I hope you will help me answer the question that is the title of this post. I’m looking for answers, not providing them.
Nearly 30 years ago, I conducted a survey for The New York Opera Newsletter when I was the editor of that paper for professional singers. The survey was designed to get some statistical and anecdotal information on whether male and female singers of color had achieved equality alongside other classical singers. Some of the people who responded to that survey submitted stories that showed that discrimination was still common, both in casting and in compensation. For example, I heard that in one production of Porgy and Bess, African-American cast members and choristers were actually paid less than other singers in comparable roles.
Many respondents replied that at that time, it was easier for female African-American singers to be cast in leading roles than it was for males. After all, people observed, top African-American female singers were already being cast in leading roles – Leontine Price, Shirley Verrett, Martina Arroyo and Grace Bumbry among them. Men, the respondents pointed out, were lagging behind. Several respondents had the opinion that opera companies didn’t want to cast Black men in leading roles that ran the risk of having them appear as the love interests of women, possibly non-Black female singers.
For a little context, let’s point out that in those days at least one African-American tenor, George Shirley, had pretty much broken that barrier. (Had he really? I wish I knew what he would have to say.) I saw him perform twice in romantic leading roles: once in Così fan Tutte at Tanglewood and once in Roméo et Juliette at the Metropolitan Opera. He was a singer who had it all – a world-class lyric tenor voice, dashing good looks and fine acting ability. (Sadly, his career seemed to be shorter-lived than it should have been.) Another important African-American singer, the bass-baritone/heldenbariton Simon Estes, was singing more in Europe than here in the States. I regret that I didn’t hear him. His Dutchman was legendary.
Here’s a clip of Estes in that role at Bayreuth.
It is also unfortunate that when people are discussing great American baritones, they usually talk about Leonard Warren, Robert Merrill and Sherrill Milnes, but rarely cite either Simon Estes or William Warfield. I had occasion to hear Warfield just once in recital and he was possibly the finest bass-baritone I ever heard, and possibly the greatest singer in any category. I’d place his voice and his artistry alongside Fischer-Dieskau, Hermann Prey and many of the other great baritones I was privileged to hear in those days and since.
Now, a New Age
Today, opera-goers see and hear people like Lawrence Brownlee, an astonishing lyric tenor who, along with Juan-Diego Flores and a handful of others, are proving that the age of true bel canto tenors is not over. (If you remember some of the squawky dudes who were singing Rossini on American stages 25 years ago, you know what I mean.)
And then we come to Eric Owens, a bass-baritone who commanded the attention of both the press and the public with his performances of Alberich in Das Rheingold at the Met two years ago.
And other African-American male singers are on the rise too. For example, there’s Issachah Savage, a formidable young Wagnerian heldentenor I heard a few years ago in a concert of singers who won the Liederkranz competition in New York. This guy has the goods. And there are a number of other young Black male singers who are winning competitions, making the news and getting roles – men like the baritone Ryan Speedo Green.
But, You Tell Me Please . . .
Do you think that the playing field is finally level for African-American male singers? I’m wondering . . .
- Are they more likely to be cast in romantic leading roles in some parts of the country than in others?
- Do they have an easier time being cast in non-romantic parts, like Alberich, than as the love interests?
- Is it still true that it is easier for Black singers to start their careers in Europe than it is in the United States?
Have you heard any comments or stories that are relevant to these questions?
Thank you for thinking and sharing your observations here.