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Biggest opera voices emerge from African-American community


A look back at world-renowned stars

African-American women have excelled in all forms of the musical arts. Be it blues, jazz, pop, soul, rock or hip-hop, some of the greatest names have defined these musical genres for the world.

Opera and classical music are no exceptions. The biggest voices have most often emanated from the church—whether ‘storefront” or large congregations–where the most sincere and heartfelt song renditions have led to worldwide fame and admiration. One such artist was Marion Anderson. As a child, she impressed her church choir and congregation to the extent that they raised funds–about $500–for her to attend music school under the guidance of famous voice coach Giuseppe Boghertti.

Anderson performed at Carnegie Hall for the first time in 1928 and eventually embarked on a tour through Europe thanks to a Julius Rosenwald scholarship. By the late 1930s, Anderson’s voice made her famous on both sides of the Atlantic. In the United States, she was invited by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to perform at the White House, making her the first African-American to receive the honor.

In 1939, her manager tried to set up a performance for her at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C. The owners of the hall, the Daughters of the American Revolution, informed Anderson and her manager that no dates were available. It was a lie. The real reason they denied Anderson the venue was because the hall–and the D.A.R.--practiced segregation.

When word leaked out about what had happened, an uproar ensued–led in part by Eleanor Roosevelt. The first lady invited Anderson to perform instead at the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday in 1939. In front of a crowd of more than 75,000 people, Anderson offered a riveting performance that was broadcast for millions of radio listeners.

In 1961 Anderson performed the national anthem for President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration. Two years later, Kennedy honored Anderson with the Medal of Freedom. In 1991, Anderson received a Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement. Anderson died of natural causes in April 1993 at age 96.

Leontyne Price

Leontyne Price comes from a family of ministers. As a girl, she sang in her church choir in Laurel, Miss. but it would be years later after her 1948 graduation from the College of Education and Industrial Arts (now Central State College) in Wilberforce, Ohio that the world would be treated to one of the finest sopranos of all time.

Price studied for four years at the Juilliard School of Music in New York City and, in 1952, made her debut in a revival of “Four Saints in Three Acts” by Virgil Thompson and Gertrude Stein. Her performance prompted Ira Gershwin to choose her to sing the role of Bess in a revival of “Porgy and Bess” which ran in New York City from 1952-54 and subsequently touring the nation and in Europe.

Price’s operatic debut came in 1957 when she appeared in the American premiere of Francis Poulenc’s “Les Dialogues de Carmelites” at the San Francisco Opera. By 1960, Price had become one of the most popular lyric sopranos in the world with successful appearances in Vienna in 1959 and at Milan’s “La Scala” in May 1960.

Price debuted at the Metropolitan Opera (the Met) in 1961 in the role of Leonora in “Il Trovatore.” She would soon become one of the Met’s leading regular sopranos.

Price gave her farewell performance of “Aida” at the Met in 1985. In 1990 she published a children’s book “Aida” based on the Giuseppe verdi opera. Leontyne Price has received more than 20 Grammy awards, the Presidential Medal of Freedom (1964) and a Kennedy Center Honor for the Arts in 1985.

Martina Arroyo

Martina Arroyo’s family had always listened to the Saturday afternoon broadcasts of the Met on the radio. She enjoyed it so much that she learned to sing the “Jewel Song” from Charles Gounod’s French opera “Faust” by ear, sounding it out syllable by syllable.

In her teens she embarked on the role of “Madame Butterfly” in Giacomo Puccini’s opera of the same name. She obtained a degree in Romance languages from Hunter College in 1956 and soon began teaching Italian at a New York city public school, all while keeping her eye on opera. She witnessed Leontyne Price at the Met in 1955 and saw that as the equivalent of Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in professional baseball.

She witnessed and endured great racial prejudice but, undaunted, found herself as the featured star in the opening production of the Met’s season three times. She made her debut at London’s Covent Garden in 1968, and at the Paris Opera in 1973.

