A Brief History of Blacks in Opera

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People of African descent have long been involved in "classical music" -- as creators, interpreters, performers and entrepreneurs. A number of well-known black singers -- from William Warfield to Jessye Norman -- have made their mark in the rarefied world of opera. So it's no surprise that even in the age of hip-hop, young African Americans are a growing presence on opera stages around the world.

In the 1700s, Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges made his fortune in the court of Louis XV. Born to a slave mother and a French noble father in the Caribbean, Saint-Georges was educated in France. As a military man -- he was an accomplished swordsman -- he commanded a regiment in the French Revolution and held the rank of colonel.

A contemporary of Haydn and Mozart, he conducted their work and composed and wrote symphonies, chamber music and operas. A onetime candidate to head the Paris Opera, he was thwarted by performers who protested that they would have to take orders from a "mulatto." Today his music has been rediscovered and is played throughout the world. The young conductor Marlon Daniel launched the International Festival de Saint-Georges this year in Guadeloupe, the land of Saint-Georges' birth.

In 1873, an enterprising group of African Americans performed the opera The Doctor of Alcantara by Julius Eichberg in Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia. They formed the first opera company in the nation's capital and raised $75,000 (approximately $1.5 million in today's dollars) from their performances for the church-building fund. The company was organized, staffed and directed through a black Roman Catholic Church, now known as St. Augustine.

The latter part of the 19th century saw the rise of soprano Sissiereta Jones. Jones, who toured the United States and Europe, was adored by the public and feted by kings and heads of state. She was the first African-American woman to appear at Carnegie Hall, singing popular songs and arias from La Traviata by Verdi, and was one of the first American concert singers to achieve international acclaim and success. She eventually founded her own touring company.

Jones was called the "Black Patti" after the famous singer of the day, Adelina Patti -- not unlike opera singer Shirley Verrett, who, at the height of her career in the 1960s, '70s and '80s, was called "the Black Callas" after famed soprano Maria Callas....

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