Adrienne Danrich on the Black Opera Divas Who Broke Barriers

Shining "This Little Light of Mine" on two legends: Marian Anderson and Leontyne Price.

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"This Little Light of Mine," written and performed by Adrienne Danrich, honors the Black opera singers who came before her. Photo: Angela Owens.

What must it be like to be so bigoted that someone would refuse the exquisite pleasure of hearing Marian Anderson sing? In her spellbinding showThis Little Light of Mine: The Stories of Marian Anderson and Leontyne Price, operatic soprano Adrienne Danrich recounts a powerful episode from Anderson’s career that might serve as an example to some current political figures: In 1939, the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), which owned the performance venue Constitution Hall in Washington, DC, barred the legendary African-American singer from performing on their stage because of her race. In the Jim Crow era, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt famously resigned from the DAR and coordinated the NAACP and the Department of the Interior to arrange for Anderson to give a public concert at the Lincoln Memorial. On the National Mall, 75,000 people gathered to hear her, as they should have; she was an epochally brilliant artist. (The DAR still owns Constitution Hall, but now proclaims a non-discrimination policy and celebration of diversity; Anderson subsequently performed there many times.)

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Eleanor Roosevelt and Marian Anderson share a human moment, 1953. Photo: National Archives and Records Administration / Wikimedia Commons / via

Anderson, in 1955, went on to become the first African-American singer to perform at the Metropolitan Opera. That night, Danrich tells us, the Laurel, MS-born Price was in the audience and found inspiration in Anderson’s success; six years later she made her own Met Opera debut. Price, now 91, was cast as the prima donna in Antony and Cleopatra, a new opera by Samuel Barber, which the Met commissioned in 1966 to inaugurate their new theater at Lincoln Center. Even though the Met went, in just a decade, from casting a Black singer for the first time to fêting a Black singer in a showcase to celebrate a new building, that was all half a century ago; as Danrich reminds us, there is still significant work left to do in order to achieve racial justice and equality at the Met and, really, across the opera world. For example, the Met routinely featured a white singer in blackface in the title role of Verdi’s Otello until 2015 — and even then the role was sung by a white singer, just not in blackface.

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Leontyne Price as Aida, 1963. / via

This is all a personal history for Danrich, who was inspired by Price at an early age, as Price was inspired by Anderson. In addition to her more traditional operatic career, singing diverse roles nationwide from the standard and avant-garde repertoires, Danrich has performed This Little Light of Mine more than 80 times since its 2007 commission by the Cincinnati Opera, which she also recorded for Milwaukee Public Television. Danrich calls the show a “live documentary,” and it’s a great, engrossing opportunity for adults and children of all races to learn this important history. And what a gratifying history to embrace: Danrich includes gorgeous renditions of several spirituals and arias — the musical director and pianist is Mila Henry — as well as arresting audio recordings of Anderson and Price. Danrich expertly infuses classical singing with a sense of relevance to people’s lives in the struggle for racial equality.

Danrich will perform This Little Light of Mine: The Stories of Marian Anderson and Leontyne Price on Wed., June 6, 2018, at 7:30pm at Merkin Concert Hall at Kaufman Music Center. The show is presented by the Little Opera Theatre of New York as part of the third annual New York Opera Fest. Tickets and more information are here.

Beck Feibelman: What’s the most perceptive question anyone has asked you about your work? What’s the most idiotic question anyone has asked you about your work? What’s the weirdest question anyone has asked you about your work?

Adrienne Danrich: I can’t think of specific questions that stick out in my mind regarding these questions. However, I do get asked, “Why didn’t you include this singer or that singer in your show?” I often jokingly answer that I can’t possibly include every singer of color in the show or else we’d literally be there all night. Seriously, I know that it is so important for me and other people of color who are in this business of music to know that our contribution is recognized and appreciated. To those people that are not in the show proper, I’d like to say this: I may not personally know you, but you are appreciated and I honor your work in this art form. Thank you.

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BF: This Little Light of Mine is about the struggle, perseverance and ultimate artistic successes of Marian Anderson and Leontyne Price, and their legacy inspiring more people of color to perform on the operatic stage. Recently, I’ve seen rising interest in expanding these seeds of diversity to more composers and conductors — and even opera company administrators at the highest levels — who are women and/or people of color. Do you see progress being made?

