• A Conversation with Legendary Southern Opera Divas

    This article reports on a conversation between George Shirley, Emeritus Professor of Music at the University of Michigan and former Metropolitan Opera singer, and three legendary Southern-born African-American singers who have since retired from the operatic circuit (well, Leona Mitchell still sings here and there) but achieved interesting careers when they were active. These are Hilda Harris, Martha Flowers, and Leona Mitchell. This conversation happened on March 24, 2012 at the Videmus Festival of African-American Classical Music in Chapel Hill, NC, co-organized by our partners UNC College of Arts and Sciences - Department of Music, under Professor Louise Toppin. The event was attended by Opera Lively’s journalist Almaviva. While these are not exclusive, we placed this article under our Exclusive Interviews are for pragmatic reasons, since the article does read just like real interviews. [Opera Lively interviews #86, 87, 88, and 89]

    The singers had very interesting memories to share with the public, and some of the moments are very funny. This article still needs to be revised for accuracy especially when participants quote the names of persons dead or alive - sometimes it is a person who is famous enough for the spelling of his/her name to be verifiable; sometimes there is uncertainty. Since online publishing can be edited anytime, we have decided to publish this article as-is, and later we'll try to enroll the collaboration of Dr. Toppin and her guests to correct any imprecision, for which we apologize in advance.

    GEORGE SHIRLEY, the moderator, was the first African-American tenor to sing leading roles at the Metropolitan Opera. He received a Grammy Award in 1968 for his role (Ferrando) in the RCA recording of Così fan tutte. He performed more than 80 operatic roles in his 53-year career. He established, with the help of his former student Dr. Louise Toppin from UNC (and one of Opera Lively’s official partners), the George Shirley African-American Song and Operatic Aria Competition for high-school students, in January of 2011. He received the ASCAP Deems Taylor Award for his article “Music Education in Detroit’s Public Schools: the Struggle to Survive.”

    HILDA HARRIS, mezzo-soprano, was formerly a leading artist of the Metropolitan Opera, where she made her debut as the Student in Lulu and also sang Cherubino (Le Nozze di Figaro), the Child (L’Enfant et les Sortilèges), Siebel (Faust), Stephano (Roméo et Juliette), Hansel (Hansel und Gretel), and Sesto (Giulio Cesare). She also sang leading roles with the San Francisco Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, New York City Opera, Pittsburgh Opera, Seattle Opera, Spoleto USA, and the Spoleto Festival of the Two Worlds in Italy. Ms. Harris is a member of the Chicago-based Black Music Research Ensemble, whose purpose is to discover, preserve, promote and perform music of black composers. Ms. Harri’s discography includes Hilda Harris (a solo album); The Valley Wind (songs of Hale Smith); Art Songs by Black American Composers (album); X, The Life and Terms of Malcom X (CD; From the South Lands, Songs and Spirituals by Harry T. Burleigh (CD), and Witness, Volume II, Compositions by William Grant Still (CD). Ms. Harris taught voice at Howard University from 1991 through 1994 and is presently a member of the voice faculties at Sarah Lawrence College and Manhattan School of Music. She maintains a private voice studio in New York City and is on the voice faculty at the Chautauqua Institution during the summer months.

    MARTHA FLOWERS has been hailed for the vocal and dramatic talents that have made her the definitive Bess of the Gerswhin opera. The worldwide tours of Porgy and Bess have taken her through the major cities of the world, including Paris, Berlin, Moscow, Leningrad, and Milan (La Scala). She has sung in South America, Africa, Asia, and New Zealand (where she starred with a company of Maoris), as well as in the major cities in the United States. In the concert circuit she has sung programs encompassing German lieder, French art songs, classic and contemporary works. She won the Naumburg Award in 1954.

    LEONA MITCHELL, Grammy Award-winning soprano, spent eighteen seasons as a leading spinto soprano at the Metropolitan Opera where she sang many leading roles in Aida, both Leonoras from La Forza del Destino and Il Trovatore, Manon Lescault, and those in La Bohème, Un Ballo in Maschera, Liu in Turandot, as well as Mozart and Handelian roles. She has three notable DVDs: Ernani with Pavarotti, Turandot with Placido Domingo, and Carmen with Jose Carreras, and she is also featured in a Un Ballo in Maschera DVD. She has had numerous television appearances and belongs to several music Halls of Fame. She was made Oklahoma State’s cultural ambassador, and there is a museum in Oklahoma named after her, the Leona Mitchell Southern Heights and Heritage Museum. She holds a Masters degree from the Juilliard School of Music and two honorary doctorates. She is still singing from time to time on stage, and has just sung the operatic staged version of Debussy’s L’Enfant Prodigue as Lia with Opera Ebony, on April 29, 2012.


