In the midst of a global pandemic and racial unrest, the musical stories of Black artists, both old and new, continue to be sung.
Written by guest contributor Patrick D. McCoy
When we think of the Black presence in opera and classical music, the conversation more than likely can’t continue without the mention of several outstanding musical champions. Beginning with the great contralto Marian Anderson and continuing with the likes of Marian Anderson, Paul Robeson, Leontyne Price, William Warfield, Jessye Norman, Kathleen Battle, Florence Quivar, and Barbara Hendricks, these artists tend to be the “go to” list when referencing accomplished Black concert artists. But what about the unsung artists who came before? What about the untapped, exceptional artists who aren’t basking in the limelight today? While giving homage to the foundational voices of the genre, this post seeks to introduce the reader to unsung voices of both the past and present. Hopefully, this collection of profiles continues to grow each year, with emphasis on putting the spotlight on talents that are often neglected and marginalized. One of the many blessings of the pandemic and, surprisingly, the racial unrest in the events following the murder of George Floyd was a cry for equity and the desire to create space for artists and composers of color.
Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges
Composer and Violinist
(December 25, 1745 – June 12, 1799)
Perhaps one of the composers that sparked a great sense of renewed interest in the classical music of Black composers is Chevalier de Saint-Georges. Born on the French Caribbean island of Guadelupe, not only was he a brilliant composer and violinist, he was also known throughout France as an exceptional fencer. Within his body of work are several symphonies, string quartets and other instrumental music. Additionally, he composed several operas including The Anonymous Lover, which was first performed in 1780. LA Opera presented a streamed premiere featuring soprano Tiffany Townsend in the role of Léontine and conducted by James Conlon.
The music of Chevalier de Saint-Georges is at the center of a major music festival and a film about his life is currently in development. Conductor Marlon Daniel, the artistic director of the the Festival de Musique Saint-Georges, described the composer's influence In a recent interview on Across the Arts. “Chevalier de Saint-Georges was a French composer from Guadelupe. He went on to France to study and become famous…he actually influenced Mozart, Haydn and even authors such as Alexandre Dumas. He was a most important composer at that time in France. Mozart went to France to be a star, but when he got there, a star was already there!” Saint-Georges has been erroneously referred to as “The Little Mozart” when in fact he was already a brilliantly established composer in his own right.
Lillian Evanti, soprano
(August 12, 1890 - December 6, 1967)
Something that has truly become very special during this season of social distancing is the amount of “new” material that is being curated on social media. Though the Facebook group “Famous African American Singers of Concert and Operatic Literature” has been around for 13 years, contributors such as one of its moderators William Dean always seem to introduce artists that are sometimes overlooked. According to the White House Historical Society, soprano Lillian Evanti was the first African-American singer to perform with a major European opera company and she was the founder of the National Negro Opera Company. A graduate of Howard University in 1907, she moved to Europe 13 years later where she enjoyed much more notoriety than she would have in the U.S. She was born Lillian Evans, but when she went abroad, she adopted the stage name “Lillian Evanti.” While in Europe she made her professional debut in Nice, France, in 1924.
One of the standout moments of her career was when she performed on the same program with contralto Marian Anderson. During one of her periodic trips home to Washington, D.C., she and Anderson performed at the Belasco Theater in 1926 for a performance that was a part of the celebratory events surrounding a football game between Howard University and Lincoln University. Her most celebrated performance was when she sang the role of Violetta in the National Negro Opera Company’s production of La Traviata. Of her homecoming recital in March of 1932, The Washington Post extolled praise upon her chosen program. “Her flawless rendition of Handel’s ‘Care selve’ and Scarlatti’s ‘Qual farfalletta amante’ was followed by Bellini’s ‘Qui la voce’ which proved a successful example of the florid style, the true bel canto.” In her final years, Evanti was revered for her work to establish a national cultural center and she was very active with several international trips organized by the State Department to that end. Lillian Evanti died in Washington in 1967.
Camilla Williams, soprano
(October 18, 1919 - January 29, 2012)
Soprano Camilla Williams is one of the countless examples of performers in opera and classical music who have been marginalized and not given the same performance opportunities made available to others. Yet, their legacies continue to slay and invite interest in these often-neglected careers. Williams was born in the small rural town of Danville, Virginia. Her many early performance opportunities took place in the church and the community. Graduating from Virginia State College for Negroes (now Virginia State University) in 1941, her music education there provided a firm foundation for the professional experiences that would follow. She was the first African American to receive a regular contract with a major American opera company, the New York City Opera.
