The story may be apocryphal, but I doubt it.
A great diva, basking in the twilight of a long career, was singing Tosca one night at the Met in 1961. Before the performance, her dresser asked if she had yet heard Leontyne Price, who had just made a sensational debut as Leonora in “Il Trovatore.”
The great diva, herself a celebrated if fading exponent of the same role, quivered a few chins in lofty disapproval. “Ah, yes,” she purred. “Price. A lovely voice. But the poor thing is singing the wrong repertory!”
The dresser registered surprise. “What repertory should Price be singing?” he asked.
The great diva smiled a knowing smile. “Bess,” she purred. “Just Bess.”
Leontyne Price had, of course, enjoyed an international success as George Gershwin’s irresistible Catfish Row floozy. She also had attracted attention in another specialized, segregated, all-black opera, Virgil Thomson’s “Four Saints in Three Acts.” She had sung another black role, that of the Ethiopian Aida, in some of the best opera houses in Europe and America. But it was no accident that she had chosen “Trovatore” for her all-important calling card at the Met.
Leonora, she felt, suited her voice and her temperament. The fact that the character in question had a complexion lighter than her own seemed irrelevant. Makeup was supposed to take care of such discrepancies.
No one had complained, lo those many decades, when a white soprano portrayed Aida, when a white tenor played the moor Otello, or when a white soprano impersonated the Japanese Madama Butterfly. Why should anyone care if the soprano singing Leonora--or Donna Anna or Ariadne or Amelia or Tatania--happened to be black?
In those less enlightened times, everyone seemed to care. It was a matter of public shame. Rudolf Bing encountered violent resistance from his board when in 1955 he broke the color barrier at the Met by engaging Marian Anderson for Ulrica in “Un Ballo in Maschera,” an “old-Gypsy” role that easily accommodates dark skin.
Many great black singers before Anderson--Roland Hayes, Paul Robeson, Jules Bledsoe, Todd Duncan, Ellabelle Davis, Dorothy Maynor, Anne Brown and Muriel Rahn, to name a few--deserved a place of honor at the Met. They had to content themselves, however, with concert work, with European engagements and with very sporadic appearances on far less prestigious stages.
We like to think, in the smug 1980s, that racial discrimination in opera is ancient history, that operatic audiences everywhere are color blind and color deaf, too. Once again invoking the immortal words of Vito Sportivo, we must conclude that it ain’t necessarily so.
When Leontyne Price sang her nationally televised farewell to opera last month, it was no accident that she chose the role of Aida. The point, she seemed to say, had been made. As long as she could enter the Met doors as a white character, there was no reason why she should not walk out, head high, as a black one.
Aida always had brought out the best in Price. No one since Zinka Milanov could float the ascending pianissimo tones of the Nile Scene as she did, even at the age of 57. That valedictory Aida represented a final personal triumph for the soprano, who imbued the performance with unexpected passion and overwhelming pride.
“Aida,” she explained at the time, “is not a slave at all. She is a captive princess. She is of noble blood.”
There were no speeches at the Price farewell, no presentations, no official proclamations. “I’m trying to exhibit good taste,” said the diva who, not incidentally, will continue to sing in recitals and concerts. “I prefer to leave standing up, like a well-mannered guest at a party.”
B. H. Haggin is, in most instances, an illuminating and engaging music critic for what outlets. His is a tough, crotchety, iconoclastic voice in a generally feeble and discordant American chorus. Unfortunately, he has his foibles.
A most painful one comes to light, again, in “Music and Ballet” (Horizon: $18.95) a compilation of essays written between 1973 and 1983. Recounting a 1974 “Don Giovanni” at the Met, Haggin writes of Price’s “superb singing as Donna Anna up to the concluding florid last (sic) passages of ‘Non mi dir,’ which she managed in a sort of vocal short-hand that implied the notes she didn’t sing.”
So far so good. But Haggin goes on. “Price presented with her Donna Anna the same obtrusive incongruity as previously with her Leonora in ‘Il Trovatore’ and her Pamina in ‘The Magic Flute’ but not with her Aida: When I look at what is happening on a stage, my imagination still cannot accommodate itself to a black in the role of a white.”
Haggin’s operatic imagination, incidentally, seems to encounter no comparable problem with a fat person in the role of a skinny person or with an old person in the role of a young one.
Simon Estes, the baritone who sang Amonasro to Price’s Aida at her farewell, is the most successful of the few successful black males in opera. The road to acceptance even for him has not been smooth, however, and some pot-holes still seem to threaten the journey.
Estes has sung in most of the world’s leading houses, including the one that used to be a racist’s paradise: Bayreuth. The house that Wagner built and Hitler loved saw Estes, without white makeup, play the long-wandering Flying Dutchman as well as the long-suffering Amfortas in, holy of holies, “Parsifal.”
When Sir Georg Solti and Sir Peter Hall planned their new--and, as it turned out, disastrous--Bayreuth “Ring” of 1983, however, Estes was rejected for the role of Wotan. The baritone is convinced the rejection was rooted in prejudice.
“Estes took his failure badly,” writes Stephen Fay in his fascinating Bayreuth chronicle, “The Ring: Anatomy of an Opera” (Secker & Warburg, London: $cost). The baritone, according to the British reporter, “claimed publicly that he did not get the part because he was black, despite regular denials by Hall and Solti, who insisted that they had found the voice insufficiently pleasing.”