    GS – It’s a great pleasure to bask in the glory of these divas. I’m in Heaven. It’s better than a high C (laughs). [He introduces extensively the three singers, talking about their lives, careers, and accomplishments, then asks his first question]. So, what is it about the South that you have experienced in your lives that enabled you to gain prominence in the field of opera? What influences? Was it in the food? (laughs) What fed your talent, your musicality, your spiritual connection to music that made you stand out?

    HH – I started singing in my Church choir. I’m Episcopalian. I was singing hymns and wasn’t introduced to opera until I went to college at NCCU, and at the time I saw only one opera. I was a late bloomer. I was an oddball in my family, singing in the choir at Church, at school; I was in the band playing the clarinet. But that did not lead me into opera. I majored in music and performance. I didn’t want to go back to my hometown, there was nothing there, and certainly nothing that could lead me into opera (laughs). My voice teacher Howard Roberts in my senior year in college encouraged me to go to New York. Right after school I went to New York, to live at the YMCA.

    But coming from Warrenton, North Carolina, I think there is that Southern upbringing that has helped me throughout my life. My life has been music and singing. I was very stubborn. My choir teacher wanted me to forget about New York, take a teaching job and be satisfied. I look at him and said, “I’m going to New York.” Many years later I went back to my college for some event, and he was there – Sam Hill was his name – and he said “I’m very sorry.” He remembered that he had tried to stop me from going to New York. He didn’t need to say anything else, he knew and I knew what he meant.

    But it took me a long time to get to the operatic career. I’m not sure Warrenton had anything to do with it. I went to the Alliance Française, I took languages, dancing lessons, acting lessons… Howard Roberts introduced me to a wonderful voice teacher, Laura Hayes, and she helped me to recognize that I had a voice. Because I had been singing all my life but I didn’t have a technique, and you got to have a technique to have a career. So, she said, go slowly and we will find out what your voice is. And she said, I don’t know what it is at the moment, but we’ll just continue to work and work, and that’s what we did very slowly. I discovered that I was not a soprano, that my real voice was as a mezzo.

    GS – How did you put food on the table?

    HH – Oh, that’s very interesting. When I went to New York I worked at a photographic laboratory printing pictures, and that’s what paid for my voice lessons. Then I took a job at Church, I was in the choir but the soprano soloist left and they offered it to me, I was paid $25 each Sunday. And I said, wow, this is really great! (laughs) In that choir I met a lady and she said asked me to join her group that did background recording sessions. So I did and recorded all sorts of ooohs and aaahs in the background for singers (public laughs). Some of these recording sessions were very difficult – the sounds we had to make! I’d go home and vocalize to get my voice back together (laughs). But I kept doing the recording sessions because it paid good money! I was also introduced to singers who did commercials, and so they’d call me for jingles. That’s how I paid for my room at the Y until I moved out. I continued to study and that took me to Broadway. I did four Broadway shows, and this was all before opera. This was all before I was ready to earn my living as a classical singer.

    LM – Did you find it difficult to transition from Broadway to classical singing?

    HH – No, I was in the chorus for four shows and was understudy for some of the roles. The roles were… let me put it this way, I didn’t have to belt. (laughs). Because now I have to teach belting and I need to know how to belt myself in order to teach it (laughs) [Editor’s note: vocal belting refers to a specific technique of singing by which a singer produces a loud sound in the upper middle of the pitch range. It is not commonly used in classical singing].

    GS – Did you know then?

    HH – I did not! But I belted without knowing that it was belting, when I did recording sessions. I just had to blend with the other singers who were belting. They didn’t want a classical singer. They wanted the sound that they wanted, and it was not that of an opera singer. That’s how I paid for my keep. (public laughs)

    GS – So, when did you transition?

    HH – I was in the original company of the show Maggie May, and in that show there was a lady called Margaret… I can’t think of her last name, but she knew one of the managers that booked singers. By that time I had been studying classical singing for four or five years but had never thought I had a voice for a career as a classical singer. She said, “I want to introduce you to someone.” She introduced me to Joseph Mitchell, a manager, and I signed for his agency Barrack Management and they accepted me in their roster, and started to book me with very small orchestras here, recitals there, what they thought at the time I was ready to do. They didn’t want to book me with an opera house because I wasn’t ready, but they managed me. That’s how I was able to come out of the Broadway shows.

    GS – The Barrack Management was one of the first honest agencies, and they were very concerned with earlier careers, while others would throw their singers into what they weren’t prepared to do.

    HH – That’s right, they told me that; when they heard me they said, “we believe in building careers.” Because I hadn’t done that much, but they believed in me enough to take me on.

    GS – Ms. Flowers.

    MF – Thank you for inviting me. And I’ll begin by saying that my career has been a miracle. Because this career that I had was before civil rights. All the doors in America were mostly closed. So most of my singing was done in Europe. And the Europeans jumped and shouted and appreciated my singing, and it was most fulfilling. I had this ambition to be a singer, and it started when I was three years old in Kindergarten in Winston-Salem, NC. The teachers there recognized that I was singing louder than everybody (public laughs). I kept that up, and in my house my father was a Baptist minister. So I had vast [emphatically] experiences going to Church (public laughs) and singing in the choir, and occasionally solos, in high school as well.

