt-Garre

Jan Schmidt-Carre has made four films since the 1992 biopic of Sergiu Celibidache (8/09), all of them musical in theme and subtle in direction. The latest follows Anne-Sophie Mutter and Sofia Gubaidulina as they work on her new violin concerto, In tempus praesens. His previous film of 2000, reissued here, explores a potentially explosive topic with open-ended sympathy. John Ardoin is credited as script-writer, but the history of black singers overcoming racism and prejudice is mostly told by the singers themselves, Shirley Verrett, Reri Grist and Grace Bumbry in particular, and if George Shirley and Simon Estes are outnumbered, then Shirley’s rhetorical question offers a pointed explanation: if you’re not bothered by Zinka Milanov singing Aida, why is the idea of him singing a French nobleman still uncomfortable?

The film’s tour of the issues such as what makes a black voice allows for a brief excursion on what might make a black opera: the debate over Porgy and Bess is crystallised by Edward Said, for whom it’s “condescending”, and Bobby McFerrin, with his praise for Gershwin’s attempt to “understand the black experience”. The extracts are too brief to give pleasure in themselves (and it’s a shame they are unsubtitled), except for Marion Anderson singing “Ave Maria” at Christmas 1939 and Jessye Norman as Strauss’s Ariadne, both lit from within by unshakeable technique and faith in their own powers of communication. Norman and Leontyne Price have probably been the most visible representatives of black voices in opera, and the film perhaps loses a little authority without their personal witness. In compensation, we see Price dedicating her appearance in 1982 at the convention of the ballgowned and beribboned Daughters of the American Revolution to the memory of Anderson, whom the convention had infamously shunned in 1939.

The film ends on a downbeat, with Paul Robeson’s eloquent fury at being forbidden to travel outside the US for his communist sympathies and “Anti-American” activities.

By declining invitations to star at the great opera houses, Robeson chose not to be a standard-bearer for Black participation in the temples of White culture—a role left to Price in particular—but became the fulcrum to unite issues of racial, class and cultural equality. The path to those temples is rockier now than it was in the age of the black diva. Back in 1999, Verrett hopes that “the Metropolitan can get back to the place that it was”. Whatever they tried hasn’t worked: Nicole Cabell is the sole singer of African-American ancestry scheduled to take a lead role at either the Met or Chicago Lyric Opera in the 2009–10 season.

Jason Victor Serinus
Bay Area Reporter, September 2009

Released in 2000, this just-transferred-to DVD features historic performances by and interviews with many of the pivotal black classical singers of preceding decades. They, Bobby McFerrin, and several notable historians and stage directors have quite a story to tell. There’s outstanding footage of the great contralto Marian Anderson, whom first lady Eleanor Roosevelt invited to perform at the Lincoln Memorial in 1939 after the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) barred her from singing in Constitution Hall. In her footsteps comes one of San Francisco’s favorite divas, soprano Leontyne Price, who followed Anderson to the stage of the Metropolitan Opera in 1961. Forty-three years after Anderson was barred from Constitution Hall, Price sang like a queen before the stuffy DAR. The way she ends her aria could serve as an object lesson of how to send audiences into delirium.

Throughout the DVD, artists of major stature discuss all the glories, paradoxes, indignities, contradictions and triumphs black artists continue to face in the classical arena. The vocal excerpts are glorious—Jessye Norman’s snippet from Richard Strauss’ opera Ariadne auf Naxos is alone worth the price of admission, and Price and Paul Robeson are incomparable. The oft-provoking insights into racial stereotyping are essential.

“If you are not bothered by [a white singer portraying an Ethiopian or Moor], then why would you be bothered by the fact that I’m an African-American singing the role of a French nobleman?” asks tenor George Shirley. Ten years after the great Shirley Verrett declared, “We’re going backward,” a weakening of laws fostering equal opportunity for all makes this DVD more relevant than ever.

John Terauds
Toronto Star, August 2009

Leontyne Price opened the new Metropolitan Opera House (in the premiere of Samuel Barber’s Anthony & Cleopatra). Grace Bumbry was the first African-American to sing Wagner at the Bayreuth Festival. These two milestones came less than 30 years after Marian Anderson had been dropped from a Washington, D.C. concert lineup in 1939 because the Daughters of the American Revolution could not stomach having a non-white singer on stage.

Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of the U.S. President, publicly resigned her membership in the Daughters and was instrumental in inviting Marian Anderson to sing at the Lincoln Memorial in front of 75,000 people.

This 1999 documentary by Jan Schmidt-Garre and Mrieke Schroeder uses these events as a jumping off points in a multi-layered, 90-minute look at the history and evolution of African-American singers on the opera stage. Interviewed are many great names from the recent past, including sopranos Price, Bumbry, lyric soprano Reri Grist and mezzo Betty Allen (who died on June 22, aged 79), interspersed with period video footage.

The weakest element in this otherwise absorbing documentary is a series of new opera snippets used to link themes together. Otherwise, this is a neatly structured look at an important slice of operatic history. It is also a potent reminder that the overwhelming majority of classical performers and instructors are still Caucasian. There are no extras.

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