Obituary: Marian Anderson (CORRECTED)

Elizabeth Forbes
Thursday 08 April 1993 23:02


Marian Anderson, singer: born Philadelphia 27 February 1897; married 1943 Orpheus Fisher (died 1985); died Portland, Oregon 8 April 1993.

MARIAN ANDERSON will always be remembered as the first black singer to appear at the Metropolitan Opera, New York. However, by 1955, when she took the role of Ulrica in that historic performance of Verdi's Un ballo in maschera, the American contralto had already sung with great success for more than 30 years in concerts and recitals in the United States and Europe. She was admired by Sibelius and Toscanini, was a superb interpreter of Lieder, and could move an audience of 70,000 to tears with her heartfelt singing of spirituals that usually concluded her programmes.

Born in Philadelphia in 1902, Anderson became a professional singer before she graduated from high school. She was turned down by a music college because she was 'coloured', and studied privately with Giuseppe Boghetti. He encouraged her to enter a competition in 1925 sponsored by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra; she won the first prize, a concert with the NYPO, when she sang the aria 'O mio Fernando' (her competition piece), from Donizetti's opera La Favorite, and some spirituals. Though she was by then appearing all over the US, she felt that her career was not advancing rapidly enough and after a further year of study with Frank La Forge, in the spring of 1930 she travelled to Europe.

Anderson made her European debut in London at the Wigmore Hall, then appeared at a Promenade Concert, conducted by Sir Henry Wood, at which she sang the 'Air de Lia' from Debussy's Enfant prodigue. Her reception was polite but lukewarm and she came back to the US somewhat disappointed. The following year she returned to Europe, going this time to Berlin, where she worked with Michael Raucheisen on the German Lied. Before leaving Berlin, she gave a successful concert of Beethoven and Schubert songs. She then toured Scandinavia and was rapturously received, especially in Norway.

Anderson returned to Norway in 1933, during a two-year trip to Europe, giving over 100 concerts and touring the Soviet Union and Poland as well as Scandinavia. While in Finland she visited Sibelius and at his request sang some of his songs to him. During summer and autumn 1935 she sang in Paris, Brussels, Geneva, Vienna and at Salzburg, where Toscanini told her that hers was a voice 'one hears once in a hundred years'. Back in the US, she gave a very successful recital at the Town Hall in New York, which erased the hurtful memory of a previous appearance there when she had been unready to face such a sophisticated audience.

By now Anderson was as well known in her own country as in Europe; it came as a tremendous shock, early in 1939, when she was denied the use of Constitution Hall in Washington by its owners, the Daughters of the American Revolution. Mrs Eleanor Roosevelt immediately resigned from the DAR, while several artists cancelled their engagements at the Hall in protest. On Easter Day, 9 April 1939, Anderson gave an open-air concert at the Lincoln Memorial. Over 70,000 people heard her sing a programme including 'O mio Fernando', Schubert's Ave Maria and three favourite spirituals, 'Gospel Train', 'Trampin' ' and 'My Soul is Anchored in the Lord'.

A few weeks later Anderson was invited to sing at the White House at a reception for King George VI and Queen Elizabeth. During the Second World War she appeared at Constitution Hall in several charity concerts. The idea of singing in opera had occurred to her before. While in Russia, she met the director Stanislavsky, who suggested that she study Carmen with him; unfortunately nothing came of this. In 1951 Rudolf Bing, newly appointed General Manager of the Metropolitan, had considered inviting Anderson to sing Azucena in Il trovatore, but Anderson was too busy with her concert career. Then in 1954 Bing suggested Ulrica in Un ballo in maschera, a short but important role that would require little acting experience or rehearsal time.

Anderson auditioned for the role with Dimitri Mitropoulos, who would be the conductor. Though she thought it too high for her voice, he accepted her and the performance of Un ballo in maschera took place on 7 January 1955; her co-stars were Zinka Milanov as Amelia and Richard Tucker as Riccardo. Anderson was too moved to sing at her best, but a few days later, when the company paid its weekly (at that time) visit to Philadelphia, she was in her finest voice. Though Anderson continued to sing for another decade, she did not attempt another operatic role; she had blazed the trail and black singers flooded through the stage-door of the Met: Leontyne Price, George Shirley, Grace Bumbry and many others.

In her autobiography, My Lord, What a Morning (1956), Anderson expresses no bitterness at the treatment which she sometimes suffered in the earlier years of early in her career; she asks only to be accepted for what she was: a fine artist with a magnificently rich contralto voice; a stylish interpreter of the songs of Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Mahler and Richard Strauss; a restrained performer of spirituals who could none the less raise the emotional temperature of an audience to boiling point. She took her farewell at Carnegie Hall, New York, on 19 April 1965.

(Photograph omitted)

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