An almost neglected fact is that in August 1963, as part of the civil rights March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, she sang "The Star-Spangled Banner” at the White House and then before 250,000 people at the Lincoln Memorial, preceding Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream" speech. This was the same event in which singer Marian Anderson’s scheduled appearance was delayed as she was trying to navigate the large crowd. It remains quite disheartening that an artist of Williams’ stature, who had already sung all around the world with the greatest orchestras, concert hall and opera companies, would not come into prominence like her white counterparts. In addition to her career as a sought-after opera soloist, Williams embarked on a career as a teacher of voice at the collegiate level. In 1977, she became the first Black person appointed to the voice faculty at Indiana University in Bloomington, teaching there until her retirement in 1997. Williams died at the age of 92 in Bloomington after an outstanding career as both a performer and educator. As a tribute to her hometown legacy, in 2020 the Danville Museum of Fine Arts and History curated a special exhibition chronicling her rich contributions to musical life.
Othalie Graham, soprano
A native of Brampton, Ontario, soprano Othalie Graham was nurtured by her loving mother and late father. In particular, she has embraced the beauty of his Jamaican heritage and proudly carries it whenever and wherever she performs on the operatic stage. In her early years, Graham's curiosity for opera was piqued when her father took her to see the legendary soprano Leontyne Price in recital.
She shared a little more about this particular experience. “It was the most incredible thing I had ever seen. Backstage after the performance when she signed my program, she was so kind to me and I told her I wanted to be an opera singer. Then a few years later when I heard Jessye Norman sing the "Immolation Scene" [from Götterdämmerung] in concert I fell in love with Wagner. Her voice was not only powerful, but it was incredibly beautiful. She was unbelievably regal, commanding and still vulnerable at the same time. It was truly life-changing.”
These experiences caused her interest in the art form to intensify. After winning several competitions in Canada, she set her sights on attending the prestigious Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia, where she studied with Bill Schuman. The soprano is praised for her interpretations of the title roles in Turandot and Aida and her commitment to Wagnerian repertoire. In a review by The Boston Globe it was remarked that, in her interpretation of Turandot, Graham's “timbre and power were thrilling—steely ring from top to bottom—and her path from imperiousness to passion was convincing.” Similar accolades came from Opera News, in which she was described as “a vocally secure Turandot, her gleaming tones well suited to the ice princess’s misanthropic resolve.” Her performances in Turandot have been heard with several prestigious houses and orchestras, including with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra led by Jader Bignamini as a part of a farewell concert for Music Director Laureate Leonard Slatkin.
Other signature roles include Aida, which she has sung with numerous companies, including Opera Carolina, Toledo Opera and the Teatro Greco di Siracusa in Sicily with tenor Marcello Giordani; the title role in Ariadne auf Naxos with Walnut Creek’s Festival Opera; covering Elektra at the Teatro San Carlo Napoli; and the role of Minnie in The Girl of the Golden West with Nashville Opera and Indianapolis Opera. Among her concert highlights are performances of all-Wagner programs in Mexico City at Sala Nezahualcóyotl, and at the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Lima, Peru, at the Palacio de Bellas Artes, and with conductor Julian Wachner and the Washington Chorus at the Kennedy Center; Beethoven's 9th Symphony with the Philadelphia Orchestra; the Verdi Requiem with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Mississippi Symphony Orchestra; Serena in Porgy and Bess with Toledo Opera, Springfield Symphony Orchestra and Jacksonville Symphony; Isolde in Tristan und Isolde in Zagreb, Croatia, and with the Washington National Chorus at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.; and the Britten War Requiem with the Fondazione Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi.
Currently living in Philadelphia, Graham had the opportunity to make a trip home where she was featured on the Brampton Arts Walk of Fame in her native Brampton, Ontario, honoring those who have achieved excellence in the arts and entertainment industry. The winner of numerous awards and prizes, she previously was the first place winner of the Gerda Lissner International Vocal Competition in the Wagner Division, the first place winner of the Joyce Dutka Competition, a recipient of a Sullivan Foundation Grant, a first-place winner in the Wagner Division of the Liederkranz Competition, winner of the Jean Chalmers prize in the Canadian Music Competition, winner of the Edward Johnson Competition, and first place recipient of the Jeunes Ambassadeurs Lyriques Competition.