Arroyo was a favorite of Johnny Carson, appearing on the “Tonight Show” more than 20 times. At the request of opera fan Tony Randal, she demonstrated both her singing and comedic chops in a 1974 episode of “The Odd Couple.”

Arroyo retired professionally in 1989, but only a few years later reemerged in order to appear in “Blake,” a new opera by Leslie Adams with a story set in the time of slavery. Arroyo would teach at UCLa and at Wilberforce University before settling in as a distinguished professor of music at Indiana University in the early 1990s.

Grace Bumbry

It all started for Grace Bumbry when she appeared on a 1953 episode of the “Arthur Godfrey Talent Scout Show” where she sang “O Don Fatale” from Giuseppe Verde’s “Don Carlos.” She immediately won over the television audience, so much so that she was soon invited to study at the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara.

Through the influence of First Lady Jackie Kennedy and the American Embassy in Paris, Bumbry was granted an audition at the Paris Opera where, in 1961, she soon made her operatic debut as Amneris in another Verde story “Aida.” Bumbry made news when, at age 24, became the new face of Venus (“eine Schwarze” or “a Black woman”) in Weiland Wagner’s (grandson of Richard Wagner) remake of “Tannhaeuser.” Critics heralded her performance which propelled her into international stardom.

Because of her unparalleled musical abilities, Bumbry was able to develop into a singing actress as her physical appearance and stage presence earned her the moniker “Sex Goddess.” It was during this time in the late 1960s that she shocked fans and critics once again in changing not only her repertoire but her voice category as well: The Mezzo Soprano had transitioned into a Soprano thereby causing an uproar into the opera world.

Bumbry received four honorary doctorates as well as the Austrian Kammersanger (an esteemed chamber singer) title. As an international jetsetter, Bumbry helped to fully define the term “diva”--she even owned the second ever Lamborghini sports car and primarily donned designer gowns made by Yves Saint Laurent, Heinz riva and Bill Blass. Grace Bumbry died in May at age 86.

Jessye Norman

Jessye Norman was among the elite operatic sopranos of her day. Reared in a musical family, both her mother and father sang in church in Augusta, Ga. She won a scholarship to Howard University where she studied voice. Following her graduation in 1967, Norman trained at the Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore, and also at the University of Michigan.

After winning the Bavarian Radio Corp. International Music Competition in 1968, Norman made her operatic debut as Elizabeth in (Richard) Wagner’s original version of “Tannhaauser” in 1969 in Berlin. By now, Norman was one of the most sought after sopranos on the operatic circuit with notable performances in “La Scala” in Milan, and the role of Cassandra in Hector Berlioz’s “Les Troyens” (“The Trojans”) at Covent Garden in 1972.

Jessye Norman enjoyed great success as a recitalist via her academic scholarship and her ability to project drama through her voice. She toured the world during the 1970s, giving recitals of works by Franz Schubert, Gustav Mahler, Ridhard Wagner and Johannes Brahms. Unlike many of her predecessors, Norman was able to take advantage of television while simultaneously producing numerous awarding-winning studio records. Jessye Norman died in 2019 at age 74.

Kathleen Battle

Like all of the great African-American female singers in the various musical genres, Kathleen Battle grew up singing in church.She was awarded a scholarship to the University of Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music where she earned both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music.

In 1972, Battle made her professional debut at the Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto, Italy where she was well received in Brahms’ “Ein deutsches Requiem.” Soon after, she was introduced to conductor James Levine–an influential person in her career–and won roles in major American opera houses.

Battle made her debut at the Met in 1977 as the shepard character in Wagner’s “Tannhauser.” Critics rejoiced over her pure and consistent lyric soprano vocal range. She mastered complicated parts in compositions by George Frideric Handel and Henry Purdcell.

She excelled in Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart operas playing such roles as Susanna in “The Marriage of Figaro,” Zerlina in “Don Giovanni” and Despina in “Cosi fan Tutte.”

Battle was celebrated for her many interpretations of Negro Spirituals, and recorded a wide variety of music in receiving five Grammy Awards and a 1992 Emmy Award for her performance in the 1991 Met opening gala.