    But when I was in middle school they had a course called Negro History, and this book contained pictures of prominent black people, and it had pictures of Fisk University in it [Editor’s note: traditional black liberal arts college in Tennessee]. And I read it, and it showed Jubilee Hall, and it talked about Fisk Jubilee singers, and after that class I ran home and told my mother, “I want to go to Fisk University.” And so my mother said, “You will go, you will!” I did go to Fisk University.

    I had heard opera on the radio. In my high school book, they asked in the last year, “what do you want to be?” and I said “I want to be an opera singer.” So when I went to Fisk I was very fortunate because there was a teacher there called Danton Russell, he was working on a doctorate degree at Vanderbilt, and part of his work was to work with Fisk University students and present operas. The first opera I did there was Hansel und Gretel – I was Gretel, and the Susanna in The Marriage of Figaro; last was Madama Butterfly. The sets he painted himself, he built them, they were absolutely gorgeous. He sent for costumes from New York City, it was just unbelievable. And of course I sang my heart out (laughs) because by that time I was in love with music and I was vocal technique and you could hear me vocalizing all over the campus (public laughs).

    So after I graduated from the Fisk, I thought “I got to go to New York, not back to Winston-Salem.” So I went to New York and somebody there introduced me to a Church, the St. Martin Episcopal Church where there was a gentleman who was the organist and had been Marilyn Allison’s accompanist, his name was William King, and he was a fine organist. And the music there was upbeat oratorios from Handel, and I was hired there – they paid $25, lots of money! (public laughs). I also got introduced to a person who wanted to help students, Mr. and Mrs. Harry Benton, they lived in the Bronx, and rented me a room for $6 a week and it was about as big as a little closet, but I was happy to be there.

    Someone told me to go sing for a house in the Bronx that sang for little children. So I said, “huh, where am I going… sing for little children?” [sarcastically] But I got myself together and I went to sing, and the kids were sitting around on the floor, and I started to sing Summertime from Porgy and Bess, and I sang La Bohème arias, about four renditions. And I noticed that there were three ladies sitting in the back, of Caucasian descent, and I though, “huh, who those ladies are?” It turns out that it was a Mrs. Schmagback, who was connected with the Juilliard School. And she said to me, “you must go to the Juilliard School.”

    Somehow I auditioned for the Juilliard School and they accepted me. The first year I had a Marilyn Allison award which paid for my school, but I didn’t have any money to live on, it was a tremendous struggle. However I was extremely determined, and never missed a lesson, was always on time, and in the last year we did Così fan tutte, and I sang Fiordiligi, and there in the audience was Robert Green who was the director of this international company of Porgy and Bess, and he told my teacher that I should leave immediately to join the company, in as much as Leontyne [Price] was leaving.

    However, I was not offered the role of Bess. I was only in the chorus and an understudy to Clara. But I said, “well, this is fine too, I’m getting paid!” (public laughs). I was singing away, singing and singing, and one day Robert Green came to me, we were out in Ira Gershwin’s house in California, he said “you could play Bess!” I said “But I’m not tall, I’m not…” He said “that’s all right, I’ll restage the whole thing for you.” I didn’t sing Bess for a while but the Strawberry Lady left, and I did sing the Strawberry Lady once and I made my big debut in that role in Venice, Italy. After I did my scene – and I was dressed like a beautiful ballerina – the audience would not stop applauding. The applause went on and on. I was being groomed for Bess, and in Greece I made my debut, in Athens.

    So my career, at the time, two and a half years of Porgy and Bess, was a tremendous experience. We sang in all the fine opera houses in Europe, La Scala, and when we got to Russia one Bess had a sprained ankle, the other one had a cold, I had to sing most of the performances, and the opening night there were thirty curtain calls, it was one of the most glorious experiences of my life. And I give full credit to the Porgy and Bess cast, because they had wonderful voices. These were trained singers, and those who were not trained had natural gorgeous voices, and everywhere we went we had tremendous success.

    We came back from Porgy and Bess. This was like I said before civil rights, there was no work. Luckily there was a man named Mason Bliss who was from North Carolina. He heard about me and booked a tour for me, and then one day I was looking at the newspaper and said, “Oh God, I got to get some work.” I looked in the yellow pages and there was a name, Mark Staussky in Carnegie Hall. I thought, “I’m going to go and see him.” (laughs).

    So I dressed up and went there. He was a big Russian man who had been the impresario for Feodor Chaliapin, the Russian bass. And he listened to me and talked to me and to make a long story short, he began to book tours for me in Europe. I went to Europe twice a year, and the summer I would sing at Jones Beach [a beach in New York City] with dancers and orchestra and all… this was a long time ago, in the late 50s and early 60s.

