A few weeks ago it was announced that Harriet Tubman was going to be featured on the new twenty dollar bill. It received a tremendous amount of attention. What was even more exciting to me, and to opera fans throughout the country is that the second woman ever chosen to grace our paper currency was an opera singer: Marian Anderson (February 27, 1897 – April 8, 1993).
The Jackie Robinson of opera, she was not allowed to perform at the Metropolitan Opera until 1955. She was singing in Carnegie Hall by 1928. Able to have a career in Europe, she performed in the major opera houses, attracting the attention of such impresarios as Sol Hurok, and the personal attention of composer Jean Sibelius, who arranged his music for her contralto voice. In 1935 Arturo Toscanini told her she had a voice “heard once in a hundred years”.
Unfortunately, back in the USA, Anderson was treated like a second class citizen because of her race. When she was denied a hotel room while performing at Princeton, she and Albert Einstein became friends, when he invited her to stay at his home. They remained close friends until his death. In 1939, the incident with the DAR, when they refused to allow her access to Constitution Hall caused First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt to resign her membership. The subsequent open air concert at the Lincoln Memorial, along with a crowd of 70,000, and the massive radio audience made her a superstar with the status very few opera singer ever achieve. Yet – the state of the Metropolitan Opera was denied her.
Met fans do quite a bit of complaining about Rudolph Bing and how despotic he was, denying Beverly Sills an opportunity to sing at the Met for most of her career. One of the things he did do was finally bring inviting Marian Anderson to join the Met family. From her debut on January 7, 1955 until the day she died, she was listed as a member of the company.
Bing created a production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera for Anderson, as Ulrica. Instead of a second rate cast, which could have happened, and had been suggested, the cast was amazing. Richard Tucker, Robert Merrill, Roberta Peters, Zinka Milanov – absolutely legendary.