Remembering Marian Anderson, the First Black Artist to Perform at the Met Opera

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When Marian Anderson performed at the Lincoln Memorial on April 9, 1939—after being rejected from singing at DC Constitution Hall by the Daughters of the American Revolution because she was black—she began with “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee.” She was singing in front of 75,000 people, and as she sang of freedom, it’s hard not to read a form of protest into her choice of song and unwavering, stoic delivery. Her performance that day made major headlines. For the power of her voice and artistry, and the social meaning of the diverse crowd standing together, for her and everything she symbolized, as she took the stage. Anderson had legendary vocal range, moving seamlessly from the lowest notes to the highest soprano, and undeniable musical gifts. She was also a global sensation at her height. To put it in contemporary terms, as National Portrait Gallery curator Leslie Ureña once stated, she was the Beyoncé of her day.

As such, Anderson was many firsts. There was the momentous Lincoln Memorial performance. And there were many other moments. She was the first African American singer to perform at the White House in 1936. And principally, Anderson was the first black soloist to appear at the Metropolitan Opera in 1955.

The classical musician, born in 1887, got her start young. She began singing at age three and joined her church choir at six. Her father died when she was young, and by age 12, Anderson was her family’s own breadwinner. Her church and community helped support her musical education. She was rejected from the Philadelphia Music Academy on racial grounds, and persevered, eventually connecting with famed opera singer Giuseppe Boghetti who saw her gift and took her under his wing.

It was Boghetti who entered Anderson in a competition against 300 other singers to perform at the New York Philharmonic in 1925. She won. Following this breakthrough moment, she sought to perform and further develop her talent throughout the country; but after several years of consistent stagnancy and racist engagement, she left for Europe in 1930, fed up with America’s ongoing systemic racial barriers to entry.

Anderson became an instant sensation across the pond. She studied German and lieder music, and began touring throughout Scandinavia and later the continent. Her performances ranged from lieder to African American spirituals to Russian folk songs and Italian opera.

When she returned to the States in 1936, she was famous. The Roosevelts invited her to perform at the White House. She toured the country, and, eventually, the globe. Throughout this time, Anderson dealt with the everyday violence of segregation. When performing at Princeton, no hotel would offer her a room—she stayed at Albert Einstein’s place instead. In other situations, there was no parallel option. She later performed at the 1963 March on Washington. When she died in 1993, Anderson had performed in every major concert hall in America, breaking barriers often.

Anderson was known for her deep humility and practicality—she wasn’t an outspoken activist, but through her pursuit of her art, her uncompromising acknowledgement, and respect for her talent, she created change.

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