OPERA NEWS - Viewpoint: History Lesson
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Viewpoint: History Lesson

By F. Paul Driscoll

Viewpoint McFerrin lg 219
Robert McFerrin in 1955
Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Carl Van Vechten Collection
The Tristan to Birgit Nilsson’s Isolde on her live 1967 recording from the Wiener Staatsoper is Jess Thomas, not James King, as stated in Recordings/Video (December).

FEBRUARY IS Black History Month in the U.S. and Canada. Beginning on page 18 of this issue, Fred Cohn pays tribute to Camilla Williams, the gifted Virginian soprano who was the first African–American woman to sing a principal role at a major U.S. opera company. Williams, who made her New York City Opera debut in 1946, never sang with the Met; the first African–American hired by the company as a full-time performer was ballerina Janet Collins, who made her Met debut in Aida, on the opening night of the 1951–52 season. Collins worked in Hollywood and on Broadway before she came to the Met, where most of her 106 performances in her three seasons on the roster were devoted to the ballet divertissements in Aida, Carmen, La Gioconda and Samson et Dalila. 

When contralto Marian Anderson arrived at the Met on January 7, 1955, as Ulrica in Un Ballo in Maschera, it was front-page news; Anderson, one of the world’s most distinguished concert artists, was then in her late fifties and had never sung in opera before. Less than three weeks later, thirty-three-year-old baritone Robert McFerrin, who had appeared in the 1949 world premieres of Lost in the Stars on Broadway and Troubled Island at New York City Opera, made his Met debut as Amonasro in Aida. A first-class talent in his prime, named “as great a baritone as any now before the public” by legendary conductor Eugene Ormandy, McFerrin sang just ten performances with the Met in New York and on tour in his two seasons on the roster. There is ample evidence of the easy majesty of McFerrin’s singing on the soundtrack of the 1959 film of Porgy and Bess, in which McFerrin dubbed the vocals for Sidney Poitier’s Porgy. spacer 

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