Dave Ragland, composer
b. September 20, 1978
In the midst of the pandemic and the racial tensions that came more prominently to the surface, the works of Black composers seemed to have likewise stepped forward to be heard. Unlike many of the operas of the past, there are a few that speak directly to events of our present time. The Emmy Award-winning composer Dave Ragland is a native of Chattanooga, Tennessee. To celebrate Nashville Opera’s 40th anniversary, Ragland was commissioned to compose an opera commemorating the women’s suffrage movement. One Vote Won is a prime example of how the purpose of music has shifted more towards speaking to current or controversial issues in present day society, highlighting the work of voting rights pioneers Frankie Pierce and Diane Nash. The timing of the work certainly was very important as it came ahead of the 2020 election. Ragland’s opera breaks ground as being one of the first, in this arts season, to be shot and presented as a film due to the pandemic. The opera premiered digitally on September 25, 2020, via Nashville Opera's website and Vimeo.
He recalled some of his earlier musical experiences. “When I was a young kid, I would make up songs on the school playground. In fifth grade, I had an assignment to find a song that matched the book I was reading for book report presentations. I couldn't find a song that matched so I went to the piano and wrote one.” He went on to discuss his earlier years, but perhaps the biggest influence was that of his family. “My biggest influence is definitely my parents and grandparents. Each of them are strong-willed, compassionate, and community-minded. As a clarinetist, my high school band director Jim Ransom motivated me to step up, push harder and take my musical studies seriously. My musical mother and the director of the TSU Showstoppers, Mrs. Diana Poe, opened up my mind to a world of musical possibility and helped to mold me into who I am. I probably wouldn't be doing what I do today, if it wasn't for her.” As he continued, Ragland also named many of the Black composers who are often forgotten as his biggest compositional influences. “I am greatly inspired by the lives and work of musical forebearers: J. Rosamond Johnson, Clarence Cameron White, John W. Work, and Undine Smith Moore. Regarding my approach to composition, I must admit that—at heart—I am as much of a dramaturg as I am a composer. Even in the simplest compositions, I love to establish a landscape and tell a story.” Ragland also had a powerful encounter with a great opera singer who truly changed his outlook. “I met the late, great William Warfield when I was a freshman at TSU. He told me to not just be a student of music, but to be a student of art. The plays of August Wilson and the art of Aaron Douglass and Monet have been just as important to my development.”
Dave Ragland is a graduate of the Chattanooga School for the Arts & Sciences (CSAS), Tennessee State University (TSU), and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga (UTC). Additionally, Dave has sung with Chattanooga Symphony & Opera and is the 2020 GRADY-RAYAM Negro Spirituals Foundation Composer-in-Residence.
Raehann Bryce-Davis, mezzo-soprano
Mezzo-soprano Raehann Bryce-Davis is a sterling example of a renewed hope for the art form of opera. She has been seen on the LA Opera stage in Eurydice and Roberto Devereux, and she’ll return for Il Trovatore later this year. Her majestic, warm mezzo brought her into prominence, but the way she has used her voice to express the current racial times is especially moving and provocative. Back in August, she released a music video entitled “To the Afflicted.” Set to Donizetti’s “All’afflitto è dolce il pianto” from Roberto Devereux, it’s an expression of her personal journey in the midst of pandemic cancellations and the Black Lives Matter movement. The powerful video went viral. Clearly, many could relate to the feeling of disappointment and anxiety that she so brilliantly expressed. Davis shared a bit about her first exposure to opera and classical music. “My mother is a classically trained soprano, and our home was full of music. She put us in choir, orchestra, band and piano lessons, but I didn't fall in love with opera until late in high school. I spent the summers in the fine arts library where my mom would leave me for hours while she went back to school. I filled those hours with musical after musical and slowly I started falling in love with the classical technique. I remember going to a funeral and starting to walk out until I heard a voice pouring through the speakers. My high school friends were already through the door, but I turned back and went to sit on the last pew by myself. It was ‘Time to Say Goodbye.’ (I never said I had great taste). But it touched me very deeply. Slowly, I started exploring more crossover singers until I heard the voice of Olga Borodina which stopped my heart completely. I was hooked.”
Her performances have garnered numerous superlatives by the New York Times, which proclaimed her as a "striking mezzo soprano" and by the San Francisco Chronicle for her "electrifying sense of fearlessness." Bryce-Davis is a 2018 recipient of the prestigious George London Award, among many others. She holds a Master of Music and Professional Studies certificate from the Manhattan School of Music and a Bachelor of Music from the University of Texas at Arlington. We asked her to share a bit about the changes that she would like to see as they relate to racial equity and inclusion in classical music and opera, and she responded fervently. “I look forward to seeing true inclusivity in opera; a healthy ecosystem where talent is nurtured and guided regardless of the means and connections of young Black and Brown artists, where meaningful stories are told on stages by creators from various heritages and perspectives that reflect the beautiful melting pot that is America, where the administration, board, and staff of a company mirror the diversity of America, ensuring that opera remains relevant and in touch with the world it serves.”