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Danrich performing This Little Light of Mine on Milwaukee Public Television.

AD: Yes, progress is being made, it is slow but women and people of color are finding our voices and letting them be heard throughout the artistic community. There is a wonderful network that I am a part of on social media that is dedicated to celebrating, encouraging and offering information to keep women in the field connected and in the know. There is also a database that is being created that will list women working in the field, including composers, collaborative pianists and more. Just this past week, a composer’s diversity network went live. So yes, there is some incremental progress.

BF: What needs to be happening in art schools, conservatories and opera companies to keep the idea of genuine, sustainable diversity and inclusiveness in opera moving forward?

AD: There needs to be active and aggressive outreach and recruiting of women and people of color, not only in the specific roles of companies or schools but also as audience members. I know that when I was growing up in St. Louis, I had no exposure to classical music and opera until I got accepted into a performing arts high school. As a young person, I remember how affected I was when I saw, for the first time, a beautiful African-American lady singing opera on television. I was entranced and decided: That is what I want to do! That lady just so happened to be Ms. Leontyne Price. My point is the more visible people of color are, and women for that matter, the more young girls and young people of color can envision themselves in those same roles.

BF: Are you hopeful or concerned?

AD: It is in my nature to be hopeful. I also make it a point to volunteer in my community, singing in schools. Many times when I am engaged to sing a performance of This Little Light of Mine, I make it a point to sing at local churches and schools. It is a lofty goal, but I do hope that I could be to some young person what Price was to me: an inspiration to pursue my dreams of singing in this amazing profession.

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BF: The slow history toward greater racial equality you talk about so sensitively in your show is exactly the history now being suppressed and reversed as racists and bigots feel more empowered by the current political atmosphere. What do you see as the role of classical singing, or the arts more generally, in combating this?

The African-American experience is the American experience.

AD: It is important that the history of our country is told and re-told, over and over again, so that no one will be able to take the “big eraser” of racism, bigotry and ignorance to wipe out an entire nation’s true and indisputable history. One of the things that I have attempted to do in writing and performing This Little Light of Mine is simply to present the facts of what happened during the time that Price and Anderson rose to fame. I do not editorialize and give my opinions about what they went through. People in the arts can be effective in telling the stories and not allowing our country to settle into selective amnesia when it comes to the negative aspects of its history. Right now, there are operas being written, workshopped and performed that present the African-American experience in this country. Our experience as a people is the American experience. Operas like Yardbird, Margaret Garner, Harriet Tubman: When I Cross that Line to Freedom, We Shall Not Be Moved, Champion, Intimate Apparel and many more are making sure that our stories are being told and will not be forgotten or edited by others.

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BF: Do young artists of color starting out today face similar struggles to those of Anderson and Price, or do you see new and different challenges for them? As a singer, but also historian and educator, what’s your best advice for young artists of color encountering discrimination at the beginnings of their operatic careers?

AD: First and foremost, I am a singer and performer, and as such, my passion in research is centered on my art and the artists who have inspired me. But I’d say, yes, many challenges that Ms. Anderson and Ms. Price faced are still present today to some extent for young artists of color. I would say to those young people: You cannot control what other people think of you but you can control how you think of yourself, how you present yourself and your talents to the world, and how you comport yourself. Strive for excellence within your studies. Be the person who is most prepared when you come to rehearsals. Show up on time. Listen more and talk less. It is impossible to change the mind of someone who is determined to feel a certain way about you. Rise above their limitations and be your best self.

BF: You created This Little Light of Mine in 2007. The country has changed radically — more than once — in the intervening years. Have you noticed any changes in the response from audiences, critics and theaters presenting the show over the years? Do you, personally, still feel the same way about it that you did in 2007?

AD: The country has indeed changed since I wrote This Little Light of Mine but the history of Anderson and Price has not. At the end of the program, I have begun to share my own personal experiences and reactions to what is happening in our country, because I realize that, for many who come to see the show, I am not just speaking of the history of these two ladies, rather, I am speaking on the current pain that they feel right now, today, in this country.