Black Male Singers Feel Like ‘Invisible Men’ of U.S. Opera
They have glorious voices superbly trained to sing opera. But in America, black male opera singers too often are the invisible men of music.
They’re mostly absent from the nation’s top theaters, they say, because of their race. And while the careers of their female counterparts have soared in recent decades with such luminous artists as Marian Anderson and Leontyne Price, the men have been all but ignored.
“There are many great voices among the black men, but they have a hard time even getting their foot in the door in America,” said Denyce Graves, a mezzo-soprano who last year made her Metropolitan Opera debut as Carmen.
Why are there so few black men starring in the passionate love stories that dominate opera?
“It’s racism,” Graves said. “People who are running these companies . . . they’re people with their prejudices.”
The black male absence was painfully clear at the Metropolitan Opera’s final performance last spring. Music Director James Levine conducted an eight-hour extravaganza for his 25th anniversary with the country’s premier opera house, televised live and featuring scores of singers who had worked with the maestro. Not a single black man sang.
Give or take a singer or two, that’s pretty much reality at most American opera houses, four decades after Anderson broke the racial barrier that shut out all black singers.
And the contralto’s belated 1954 Met debut, when she was well into her 50s, opened American companies to a stream of stars such as Price, Grace Bumbry, Martina Arroyo, Jessye Norman, Kathleen Battle and others.
But the men are still fighting to get in.
“I’ve sung 97 major roles in major opera houses all over the world. Why is it that I’m not good enough to sing in my own country?” asked Simon Estes, a world-class artist who appeared at the Met in a 1980s production of “Porgy and Bess,” in the role of a man who ages while struggling in the segregated South.
Shortly after, Estes broke his silence, despite his manager’s warning to be quiet--lest he ruin his career.
“My managers told me, years ago, not to talk about it. And I said, ‘You know, I don’t like to talk about it; it makes me sad,’ ” he said. “But there’s a problem, a sociological problem: I know many other African American men who are more than qualified who are not given the opportunity to sing leading roles.
“People in positions to hire and fire, whether they’re doing it consciously or subconsciously, are denying African American men a chance to share their art with their people,” said the 53-year-old Iowa native.
“I have actually been told, ‘Simon, I can’t use you because of your skin color.’ Sometimes I feel like the lost, or forgotten, American.”
Since he started voicing his feelings, Estes said, he has not been asked for a return engagement by any major U.S. company. He now lives in Switzerland, though he does sing concerts in the United States and keeps a home in New Jersey.
Meanwhile, abroad, he’s booked past the year 2000 for leading roles at London’s Covent Garden, the Vienna Staatsoper, the Paris Opera and other major venues on several continents.
Over the years, numerous top black male singers who were passed over in America also have turned to Europe.
New York-trained Jamaican baritone Willard White left soon after finishing studies at the Juilliard School in Manhattan in the 1970s, saying he felt the pressure of racism.
So what really goes on behind the scenes in this country?
“The key is the board of directors and the producers, and their perception of what the public will accept,” said baritone Arthur Thompson, who sang at the Met for 19 years, including in the role of the bullfighter Escamillo in Bizet’s “Carmen.”
“It’s not the public,” Thompson added. He said he was the only black male soloist on the Met roster after the 1971 departure of tenor George Shirley, who was the only one for 11 years before that.
When Shirley took on romantic lead roles in the 1950s, he said, producers would shy away from casting a black tenor lead with a white soprano. At least once, in Texas in the 1960s, the curtain came up on such a pair in a love scene--and loud gasps were heard from the audience, one spectator reported.
That sort of blatant racism is gone today. But the facts speak for themselves.
This season, the Met, with almost 200 men on its solo roster, has one black tenor, two baritones and a rarely used countertenor.
At Chicago’s Lyric Opera, there isn’t a single black male cast in a leading role, and the Houston Grand Opera has one, a bass-baritone. In Seattle, considered more “progressive,” there are five black men and three women on the roster of soloists.
When asked why none was represented at the Met gala, spokesman Peter Clark said the company “does not cast by race.”
In fact, Levine has worked with singers of all races and nationalities over the years. So for the gala, “you’d think they would have come up with one singer,” Thompson said.
Estes said he was never asked.
When asked about the Met’s poor track record with black male singers, Levine said, “It’s funny. I’ve been asked that often. In fact, on and off, very often. And it’s very funny.”
“I guess in modern terms, there have been only two or three even partly fully successful black male singers compared to the number of female,” he continued. “And I know them all very well and have worked with them. . . . You always hear all that stuff about how this one was denied because of that . . . and this was prejudiced. I have to say, I just don’t see it.”
But black male singers differ with Levine’s take. Little has changed in decades, despite a steadily growing pool of well-trained black men prepared to sing leading parts, said Benjamin Matthews, a baritone who has sung at the Met.
In the 1970s, he founded Opera Ebony, a New York-based company that gives black singers the chance to perform and record. They have been received with open arms in Finland, year after year.
These days, “you don’t have the Ku Klux Klan approach,” Matthews said, “but there are invisible sheets that keep people out.”
Far from the stage doors, there are other hurdles. With generally lower average incomes, Matthews said, black men traditionally have been more pressed to survive--never mind having the time or money to train a voice for opera.
“And also, there is little money for classical music education,” Matthews said.
Walter Turnbull, a tenor who founded and conducts the Boys Choir of Harlem, has pulled out all the financial stops to keep his singing troupe going.
In the last decade, with a tightened economy, Thompson said, “it’s gotten even worse. . . . If one has to have 12 layers of thick skin to make it as a singer, we have to have 25.”
Some have been willing to pay the price.
“If you can show them that you can sing the pants off a role, they might hire you,” said Shirley, who in the 1960s sang the romantic lead in the Met’s production of “Romeo and Juliet.”
“In my case, on that highest level, the management--then led by Rudolf Bing--did not ignore a voice,” Shirley said in a telephone interview from Colorado, where he teaches singing.
“The problem is not the audience,” confirmed Shirley, noting that one of his best male students was told this year by “someone in the business” that his “lighter” black skin color would help his career.
“You wonder why that’s an issue these days, since they can do anything with makeup, if necessary. They can make you look like E.T.!” the tenor, now in his 60s, added with a wry laugh.
Graves returned to the Met in a new Franco Zeffirelli production of “Carmen.” But it may be awhile before she or any other female singer will star opposite a black leading man.
“It’s a big problem we’re speaking of now, you know, this is huge!” she said.
Meanwhile, Zeffirelli, in an interview with Newsday, compared Graves’ talent to that of Waltraud Meier, who is white and also performed Carmen this season.
“Meier’s musicality is very high-class. The other one [Graves] is more animal, more gypsy--it’s something that comes out of the fact that she’s black,” he said in the published interview.
His remark drew criticism, but Zeffirelli denied he was racist. “Graves is a great artist, Meier is a great artist, and each one has an interpretation that derives from her own culture,” he told Newsday.