Strictly speaking, Marian Anderson (1897 – 1993) was a concert singer, not an opera singer, but her voice was so exceptional and her one appearance in an opera made her so important and so influential, both as a vocalist and as a force in racial progress for America, that it is literally impossible not to include her in any list of the greatest singers of the 20th century. Marian Anderson’s symbolism, in fact, can sometimes overshadow the fact that she had a rich contralto voice of exceptional range and power combined with great beauty and emotional depth.
The great conductor Arturo Toscanini told her; “A voice like yours is heard once in a hundred years.” Harold Schoenberg, music critic for the New York Times, wrote: “Those who remember her at her height … can never forget that big resonant voice, with those low notes almost visceral in nature, and with that easy, unforced ascent to the top register. A natural voice, a hauntingly colorful one, it was one of the vocal phenomena of its time.”
Marian’s grandfather had been born a slave. She was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and began singing in the church chorus when she was only six years old. Her father bought her a piano when she was eight, but he was injured at work and when Marian was only twelve years old he died. The family moved in with her Grandparents while her mother found work. Annie Anderson had been a schoolteacher in Virginia but under a law that discriminated against black teachers, was unable to teach in Pennsylvania so she was forced to earned an income cleaning, laundering, scrubbing floors, and looking after small children.
Young Marian sang at many different churches and became popular enough to occasionally be paid as much as five dollars for her performances, but there was no money for music lessons. When she was seventeen, a family friend who was a music teacher offered to give her lessons for free. Then, during her final year in high school, she met Giuseppe Boghetti, a respected voice teacher who she continued to study with all her life. He analyzed her voice and worked with her on improving her breathing, creating an even tone across her register. and expanding her repertory. After graduating from High School, she applied for admission to the Philadelphia Music Academy, but was turned away because she was black.
Touring the black colleges and churches in the South, she soon earned as much as $100 per concert. A poorly conceived and disastrous concert at New York’s Town Hall left her so discouraged that she considered giving up, but when she entered a singing competition in 1925 and beat 300 rivals to sing in New York’s Lewissohn Stadium with the Philharmonic Orchestra accompanying her, she was signed by Arthur Judson, an important impresario, and soon performed a solo recital at Carnegie Hall to rave reviews.
Despite this success, racial prejudice prevented her career from gaining much momentum and she became convinced that she could only gain the training and experience she needed in Europe. With the help of a scholarship from the Julius Rosenwald Fund she studied lieder singing in Germany while giving concerts throughout Europe, culminating in a highly successful 1935 performance at the Salzburg Festival where she was heard by Arturo Toscanini.
Her repertoire included negro spirituals, German lieder, and several opera arias but, even though she several European opera companies offered her roles, she knew she had no acting experience and decided to perform only in concerts and recitals.
The famous impresario Sol Hurok, who had managed many great performers including Feodor Chaliapin, took over her career at this point and remained her manager until she retired. He shaped the course her career and offered invaluable counsel, choosing when and where she should perform. She was a famous singer by 1939, having sung for King Gustav in Stockholm and King Christian in Copenhagen,and for the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius who was so moved that he dedicated his song “Solitude” to her and said “The roof of my house is too low for your voice.” She had toured the United States, giving 70 concerts a year but in her homeland she was still denied rooms in hotels and not allowed to eat in restaurants. Albert Einstein, hearing that she was denied a hotel when performing at Princeton University invited her to stay at his home and hosted her on many occasions.
When Sol Hurok tried to book her at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C., the Daughters of the American Revolution, who owned the hall, refused to allow a “singer of color” to perform there. The hall’s director told Hurok “No Negro will ever appear in this hall while I am manager.” The resulting publicity and public outrage was enormous. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt resigned from the D.A.R. in protest and Marian Anderson was formally invited by the Secretary of the Interior to appear at the Lincoln Memorial before as many people as would care to come, without charge.
Miss Anderson was not immediately inclined to appear. “I said yes, but the yes did not come easily or quickly. I don’t like a lot of show, and one could not tell in advance what direction the affair would take. I studied my conscience. …. As I thought further, I could see that my significance as an individual was small in this affair. I had become, whether I like it or not, a symbol, representing my people.”
On Easter Sunday 75,000 people showed up and her concert was broadcast to an audience of millions. Marian Anderson was now internationally famous and a historic symbol of the struggle for racial equality.
She had always insisted that black audience members would be allotted seats in all parts of the auditorium for her concerts. Now she could refuse to appear where the audience was segregated and in 1943, she finally sang at Constitution Hall to an integrated audience as part of a benefit for the American Red Cross even though the District of Columbia Board of Education continued to bar her from using a high school auditorium. She said,“If I were inclined to be combative, I suppose I might insist on making an issue of these things. But that is not my nature, and I always bear in mind that my mission is to leave behind me the kind of impression that will make it easier for those who follow.”
In 1943, Marian Anderson married Orpheus H. Fisher, a Delaware architect who had first asked her to marry him when they were teenagers. Having seen many properties taken off the market when the sellers learned that the purchasers would be African-Americans, the couple finally found and bought a 100 acre farm in Danbury, Connecticut where they lived for nearly 50 years.
In 1955 she became the first black person, American or otherwise, to perform at the Metropolitan Opera. She performed the role of Ulrica in Giuseppe Verdi’s “Un Ballo in Maschera.” She was 58 years old and, feeling past her vocal prime.
“The curtain rose on the second scene and I was there on stage, mixing the witch’s brew. I trembled, and when the audience applauded and applauded before I could sing a note, I felt myself tightening into a knot.”
It was the only time she would appear on an opera stage, but it was a historic performance. She was initially unsatisfied with her performance but it was applauded by critics and it paved the way for generations of black singers to come. She was made a permanent member of the Metropolitan Opera company
Marian Anderson continued to give concerts and recitals until she retired in 1965. She was appointed a delegate to the United Nations Human Rights Committee by President Dwight Eisenhower, toured India and the Far East as a goodwill ambassador for the U.S. State Department, sang at the inaugurations of both President Eisenhower and Kennedy, and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. She became active in the civil rights movement during the 1960s, giving benefit concerts for the Congress of Racial Equality and the NAACP and sang at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
She published her autobiography, “My Lord, What a Morning,” which became a bestseller and also a record album, “Snoopycat: The Adventures of Marian Anderson’s Cat Snoopy,”about her beloved black cat. Her accumulated awards and medals are simply too numerous to list.
In 1965 she retired from public performance. Marian Anderson died of congestive heart failure on April 8, 1993, at age 96.