    But I was so grateful that I was being led to make the right call, see somebody, pick the right aria for my Town Hall debut, I happened to be at the library and would listen to something and run to my teacher and say, “this is what I want to sing” and we’d work on it. My debut in concert at Town Hall was one of the most glorious moments because it just seemed that my voice just floated and everything went well. Back to Europe I went and all around singing.

    Then after 25 years I said, “it’s time to teach.” My spirit was saying it to me because I had sung a lot. I made a living at singing. And I didn’t have a big manager, I didn’t have a lot of backing, as a matter of fact Ms. Kimball had my gown for my Town Hall concert made, I had no money, but she was a champion for me, my voice teacher. She was the teacher for Leontyne Price as well. So I’m just so grateful when I look back over, so thankful that I had the opportunity to sing, because that was in my spirit and in my heart. And… that’s my story. (public applauds enthusiastically – Ms. Mitchell stands up and hugs Ms. Flowers)

    LM – I’ve heard you through the years and I’m so honored to meet you, and so grateful for the doors that you’ve opened. And Hilda, we sang together at the Met, and George was such an inspiration for us, his voice is so gorgeous! You were saying, the Southern thing, how did we get to this (laughs). I had fourteen siblings, ten brothers, four sisters, and my Dad was minister too. I didn’t have the advantage of learning music by singing Episcopalian hymns, we did Gospel, so I had to learn music.

    I was born in middle Oklahoma. Thank God, people like Martha Flowers and Ms. Price paved the way for me to come along a little bit later, and it was far easier. My story is a little bit different. My siblings sand Gospel music. They sang locally in Oklahoma, and in Texas and Kansas. They were known as The Musical Mitchells.

    I had one story that I think helped me start singing. I was told by may eldest brother – when they were practicing I was five, I’m the tenth child – I was trying to sing with them and evidently I was out of tune or something. You know older brothers, he said “you can’t sing, just go away.” Oh, I cried and I cried. He said “I think that’s the mold you were made in, a singer. “

    I didn’t know opera either. But I was fortunate to have a woman in Enid, Oklahoma, who wanted to be an opera singer, by the name of Ms. Preevy. She had a wonderful chorus there, in the big tradition of choral music, and she guided me. She heard me in the chorus and said I should be an opera singer. I was just getting out of high school in the 1966. Leontyne had made her debut in 63. So she brought that to me to let me hear what opera is, and the first opera I heard was Aida, and it was with Maria Callas and Leontyne Price. Isn’t that something?

    So she brought this to me and said “you are going to sing this duet in school.” She taught me, she wanted herself to be an opera singer but her parents didn’t let her leave home. She was of Welsh descent. She opted to stay home with her mother but she had studied singing in New York. So she heard this in me and she insisted. I was thinking of being an ambassador for the United States, I was quite good in History, she said, “no, you are going to take that and sing!” (laughs). I always marvel now because I did get to be an ambassador, but it was through opera.

    So because of people like Martha and Leontyne it was easier for me. I went to university and there were all these contests and I was in a hundred contests and won thirty of them by the time I left university. One of them was major for me because it was the San Francisco Opera contest. And everybody came to see it, and I was in the midst of all these opera people, Luciano came. Kurt Cunninghead was looking from afar for me. I didn’t know anything about managers. One of the main people in Columbia Artists said he wanted to manage me, so I wrote Kurt and asked, ‘Is he OK?” I mean, how dare me? (laughs) He was one of the wonderful ones at Columbia Artists, Sammy Veil, I was fortunate because I got to go right from university to people trying to book me jobs.

    And I started mainly doing recitals and I did this for a while. I was just… I call it so blessed because I was at the right place at the right time, someone cancelled their Micaela – can’t remember who – and I had done it with San Francisco Opera Spring Program – not the regular opera company but the Spring program, I was 23 years old – so I stepped in, and a person who had seen me at the San Francisco Opera said “Leona can do this” so I stepped into the performance. Here I go to the Met – and I’m not understanding that this is high stakes - I just did it, and I had no rehearsals.. [talks to Dr. Louise Toppin] Louise, remember I told you I would have some stories about no rehearsals?

    Leona Mitchell’s husband from the audience – You have to tell them about the Juilliard, and how cordial they were, and what we found out two years ago.

    LM – Oh yeah, I went to the Juilliard before my Met debut, and I was auditioning for Porgy and Bess, I was auditioning for Clara because I was 23 and I didn’t think I should do Bess, and the lady said, “no, I’m going to have you do Bess” and she said “I’ll teach you everything.” OK, so one of the other auditions was at Juilliard and I was put in there. They heard me and they were doing Bohème, this other young lady was supposed to do it but they let me do it. From that came a review, and that’s what made the Met listen, I just learned it two years ago.

