I Love These Drama Queens

June is Black Music Month, when we are supposedly to pause and delve into the major musical contributions of Black men and women in this country. This doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. One would need a decade to get through everything important left to us by Louis Armstrong, Big Mama Thornton, Robert Johnson, Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Sarah Vaughan—do you see what I mean? The list goes on. And I’ve only mentioned one person from New Orleans, the cradle of so much important Black and American music.

I want to shine a light on classical singers, who don’t get enough public appreciation, in my opinion. I’m also going to reach way back to Marian Anderson, Shirley Verrett and Leontyne Price, a contralto, mezzo-soprano and soprano, respectively, who all seem to be acknowledged as the foundational black classical singers of our time. Whether you download them on iTunes, read about them in archival Opera News articles, or sample them for free on the Internet, critics and devoted classical music followers laud them all for their technical execution and heart-breaking expression in their respective vocal classifications.

Anderson was that rarest of classical songbirds, a contralto. I didn’t know this until recently, but it is fairly hard to find a classical, much less operatic, contralto. Maybe it is because they love to sing arias like “Mon coeur s’ouvre a ta voix,” originally written in French for mezzo-sopranos. Anderson handles this more beautifully, with more heartfelt expression than any other, if I may say so. She never signed with any American opera houses, although she did sing at the Metropolitan Opera House, and had a flourishing career singing in concerts and recording albums. That more than made up for the disgraceful way that the Daughters of the American Revolution treated her in 1939, refusing to permit her to sing before an integrated audience at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C. Those silly ladies basically wrote Ms. Anderson’s ticket to even bigger fame, as Eleanor Roosevelt made amends by arranging for her to sing at Lincoln Memorial instead. Apparently, Anderson never signed to any major opera houses, because she felt she did not have enough acting experience, apparently and even though she had several offers from major European companies. Well, we have her recordings and loads of footage of her audiences enthralled in her song.

Verrett, on the other hand, brought he acting chops to every one of her roles during her operatic career. The stunningly beautiful mezzo-soprano pretty much owns Lady Macbeth, as many opera enthusiasts will tell you. Or so I’ve read in the Times and Opera News. She is remarkable because she successfully transitioned from mezzo-soprano to soprano, because she was artistically hungry and wanted a broader repertoire than what was available to the mezzos. It worked, apparently. See what Opera News says of her stage career:

What Verrett had, no matter what role she sang, was an intense dramatic involvement and a burning desire to give her audience its money’s worth. She was a striking beauty, blessed with a voice that had a ravishing darkness, a solid core and a thrilling attack on high notes.

Oh, la la. I’d love someone to call me a ravishing beauty blessed with a thrilling attack on high notes. Here is Verrett as Lady Macbeth, and clearly she was born for a grand stage. I like to call her the Halle Berry of opera, in the sense that she is alluringly beautiful,  ambitious and hard working. Don’t you forget that gift, her soaring, exquisite voice. She outdid Callas as Tosca, do you hear me? I wonder if Verrett’s mother swaddled her in an opera cape in her bassinet.

Anderson and Verrett are no longer with us, but we still have Price!  And what a treasure she is. Her price is far above rubies. Whether she is singing as Bess in “Porgy and Bess,” or as Floria Tosca, she devastates and reduces to tears anyone within her hearing. And that is saying something, because I don’t fall apart for any old kind of singing. But you haven’t lived, you haven’t heard music unless you’ve heard Price stop the angels in their flight with her rendition of “Vissi d’arte.” Sopranos usually thrill us with their strong, high and sparkling voices. But how does Price manage to infuse her crystal high notes with such exoticism and warmth? Aside from Price, I’ve heard Verrett and Callas deliver this aria, and I must say Price easily surpasses all I’ve ever heard in this role. Her voice is so supple and commanding. It is really a wonder to hear.

All of these ladies overcame paltry racist attacks, in one form or another, as they honed their craft. The fact that they endured those indignities for classical music earns them my utmost respect.  The very first time I heard classical music was when my mother, who was co-director of choral music at our church, taught the senior choir to sing Handel’s “The Hallelujah Chorus,” for an Easter service. (Or was it Christmas?) Years later, she brought home a stack of LPs from her college music appreciation class. I sat on our living room floor while she played all of Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, thinking, “Man, this guy was a genius. This music is out of this world.”

My mother was single, so she never taught me to play the piano like she did so proficiently, and I was too quick to give up lessons once the ascent into more difficult pieces began. I never sang. I always hated my flat contralto to what I thought were much prettier and appealing mezzo-sopranos and higher, and my mother had one of those voices.  Although Anderson was my singing hero, I preferred to read a book while my mother did her runs on hymns and traditional gospel music at home or at church. Who knows? Maybe if one of my books had contained more stories about how these ladies climbed the rough side of the mountain, I might have put aside my weakness, my fears, my general negativity and become a virtuoso pianist by now.

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