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In Their Own Words Part I- The Black Classical Singer Experience

05/21/2015 12:54 pm ET | Updated May 19, 2016

Please note: This is Part I of a three-part article. Stay tuned.

PART I

"Because here's the thing -- the road ahead is not going to be easy.  It never is, especially for folks like you and me.  Because while we've come so far, the truth is that those age-old problems are stubborn and they haven't fully gone away.  So there will be times, just like for those Airmen, when you feel like folks look right past you, or they see just a fraction of who you really are.  The world won't always see you in those caps and gowns.  They won't know how hard you worked and how much you sacrificed to make it to this day -- the countless hours you spent studying to get this diploma, the multiple jobs you worked to pay for school, the times you had to drive home and take care of your grandma, the evenings you gave up to volunteer at a food bank or organize a campus fundraiser.  They don't know that part of you. Instead they will make assumptions about who they think you are based on their limited notion of the world."

- Michelle Obama, Tuskegee University Commencement Address, May 2015

The following comments below are responses from my discussion with successful, young Black colleagues in the opera profession in May 2015.

"I did walk on stage in a competition once, while audibly hearing a shocked audience member mention "Ein Schwarze..." (German for "A Black")

"Once in Italy, I had to walk to my hotel and it was a hump. It was a small town and everyone knew I was not from there. I only saw two other Black people there. My Italian was pretty new so I didn't understand everything. On my walk, men constantly were stopping and asking me if I needed a ride. I said, "No thank you," and kept walking. Finally on a long walk to the grocery store a very old man offered and I said to myself, "I can take him on if he acts like a fool." I kept my hand on the door to jump and roll if necessary. It wasn't. He took me to the store and when I offered my hand to shake his and thank him, he grabbed my breast and smiled. I was shocked and got out the car.(I was young and stupid, I know). I told my cast-mates what happened. I had been telling them all along how nice everyone in the town was always for offering me rides.  Once I told them of this incident they finally told me it was not niceness. Black women were thought to be prostitutes and they were trying to pick me up.  From that point on, the tenor offered to drive me home at night."

"...in Europe... the director said he couldn't have two Black singers cast in a production he was directing because the direction and flavor of the show would change."

"While walking the streets of Paris midday with my family, my sister and I passed a
woman who intentionally put her leg out to forcefully kick my sister (who was wearing
her hair in an afro at the time) and cursed at her using racially-charged language."

"Once in Europe with a mostly French cast, a cast-mate's daughter was encouraged to come and show me the "English" they taught her. She came to me slapped her hands together and shouted, "Dynomite!!!"  They all laughed.  Good Times was 20+ years old by then. I had never said those words to my cast mates, but they found it appropriate to teach this little girl that "cooning" is what I would like."

"My family was very openly refused taxi service in Berlin coming from an airport and
made such a scene that caused another White taxi driver to comment, "What was his
problem?" 

"Primarily in Europe, make-up artists refuse to apply my make-up because
they don't know how to work with my complexion. I take this as fear on their part
because certainly they have the resources to research my skin tone and learn the best
methods to apply; however, time and time again they tell me just go without make-up while in the same show my lighter-skinned counterpart is spending an hour, on average, in the make-up room to be sure their features are highlighted."

"While working in Europe I have been told that I can never sing certain traditional roles solely on the basis that I was black. This is something opera houses in America would
never be so bold to proclaim."

Meanwhile in America...

"I have never worn a wig in Europe or been "whitened up" as I have in the States."

"We had a concert at a country club. I arrived with an Latino singer They told us we had to park in the back and enter through the kitchen. I told them that we were performing.  They said we still had to come through the kitchen. My colleague was going to do it. I told him I would go home first. I parked in front and walked through the front door. When I told the White singers what happened.They said, they parked in the front, walked in the front and no one had told them to do
differently."

"Just after walking off stage and taking my bow, I walk out to the valet parking area to retrieve my Black Cadillac Escalade. As the truck pulls up, I tip the driver and open my door to get in when suddenly I'm stopped by an elderly Caucasian women who asks,
"Young man, where is the bus?"
"Pardon me ma'am?"
"The Bus. Where is it? Where did you park it? You DID drive the Bus DIDN'T you?"

"I've had cabs called for me while staying at nice hotels that upon seeing me waiting in front of the hotel have attempted to refuse to take me somewhere until a concierge worker or someone from the hotel pressed the issue. But to end on a lighter note, there was once a couple that handed me the keys to their car to park it for them while at a company function. I guess they assumed I was the help since I was dressed in a tuxedo."

"On a tour of the eastern seaboard with my boarding arts high school we encountered a donor who refused to house black students: as result two other black singers and I were put up in a hotel."

"After a private donor party in a gated neighborhood a white female colleague and I
were talking and walking through the community when we were approached by a White police officer and told we were not welcome in the neighborhood. My White friend tried to speak up on our account, but the officer made it clear that he wasn't talking to her. I explained that I was there as a guest of prominent family and were just taking a walk. He threatened to arrest me for "talking back."

"Place: Metropolitan Opera. Very high level Donor dinner at a private restaurant ... Sitting at the table with all the Lindeman Young Artists, the director and several donors. The wife of a donor turns to me and says,
"You know what? I'd just like to apologize to you for Slavery. I just think it was so bad. I mean I never OWNED slaves ... Well, my Family did years ago I guess ... but I never did. I mean we had blacks that helped out around the house and everything, but they weren't SLAVES ... They were like our family. But I'm serious ... It was just so bad ... and I just feel like I needed to say that to you!"
Everyone at the table sat there with their mouths open."

"I've been told, unfortunately more than once, that it's just too difficult to get my skin tone to make sense in the plot."

I've heard more times than you can imagine: "Nobody sings Old Man River like YOU people!"

"When touring USA... I was responsible for all the expenses as it pertained to both my pianist and myself. There were a lot of wonderful people I met during my travels but unfortunately in some places I encountered some less than enlightened folks with their narrow attitudes or biases. One in particular was a desk clerk at a hotel who refused to look in my direction or even speak to me. She attempted to communicate with me only via my pianist and not acknowledge my existence at all. This was really comical since my pianist was standing a few steps behind me and I was the one with the credit card and handling the check-in. This was a situation that definitely needed to be dealt with in as stern and unambiguous a manner as was warranted. Her manager was beyond mortified and quite apologetic."

"I'm not sure if folks are really ready for that kind of truth in this business. I'm not sure of any Black man in this business that could say without a doubt that it hasn't been an issue."

Postscript: Barbara Conrad entered the University of Texas in 1956, the first year in which Black students were admitted to the University as undergraduates. With her natural talents and stage presence, Barbara was encouraged to audition for a role in the University's 1957 production of Dido and Aeneas. She was awarded the leading role of Dido, the Queen of Carthage, opposite a white boy as Aeneas, her lover. Soon after the start of rehearsals, word spread that a black girl and a white boy were to play the lead roles in a romantic opera, and Barbara's trouble began. Ultimately, the controversy escalated to the Texas legislature, and the president of the University was advised to remove her from the cast. Barbara's story was covered by national news media, prompting a carte blanche offer from Harry Belafonte to underwrite her studies at the institution of her choice. Barbara, however, chose to remain at the University. She triumphed by going on to sing leading roles throughout the world.

There are many more from the pioneers who have broken the color barrier: Marian Anderson, George Shirley, Simon Estes, Leontyne Price, Reri Grist, Grace Bumbry, Todd Duncan, Shirley Verrett, William Warfield, and many more.

Sadly there are hundreds of anecdotes like the ones above, even now in 2015.