    So anyway, I thing that was a good thing. (laughs) So anyway I was hired to do that Micaela, and I was talking about those rehearsals. Plácido was the primo tenor, there was Régine Crespin, and Henry Louis was the conductor. And I had no rehearsals with these people. I hadn’t gone to the stage, I was in a room rehearsing. I was 24 by then, 24 years old! I remember Plácido saying to me – everything was just overwhelming to me – and Plácido said, “aren’t you nervous?” and I said “yeesss” [in a small voice – public laughs]. “You don’t show it” he said, and I said “I don’t have time to!” (public laughs). I was just trying to remember where I went…

    Anyway, that debut went very well for me and started a relationship with the Met, I was there for eighteen seasons. And then it was a world in traveling, after having gone to the Met. I think young singers have to be heard, somebody needs to hear you – a conductor, a manager – that’s why you [Ms. Harris, Ms. Flowers] went to New York, to be heard. But correct me if I’m wrong: just before my time, people had to go to Europe to come back to the United States and be recognized, that used to be the way. Since my generation we could just be here and make it.

    I remember making my debut in Verona in Aida, they said, “it’s not a new production, we can’t give you any rehearsal time.” So there was no sound check, there was nothing, and we just had to go there and do it. I credit my background training at my college because I was at a private university, I was blessed to get a scholarship to Oklahoma City University, a small private university that was hands-on and was wonderful. They actually did operas for undergrads, so I had done five or six operas by the time I finished college. The Oklahoma City Symphony played for us, it was not just the university symphony, and we had costumes and everything so I got a lot of experience with that and with the contests.

    The only problem is that while I was doing all of this, I could barely get my regular studies done! (laughs). I had no time to be in classes because they had me in all those contests. In opera they call you Ms. Mitchell and all, but this teacher was being facetious, saying, “we’re glad that Ms. Mitchell is here today!” (laughs). But it was a wonderful experience and I’m grateful for it. (applause)

    GS – Let’s go back to what I said about basic Southern upbringing. Each of you came out of Church spiritual grounding. We know that show business is not necessarily in phase with spiritual values. I want to ask you, how did you deal with the show business culture when you entered the profession? Were there things that you encountered that because of your spiritual upbringing, you thought “well, I don’t want to do that”?

    LM – When I was a teenager it was all very severe, I couldn’t do many things like wearing make-up or going to the movies, or listening to world music, it was so severe! So I had a reckoning to do when I got in. So when the teacher was teaching me the opera I wouldn’t do the dances because it was against my religion. So I had to actually force myself from that and figure out my own way, religious or not. I came to grips with that.

    GS – The late Shirley Verrett, if you read her book, she talks about her upbringing as a Seventh Day Adventist, and she talks about how she struggled to come to terms with what she would have to do as a professional singer.

    MF – The same with me, because I had a very strict upbringing, and one of the things that my father and mother and my brother and I did was sit around the fire and sing from a book called The Golden Book of Favorite Songs. We used to do that a lot because at that time there was no television. The radio, we listened to once and a while, but we would mostly do that, and I did sing psalms in Church.

    However when I went to New York I had been an avid reader. I was reading a whole lot and my father would admonish me: “Stop reading those fiction books!” But I liked to read a lot and I had an idea about things and how they should go. I knew that to be an opera singer you had to had a great deal of discipline and there were certain things you absolutely could not do like staying out all night or going clubbing or whatever, or imbibing in drinks that were not good for your voice, and so I was very very disciplined in that way. However, I did have a lot of temptations… [in a small voice] (public laughs hard).

    GS – In this day and age of reality television, tell us about those! (public laughs)

    HH – My upbringing was very strict as well. My home town is very very small. I’m sixty miles from here, a little town called Warrenton. There was a movie house. They’d play movies, some I’d go see, some I’d not. That was all the entertainment that we had. My father was very very strict. You know, we’d shake and go ask him “can we go to the movies?” and he would just growl and say “OK, who are you going with?” And we’d say, “we’re just going by ourselves” so he would take me to the movies with my sisters, I had two sisters, we could walk to the movies from our house, the town was not that large, but he had to take us to the movies. He wouldn’t go in with us so we’d meet our little boyfriends there (laughs).

    And then when the movie was over my father was sitting right there to pick us up and take us home. We weren’t allowed to do a lot of things. I think that kind of upbringing stays with you. You know what you are supposed to do and you do not want to dishonor yourself or your parents by messing up. You can’t mess up because you have to pay the consequences. I think that strict upbringing in the South made a big difference in my life.

    LM – Because everything is not rosy.

    HH – No, it is not.

    LM – Sometimes you have things to go through that are very conflicting, I’ve had that. You have to call upon your background.

    GS – And be strong.

    LM – And be strong, oh yes.

    GS – If you are faced with a conductor who says “I need another rehearsal with you, at about 9 o’clock tonight.”

    HH – I was lucky that they didn’t ask me. They didn’t ask me for extra rehearsals at their apartment.

    GS – These could be issues.

    LM and HH – They can be. Absolutely. Oh yes.

