Marian Anderson's Groundbreaking Met Opera Moment

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Contralto Marian Anderson in the role of Ulrica from a Metropolitan Opera production of Verdi's Un ballo en maschera in 1955. Anderson was the first African-American soloist to appear at the Met. (Metropolitan Opera Archives)
Contralto Marian Anderson in the role of Ulrica from a Metropolitan Opera production of Verdi's Un ballo en maschera in 1955. Anderson was the first African-American soloist to appear at the Met. (Metropolitan Opera Archives)

It was conductor Arturo Toscanini who said a voice like Marian Anderson's comes around only once in a century.

Sixty years ago Wednesday, Anderson became the first African-American soloist to sing at New York's Metropolitan Opera. She was in her late 50s when she appeared Jan. 7, 1955, in Verdi's Un ballo en maschera.

F. Paul Driscoll, editor-in-chief of Opera News, says Anderson was made for the role of Ulrica.

"The role of the sorceress is something that depends a lot on the charisma of the performer, the ability to suggest a world beyond what you are seeing in front of you," Driscoll says. "And that's what Marian Anderson did every time she walked onstage."

Anderson later said she felt the pressure of that first performance: "I was there onstage, mixing the witch's brew. I trembled, and when the audience applauded and applauded before I could sing a note, I felt myself tightening into a knot." Despite her nerves, and that she was in the twilight of her career, the performance received a huge ovation.

"Men as well as women were dabbing at their eyes," a New York Times reviewer wrote.

This groundbreaking performance, Driscoll says, was just one step in the broader acceptance of African-American performers in classical music.

Just 20 days later, baritone Robert McFerrin — father of jazz singer Bobby McFerrin — followed Anderson as the first male African-American Met soloist. He appeared in Verdi's Aida as Amonasro on Jan. 27, 1955.

"The country didn't change overnight," Driscoll says. "There were still problems taking African-Americans on tour for the Met throughout the '50s and the '60s. So in other words, it's not as if everything became rosy in 1955. But seeing this as an important symbol, that this was the beginning of the integration in the deepest sense of classical music, that's why it's important."

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Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

This next story marks an anniversary. It was 60 years ago today that the Metropolitan Opera had its first African-American soloist. That's the occasion for this story, but really any excuse will do to play the voice of Marian Anderson.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "UN BALLO EN MASCHERA")

MARIAN ANDERSON: (As Ulrica) (Singing in foreign language).

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

That is a recording from one of Anderson's performances in 1955 as the fortuneteller Ulrica. She played the role in an opera by Verdi.

INSKEEP: F. Paul Driscoll, the editor-in-chief of Opera News, says Marian Anderson was made for that role.

F. PAUL DRISCOLL: The role of the sorceress, Ulrica, in "Un Ballo En Maschera," is something which depends a lot on the charisma of the performer, the presence of the performer and the ability to suggest a world beyond what you're seeing in front of you. And that's what Marian Anderson did every time she walked on stage, not to indicate that she was a sorceress. She had magic of a very different kind. But I think if you're going to have the first African-American artist at the Met be Marion Anderson, let her appear at her best.

INSKEEP: She did her best, though, even as an accomplished performer in her 50s, Marian Anderson was nervous.

MONTAGNE: She said afterward that she trembled. And when the audience applauded her appearance on stage, quote, "my stomach tightened into a knot." Nevertheless, a New York Times reviewer reported that her performance made men and women cry.

INSKEEP: The Opera News's F. Paul Driscoll says that moment 60 years ago opened the doors for performers who came after Marian Anderson.

DRISCOLL: The country didn't change overnight. There were still problems with taking African-American artists on tour for the Met throughout the '50s and the '60s. You know, in other words, it's not as if everything became completely rosy in 1955. But I think that seeing this is an important symbol, that this was the beginning of the integration in the deepest sense of classical music in the United States - that's why its important.

MONTAGNE: Marian Anderson's mere appearance at the Met 60 years ago was as dramatic as the story she acted out on stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "UN BALLO EN MASCHERA")

ANDERSON: (As Ulrica) (Singing in foreign language). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.