When we think of Opera, we may think of full-bodied voices, high and low, some with frequencies resonant enough to break glass! We may even envision ornate theaters with exclusive audiences, serenaded in languages we may not understand. It can often feel distant from us and our everyday realities and the musical genres that feel familiar to us. But what we might not envision in Opera is seeing ourselves, Black people, dominating in the opera world.
The opera world has historically been a space with barriers to entry for Black artists and performers, but our gifts and abilities shine no matter what genre! Here are 7 famous Black Opera Singers of past and present whose impeccable talent has changed the game as shows us that we deserve to take up space wherever we are:
Sissieretta Jones (1868 – 1933) is an often unsung trailblazer who rose to international fame and was the first African-American woman to perform at the esteemed Carnegie Hall (slated on the same program bill as abolitionist Frederick Douglass). Jones, a Soprano, sang to crowds of thousands across the country, including a career-turning point moment at New York’s Madison Square Garden. She also sang at the White House for then-President, Benjamin Harrison in 1892, along with touring the Caribbean, South America, and Europe. While there aren’t any known recordings of her voice, newspapers capture a brilliant record of her stunning tone of voice and glamorous performance style, displaying her medals across her chest. Jones was often called the “Black Patti,” in reference to famous Italian opera singer Adelina Patti, but Jones highly resisted this nickname and wanted to be known for her own talents and distinct contributions to music.
Paul Robeson (1898 – 1976) is often remarked for his political activism for civil rights and athleticism, however, his versatility knows no bounds as he was also a gifted, bass-baritone opera singer and actor with a powerful voice. Paul first rose to international prominence in the London premiere of Showboat in 1928, going on to star in both stage and film versions of the show and The Emperor Jones. “Ol’ Man River” from Showboat became his signature song of which he reworked the lyrics to become an anthem of resistance. He sang his rendition of the song for construction workers at the Sydney Opera House in 1960, making him the first professional singer to perform there. During his prolific music and acting career, Robeson never compromised his beliefs, later refusing to perform operatic music of central European origin as the music had no connection to his African heritage, which he strived to honor and uplift.
Hailed by New York’s Met Opera as “one of the great sopranos of the past half-century,” Jessye Norman (1945 – 2019) had a career spanning over 5 decades, touching the world with her undeniable voice. Norman was an HBCU grad, attending Howard University after garnering a scholarship to study voice, before continuing her training at the Peabody Institute and the University of Michigan. She began her career in Europe, winning the ARD International Music Competition in Munich in 1968, which led to a contract with the Deutsche Oper Berlin and subsequently her operatic début as Elisabeth in Wagner’s Tannhäuser. During her career, she performed at several momentous occasions, such as the 1996 Summer Olympics opening ceremony and the second inauguration of Bill Clinton in 1997. Norman was also a highly decorated performer, receiving a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006 (accompanying her 4 other Grammys) and the National Medal of Arts by President Barack Obama in 2009 among other accolades.
Simon Estes (born 1938) is a renowned and critically acclaimed bass-baritone opera singer and educator and a member of the first generation of Black opera singers to achieve widespread success and knock down racial barriers. As a young boy in Centerville, Iowa, Estes grew up singing in his church choir and throughout his formative education years. After finishing his undergraduate studies, Estes pursued further education at the prestigious Juilliard School in 1964. He began his impressive international career in the 1960s, making his operatic professional debut at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin, Germany playing the role of Ramfis in Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida. From 1965 to 2011, Simon performed to great acclaim in opera houses globally and performed for six U.S. presidents, including Barack Obama, numerous other presidents, and world leaders such as the late Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
This South African native’s first name does not even begin to cover the beauty of her soprano voice. Pretty Yende (born 1985), from the small town of Piet Retief, first grew an affinity for opera at age 16, after watching a British Airways commercial that featured Delibes’ “Flower Duet.” She kicked off her career with a series of first-place wins at international singing competitions such as the renowned Belvedere and Operalia Competitions. She has performed at opera houses internationally, from her debut at La Scala in Milan to her international breakthrough at New York’s Metropolitan Opera in 2013, along with Paris, Berlin, Buenos Aires and even a performance at the South African hosted World Cup in 2010. After attending the South African College of Music, Yende also graduated from the Accademia Teatro alla Scala in Milan, Italy- a country where she has received one of the highest honors: a Knight of the Order of the Star of Italy.
J’Nai Bridges (born 1986), is a rising opera star who has earned herself the nickname, “The Beyoncé of Opera.” And it’s for good reason, the American mezzo-soprano singer known for her “rich, dark, exciting sound” has taken the Opera world by storm, making her highly-acclaimed debut at The Metropolitan Opera in New York as Nefertiti in a sold-out run of Philip Glass’ opera Akhnaten in 2019. The Lakewood, Washington native who studied at the Manhattan School of Music and Curtis Institute of Music had initially set her sights on a professional career in Basketball, but fell in love with music- she still hoops in her spare time, though! Bridges has performed at the San Francisco Opera and the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. for late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg after winning a 2012 Marian Anderson Award—an award named in homage to another Black operatic heavyweight.
Todd Duncan (1903 –1998) was a renowned American baritone opera singer, actor, and educator who during his career helped desegregate the field of opera. He first debuted in 1933 in Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria with the Aeolian Opera, a Black opera company in New York. Duncan most notably originated the role of Porgy in the debut of the classic Gershwin opera, Porgy and Bess in 1935. Duncan, who was known for his elegant phrasing and his dramatic persuasiveness, was also the first Black singer to join the New York City Opera, where he sang Tonio in a production of Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci. After earning a master’s at Columbia University Teachers College in 1930, he joined the music faculty of Howard University. He began his operatic career while on the Howard faculty, and he remained on staff there through three productions of Porgy and Bess.
And while this list of talented performers includes many firsts, we’ve got to make sure they’re not the last. We salute our brothers and sisters who are breaking boundaries, opening doors, and doing it for the culture in all domains of music, the arts, and beyond!