“Hall might indeed have been troubled by the idea of a black Wotan surrounded by a large family of white singers,” adds Fay. “He did not object in principle to a black Wotan, as long as there were black singers among his daughters, but he felt Estes’ audition had relieved him of the need to make such a choice.”
Estes has since sung a triumphant Wotan in Berlin, and he will repeat the role in the forthcoming new production at the Met. In addition to Amonasro, incidentally, his assignments in New York this season include Orest in “Elektra,” Prince Gremin in “Eugene Onegin"--and Gershwin’s Porgy.
When the Met staged its first “Porgy and Bess” this month, 50 years after the world premiere, the company had to engage an all-black cast and an all-black chorus. The Gershwin estate, we are assured, insists on that. After World War II, however, the estate did not object to a Wagnerian minstrel-show “Porgy” in Zurich, which enlisted an all-white cast in black-face.
“Bess, nun bist Du meine Frau,” roared the crippled beggar in the love duet. That translates, roughly, as “Bess, you is my woman now.”
If and when there is a racial credibility gap in opera, it is usually the fault of the stage director, not the singer. Back in 1974, the New York City Opera offered a production of “Un Ballo in Maschera” in which one of the conspirators was portrayed by Willard White, an excellent basso who happens to be black.
The observer was willing to suspend disbelief regarding his place in the aristocracy of 18th-Century Sweden, although a little makeup might have been helpful. A problem arose, however, in the climax of the last scene. Here, at the masked ball, no one is supposed to recognize the murderous Count Ribbing because he is wearing a disguise. The only disguise tendered Mr. White, unfortunately, was a half-mask that covered his eyes.
With a full mask, he might have passed. With his little domino, his identity should have been obvious to everyone. After all, he was the only black man on the stage.
The problem was a problem, of course, only for those who want to take opera seriously as drama.
For some people, the sight isn’t even a problem. Worse, it is the sound.
Cynthia Clarey, the talented young American mezzo-soprano, recently made her debut with the West Berlin Opera as Nicklausse in “Les Contes d’Hoffmann.” Nearly everyone lauded her stage presence, her technique, her style, her range. Nevertheless, Geerd Heinsen, editor of the respected German magazine Orpheus, found her “typically Negroid tone quality inappropriate for the French vocal line.”
“But,” he qualified, “that is a matter of taste.”
Our friend in Berlin isn’t alone in thinking he knows a black sound when he hears one. “The only truly recognizable American voice, or used to be anyway, belongs to the black singer--though I may be accused of racism for saying so.” Thus writes Robert Rushmore in the revised version of his quirky but sometimes interesting “The Singing Voice” (Dember Books: $16.95).
“I think today that if he did not know, a perceptive listener would instantly recognize the voice of Leontyne Price as belonging to a black. But this is beginning to change,” continues Rushmore’s convoluted prose, “presumably as blacks become more assimilated into America .” The astonished italics are mine.
Rushmore never defines what be means by a black sound. But he does invoke some bizarre sentiments from a “Manual of Bel Canto” by one Ida Franca (Coward McCann, 1953): “Frequently the range of a Negro singer . . . can be developed to outdo any white singer’s range.” She declares that the “tenorino,” or countertenor voice is peculiar to the black, adding “with appropriate training such a voice can, of course, be developed into a voice of no less power and charm than the voice of a castrated virtuoso.”
Rushmore appropriates the last words: “I do not know whether today’s super pop singer Michael Jackson has had any ‘appropriate training.’ But certainly the tones that he produces could be identified as proceeding from ‘a castrated virtuoso.’ ”
Some authorities recognize the distinction of the Price sound, although they don’t color it black. In his intermittently amusing and gossipy “Demented: The World of the Prima Donna” (Franklin Watts: $16.95), Ethan Mordden claims that Price “came Metward in a distinctly racial atmosphere, and has remained the world’s resident black soprano ever since.” He calls her a “role model for young black singers . . . an example of how to do justice to opera and oneself, how to spend commitment and take one’s time.”
When it comes to describing Price’s voice, however, Mordden chooses a stylistic rather than a racial definition: “her Verdian timbre, so authoritative that it has become the sound around which modern Verdians navigate.”
A less vague description will appear in the forthcoming “Prima Donna” by Rupert Christiansen (Viking: $18.95): “Price . . . brought back uninhibited splendour. Price’s voice has an unmistakably individual fragrance--husky, dusky, musky, smoky, misty (on a bad day foggy!)--and a palpitating pagan sexiness. It is not the voice of a good girl.”
Christiansen later observes that “throughout the 1960s, cut-Price imitations followed her thick and fast, as the black prima donna became fashionable rather than merely acceptable.” Perhaps the London-based author knows something we don’t know.
The most engaging words about Price come from the lady herself. It hardly can be surprising that she does not speak of her voice in terms of hue or race. She just labels it “juicy lyric.”
“It’s terrible,” she told one interviewer, “but, you know, I just love the sound of my own voice. Sometimes I simply move myself to tears. I suppose I must be my own best fan. I don’t care if that sounds immodest.”
Divadom knows no color. And yet. . . .
“My career was simultaneous with the opening up of civil rights,” Price observed years ago. “Whenever there was any copy about me, what I was as an artist, what I had as ability, got shoveled under because all the attention was on racial connotations.”
Leontyne Price’s nights at the opera have, alas, ended. In many eyes and ears, the racial connotations, alas, endure.