    GS – Performing the role of Bess, how did your family respond to that? Because Bess is not someone who goes to Church. (public laughs)

    LM – When I did Bess in Los Angeles, I had all these red things to wear around in my home, and my mother said, “Is this part of Bess coming out?” It was so dramatic, this is your best moment, but it is interesting.

    MF – My parents never saw me do Bess.

    LM – My parents saw it. They loved it. My father as a minister he was always playing with ideas in his mind. My father is a big man, 6 feet 2, and he said, “Hey, I like that Crown!” [Editor’s note – one of the characters in Porgy and Bess, a tough dockworker]. (public laughs hard)

    MF – I was never allowed to sing "Summertime."

    All – You weren’t?

    MF – No, not as a child. You know how you are when you’re young, we’d all start singing "Summertime" and my father would come and say [in a severe tone] “Stop that singing of "Summertime".”

    LM – You know, I had that upbringing but my father was my biggest fan. I took them to London to see me at Covent Garden, he loved the opera, and he loved his daughter being in it, so, he came around.

    GS – How did you deal with the personality of colleagues, how did you upbringing prepare you to deal with very colorful people you performed with? Have you had any problems?

    HH – You know, when they were doing opera, I was doing Broadway shows, because of the late bloomer thing. When I went into Broadway shows sometimes I was the only African-American in that chorus. These were not shows that were considered black shows. Maybe there were African-American in the pit but not on stage. I was the only one in the cast. But you know, I just did my job. They hired me to sing. I refused to go into the race thing.

    GS – Was it collegial or did you find that you were marginalized in any way?

    HH – No, I always had wonderful, wonderful responses from my colleagues. Because I knew how to treat people. I was respectful of them. And so they had to be respectful of me.

    MF – It’s just the way you carry yourself.

    LM – Oh God, sometimes some of those personalities were really big. Sometimes, conductors with their ego.

    HH – But the roles that I did were not roles for leading soprano. I was doing pant roles. (laughs) I was no threat to anyone. (public laughs hard) You know, they just kept me in those pants. You know, I’m a mezzo-soprano, so Cherubino and Nicklausse, and Stephano, except in Europe where I’ve done Carmen and Rosina.

    LM – I’ve always had wonderful colleagues but sometimes those conductors can be a pain.

    GS – Years ago I had a radio program where I interviewed a soprano who was the first one to perform with a company that put together their first show, Aida, at the Hippodrome Theater in New York City in 1933. I’m blanking on her name. But she had been in the chorus of black Broadway shows and she went to Europe and sang there before the Second World War. She was to do Aida, it was an Italian conductor, in a Slavic country. He refused to conduct, in his words, because he wouldn’t work with an Ethiopian. That’s one incidence of someone having a contretemps with a conductor.

    LM – I’ve never had a problem.

    GS – That’s great. But I’ve seen situations in which not only African-Americans but women in general had problems. I wonder if any of you had these problems, but if you hadn’t, God bless you.

    MF – Well, they were always trying to get me. (public laughs hard)

    GS – The truth rolls out! (laughs)

    MF – I had invitations that I knew were not up and up. But I always knew, there were suitors and admirers always, chasing you and bringing you roses and flowers, it was a wonderful thing.

    LM – Just like the movie Diva. (laughs)

    MF – Right. But the men were very much after the ladies in opera.

    GS – There can be a sense that the dark-skinned female being a very desirable object that is accessible. Margaret Times – the Italian men were very interested in her. She was not Italian, she was not brought up as a Catholic and was not high bound by all those things that prevail in that society, so a string of people were interested.

    LM – It was a struggle, I went at 23 or 24 in an international audition tour, and I found it horrendous because of that. As a young person, traveling alone as a woman was horrendous. I had one incident and I will never forget it, it was in Berlin – you don’t ask for those advances, you’re just a young person – but they think you’re American…

    GS – And you’re different.

    LM – And you’re different. So I was on this airplane and this guy was really drunk and he kept trying to speak with me and I was trying to avoid him, and I was in the airport getting my luggage, he followed me into my taxi, I didn’t know Berlin, I was just trying to get to my hotel, I couldn’t speak German, so the German taxi driver thought we were lovers or something, he let this man in his taxi with me, all these cars running pass me, it was raining, I’m crying, and I get out and flag another taxi driver and this man tries to get into that taxi as well, and the second driver understood English enough to know that the man wasn’t with me, and had to physically hit him to get him away from me. Then I got to my hotel crying, and called my manager and said I didn’t want to be in Germany, and he calmed me down, and said, “believe me, it’s not like this.”

    GS – I’d like to turn the questions to the audience.

    Man in the audience – I’m still concerned that there isn’t a presence of African-American men in the operatic field. You’re one of a kind, then there’s been a few others, but it just hasn’t been very frequent. What is your estimation of the circumstances that have contributed to that, what is the difference? Because I contend that nothing much has changed.