Damien Geter, bass and composer
b. March 22, 1980
Damien Geter is certainly an artist of many talents. His operatic bass has carried him to performances on some of the greatest stages, including the Metropolitan Opera where he recently debuted as the Undertaker in Porgy and Bess. Additionally, he has had numerous appearances with several other opera companies, including Seattle Opera, Eugene Opera and Portland Opera where he was also named artistic advisor. However, it has been in recent years that his vast gifts for composing have come into just as much prominence. Currently, he serves as artistic director for the Resonance Ensemble, with whom he will partner to present his large-scale work An African-American Requiem. His style has been described as one that fuses classical music and styles from the African diaspora. During the unprecedented season of the COVID-19 pandemic, Geter was commissioned by the Grammy Award-winning Washington Chorus to compose a special work that could be performed virtually. Cantata for a More Hopeful Tomorrow is a moving piece dedicated to the lives lost to the COVID-19 pandemic. Set to film by Bob Berg, it also featured soprano Aundi Marie Moore and cellist Seth Parker Woods along with actors Kyle Greenlaw and Michelle Rogers. The work was a mammoth undertaking, requiring the singers of the chorus to learn the cantata in a variety of remote rehearsals. Highlighting the selflessness and compassion of the front-line workers in the midst of the pandemic, Geter’s work will be one that will resonate for years to come.
A native of Chesterfield County, Virginia, Geter made his operatic debut with the Indianapolis Opera in the role of the Imperial Commissioner in Madama Butterfly. This is certainly a unique connection, considering that it was also the opera in which soprano Camilla Williams—who went to school at Virginia State in Chesterfield County—made her signature role. He is an alum of the Austrian American Mozart Festival, as well as the Aspen Opera Center. He was a semi-finalist for the Irma Cooper Vocal Competition and also toured with the prestigious American Spiritual Ensemble, a group that helps to promote the preservation of one of the great American art forms, the spiritual.
Karen Slack, soprano
Hailed by critics for possessing a lustrous voice of extraordinary beauty and artistry, American soprano Karen Slack has been praised for her performances in major opera houses and concert halls around the world. Her appearances in the operas of Verdi, Puccini, Gershwin, Richard Danielpour and Terence Blanchard, among others, have been met with great critical acclaim. But like so many artists during the pandemic, Slack has had to find new ways to expand her career both on and off stage. The soprano shared about how she initially got interested in classical music and opera. “I was a ninth grader at the Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts when I heard the voices of Jessye Norman and Maria Callas singing Isolde and Norma, respectively, in music class. My choral teacher was a huge opera fan so hearing this level of artistry was my first introduction to opera and I was blown away. Witnessing mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves singing the title role of Carmen at the Opera Company of Philadelphia was my first experience with live opera and that absolutely sealed the deal for me. I was hooked and knew this is what I had to for the rest of my life.” In 2006, she made her Metropolitan Opera debut in the title role of Verdi's Luisa Miller. Slack is equally at home in performing new music and in recital.
During the current pandemic, she has found exciting ways to share her art virtually. Slack spoke a bit about how she had to pivot during the pandemic. “I have been busier than ever! During this pandemic I was able to ‘birth’ my baby “Kiki Konversations,” a Facebook Live show devoted to spotlighting artist and industry leaders. I had no idea it was going to not only be a balm for so many stuck at home due to COVID-19, but it raised my profile not just as a singer, but as someone in our industry who is now seen as an influencer. I have appeared a guest on multiple panel discussions on race in classical music, most notably LA Opera’s “Lift Every Voice.” This opportunity offered another platform to speak on injustices and assist leaders on how to navigate in the midst of the fast pace shift into a more equitable industry. I am now an artistic advisor for the Portland Opera and co-director for the Opera Program at the Banff Centre in Alberta, Canada, while trying to adjust to presenting virtual performances. Several cancelled contracts have led to some creative programming and learning to flex my producer muscles to curate various dream projects I hope to bring to the stage in the fall of 2021 and beyond,” Slack reflected.
I hope that these voices will all bathe in the spotlight far beyond just recognition during Black History Month. From composers, singers, conductors and instrumentalists of color, these great talents deserve to be heard throughout the year.
ABOUT THE WRITER: Patrick D. McCoy