    LM – There are two young men at the Met right now, Brownlee and Eric Owen who are doing very well.

    MF – Robert McFerrin was there at the Met.

    GS – Yes, Robert McFerrin was the first black male to sing at the Metropolitan Opera. [Editor’s note – in January of 1953, as a baritone – Mr. George Shirley himself was the first black tenor to do so.] He was actually supposed to be the first African-American to sing there [Editor’s note – since his contract was signed before Marian Anderson came along]. The honor should go to Marian Anderson, but he made his debut shortly after her.

    LM – I think it’s been changed, I was glad to see an opera there in which both the tenor and the baritone were African-American.

    MF – I think that changes have been made, but not enough. I have friends who have done many tours of Porgy and Bess. And there were friends who were in the historic Porgy and Bess that was done at the Metropolitan Opera House. And a lot of these people – they had to audition of course to be in that production – they thought that would be a way to get into that opera house and sing other roles and comprimarios at the Met. It did not happen. They auditioned, and none of them were taken. The regular chorus was not allowed to do Porgy and Bess [Editor’s note – the Gershwins required a cast made entirely of African-Americans to authorize performances of their opera]. The whole of the chorus of Porgy and Bess were African-Americans. Many of them auditioned for other roles but none of them were taken. They just kept them in Porgy and Bess.

    LM – What about me? You are talking about the males.

    MF – Yes, I’m talking about the male singers. I don’t think so.

    Man in the audience – Greg Baker.

    MF – Oh Greg, that’s right, he was one. But I think he was at the Met before Porgy and Bess.

    LM – No. No.

    GS – There were a handful that were taken into the company from that special chorus. The interesting thing about Porgy and Bess, is that the leading roles are some of the hardest roles in the repertoire. Especially Porgy. I have a former student who is a bass soloist with the Army Chorus. He left the chorus because he was hired to do Porgy, he did Porgy all over the place, in Europe and the United States. But he wasn’t being hired to do anything else. The feeling is that people say, “doing Porgy is fine, but other roles, no.”

    MF – No opportunities.

    GS – So he went back in the chorus. But if you can sing Porgy, you can sing anything in the repertoire. Porgy and Bess remains the most popular American opera [Editor’s note – actually arguably Amahl and the Night Visitors is the most popular American opera, at least, gauging by the number of performances]. It’s done all the time. There are other fine operas by American composers, but you don’t hear them performed in Europe.

    My former manager years ago had an office in Rome. She spoke to Gelli who was then the artistic director at La Scala, basically saying, “I’d like to bring the Metropolitan Opera to La Scala” but Gelli said, “Signora, what are they going to sing for us? Tosca? I don’t think so. Der Fliegender Holländer? I invite Berlin Opera. Manon? L’Opéra de Paris. The only thing that the Metropolitan Opera can sing for us is Porgy and Bess.” He was absolutely serious. This was before the Metropolitan Opera even did Porgy and Bess in New York. It’s a great opera, it’s like Cavalleria Rusticana, it’s a Verismo opera, like Cavalleria it’s built around folk motives. The singers are certainly capable.

    But yes, the women, Leontyne Price, Gloria Davy, and others, yes, it still hinges around the old thing of the male being the lover of the female. And that still gets in the way of some people’s psyches. I’ve known tenors who had voices that are superior to mine in every aspect , he had a voice like a canon, I heard him do Radames, he told me in tears, he had a contract with San Francisco Opera…

    MF – Mervin Wallace?

    GS – Yes, Mervin Wallace. Mervin was a bit corpulent, just like Luciano was. But he called me in tears, and told me that his contract had been cancelled, he was to do Don Jose, and I couldn’t help thinking, well, there are corpulent tenors who sing Don Jose every day. The only thing I could think of was the color of his skin. Look, if Don Jose is not brown, I don’t know… (laughs). Mervin’s voice was a magnificent instrument. He only sang Peter [Editor’s note – black tenor character in Porgy and Bess], that’s all they wanted to hire him for.

    Man in the audience – I have a question. If some entrepreneur or opera director approached you with funds to write an opera for you, would you choose a black composer? Would you have trusted a black composer to deliver a first rate opera?

    HH – I would for sure.

    LM – I would have as well.

    MF – Oh, yes.

    Same man in the audience [Editor’s note – while we don’t know his name, we learned later that the man is an African-American composer] – Are you familiar with the work of very smart contemporary African-American composers?

    LM – No.

    HH – No.

    Man – It’s such an European dominated field that we are shut out because no one knows that we exist. I just wonder why this also happens among African-American singers themselves. I think it’s a matter of visibility.

    HH – Most of us don’t pick the opera anyway. It takes a really special person to have an opera written for her.

    MF – I did a world premiere of an opera. I’ve done quite a few world premieres of works by African-American composers. I wasn’t asked before the work was done, the work had already been composed, and then I was asked to be a part of the project. I wasn’t given the choice.

    LM – Not in opera. In concerts, yes, we can choose.

    Man in the audience (different one) – What he is asking is like when Kathleen Battle did her American Album. She commissioned Honey and Rue. She could have picked anybody to set Honey and Rue to music, and she picked André Previn! But Honey and Rue did not fill up the full album, then to fill it up a bit more she went to Knoxville: Summer of 1915 [Editor’s note – by Samuel Barber]. Another opportunity, and she knows Hale Smith [Editor’s note – noted African-American contemporary composer who died in 2009].

    LM – You’re beholden to your company too. She couldn’t say 100% what she’d sing. They have a lot to say on that.

    HH – We don’t have that much of a choice.

    Man in the audience – The two ladies who were born in North Carolina had to go to New York and Europe, but now we have this school here [Editor’s note – the event was happening at the University of North Carolina, Department of Music], we have the Fletcher in Winston-Salem… Now other people come to North Carolina to learn voice. Has the environment sufficiently changed?

    HH – Yes, absolutely. We have wonderful young voices now in these programs, and many of them happen to be African-American. In our time, we didn’t have this opportunity, these institutions didn’t exist.

    Woman in the audience – Producing opera is very expensive. Other forms of art class are much more accessible. So my question is, in your capacities as teachers and mentors, do you encourage students to sing art songs by African-American composers, or spirituals. Do you encourage your black students as well as your white students to sing these songs and spirituals?

    HH – I teach in two institutions. All the African-American voice teachers I’ve met have sung Soul music. The students come, and I say “this is wonderful material” and I introduce them to art songs of African-American composers. And they go out and they sing them in their classes. And then other students who have heard these beautiful songs, they come and ask if I will please allow them… and of course, everyone has a repertoire, and other teachers don’t do it because they are not interested in this repertoire. I’ve always been interested in this repertoire and I always pass it on to my students, and I encourage them to sing it and to introduce it wherever, put them in their recitals, otherwise it won’t be heard, if we don’t sing it.

    MF – I’ve had students, and I certainly introduced them to African-American composers’ music. And they enjoyed it, it’s beautiful, and they’ve sung it in their recitals. I had students who weren’t African-American and I have introduced them to African-American music and spirituals as well, and they’ve enjoyed it very much.

    Woman in the audience [an opera singer and professor] – I want to make a comment to my esteemed colleagues, all four of you, in the matter of growing up in the culture we grew up in, and then becoming opera singers. One of the things I remember is that every Saturday my parents wanted us to be quiet and listen to the radio broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera. And then I sang for thirteen seasons there, and sang with all those wonderful people.

    The important thing is the connection you can make with the rest of the world. Then the rest of the world becomes a small place. Now I teach at NCCU [Editor’s note – a black college in North Carolina] and of course the repertoire we teach is African-American music, but I get students from all over the world, South America, and Europe, who come to learn this repertoire. Why? Because this is the world in which we all live now. I think it is important for all of us to know that this is now available to everyone.

    GS – Thank you.

    Woman in the audience [a voice student] – I’m a student and my white colleagues want to sing African-American art songs and spirituals but they think it is taboo. I tell them, “If I can sing European songs, why can’t you sing spirituals?” I came from an African-American undergrad school to a largely non-African-American program, I had to do some adjustment, but I want to know what should I tell them to let them know that these art songs are available to them too, not just to ourselves; that it’s OK for them to sing these songs?

    HH – But they also need to want to sing them. I’m not going to force a student to sing art songs by African-American composers. Once they hear someone else do it who is not African-American… You know, I have Korean students in my studio, and they want to learn the repertoire. It’s your desire to explore and to sing music… It’s music, it’s to be shared, and explored! If you sing it from your heart it’s going to be wonderful.

    GS – There are emotional issues that surround this problem of people wanting to sing this repertoire but feeling that they have no right to sing it. Duke Ellington had a very succinct statement about it. He said “It’s all music.” Taking that, it’s everyone’s right to sing that music. With respect, with respect! We’re running out of time.

    MF – I want to make one closing statement. I want to thank Louise Toppin (applauses) – she is to be recognized for her expertise organizing this. It’s a wonderful, wonderful conference. It is so important, and the people that you have gathered, honey! And you know everybody! You have gathered such scholars, and it is such a pleasure to hear everybody and to be in this town! Thank you!

    GS – [addresses the professor from NCCU who spoke from the audience]Thank you for saying that your mother made you listen to the Metropolitan Opera on Saturdays. My mother is from Arkansas, and she made me listen to Grand Ole Opry! (public laughs hard).
    Comments 2 Comments
    1. CountessAdele's Avatar
      CountessAdele -
      I love this!! I love learning about opera singers from the South! I have family in NC, I need to research that Fletcher school. Hmm, I'm sensing new possibilities!
    1. Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva)'s Avatar
      Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva) -
      Countess, we are official partners with the Fletcher. I can put you in touch with the chair of the Voice Department, if you want.

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