Village Voice,
April 8, 1997


[Because this subject is so important, I've added extensive transcripts from my interviews in the lower right frame. They'll give you far more facts, opinions, and history than I had room to include in my published piece, and I urge you to read them. Simply click on each underlined name to read nearly everything that person told me. Or you might open the transcripts in a new window, and read the interviews separately. Note that the Simon Estes interview comes from an excellent website called "Classical Music in Black and White." Iif you click to read it, it will open in a separate window, or at least it will if you're using Internet Explorer.]


The message on my answering machine was from Vinson Cole, a respected black lyric tenor. To understand why his call was important, just repeat a list of names to yourself: Leontyne Price, Shirley Verrett, Grace Bumbry, Jessye Norman, Kathleen Battle. These are black women who've been household names in opera, and the list could be extended to include not-quite-superstars like Martina Arroyo, Florence Quivar, and Barbara Hendricks.

Now ponder this name: Simon Estes. He's the sole black male singer with an international operatic reputation, and he's charged, often and publicly, that he doesn't sing in America because our opera producers won't hire black men. "There's been a perception that African-American males can't kiss or embrace white women onstage," Estes has said. "If I were to ask you to name me five African-American men singing in leading roles you would have a problem "

It's not that there aren't black male opera singers; any company can fill a stage with them, whenever it produces Porgy and Bess. But is Estes right? Are black men less prominent in opera than black women because their careers are blocked by racism? Estes has spoken out so much that I didn't want to call him. Instead, I thought, I'd speak to Cole. I told Cole's management what I wanted to talk about. Instead of a call back from the company to set up the interview, Cole called me himself -- and from Australia, no less, where he was singing the tenor solo in the Verdi Requiem. He certainly had something to tell me.

Nor was Cole alone, because nearly every African-American I approached was anxious to talk. I heard about the days when blacks were excluded from the classical world, days that -- in a stunning rebuke to the presumption that high culture is morally superior -- didn't end until eight years after Jackie Robinson played major league baseball. Not until 1955 did the Metropolitan Opera have a black singer -- Marian Anderson -- in a leading role, and not until 1957 did the Cleveland Orchestra break the symphonic color line by hiring a black cellist, Donald White. If Anderson were still alive, she'd be 100 this year, and on this anniversary it's sad to report that, even now, the New York Philharmonic has just one black member, and the Chicago Symphony none. The Detroit Symphony, in a black-majority city, has just three. It's no surprise that there's a sense of estrangement between African-Americans and the classical music world. The African-American Yellow Pages, a national resource guide for the black community, doesn't have a single listing for classical music. As Laurie Carter, associate vice president at the Juilliard School of Music (and a black woman) puts it, "For many African-Americans, classical music simply doesn't exist. It has no relevance to their lives at all "

[Out On A Limb]

So when you ask why there aren't more African-Americans in symphony orchestras, you also have to ask how many study classical music in the first place. Even Michael Morgan, music director of the Oakland East Bay Symphony, hasn't hired many. An intensely committed black man, he conducted an orchestra for Louis Farrakhan when the leader of the Nation of Islam presented himself -- improbably but convincingly -- as soloist in the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto. (He's not particularly a Farrakhan supporter, Morgan says, but he hoped that if "young people learned he'd been playing the violin his whole life, that would make them think differently about European culture")

Morgan is outspoken about the difficulties black conductors face, saying, perhaps generously, that "when a board of directors has to choose someone who will be the physical representation of an orchestra, it's hard to go out on a limb." So he's convincing when he says that the problem with orchestral hiring isn't racism; it's that there are too few black musicians in the pipeline. Henry Fogel, executive director of the Chicago Symphony, swears, with unabashed naiveté, that he'd "kill to have a black in this orchestra." I'd laugh if Morgan didn't say that Fogel means it. If the Chicago Symphony needs a new bassoonist and 150 people apply, maybe one or two will be African-American; the chance of one prevailing even in completely blind auditions is clearly very small.

So if you want more blacks in orchestras, you have to start in the community. You have to fight the loss of arts programs in the schools. You have to fight the isolation black classical musicians face, once they enter this mostly white world. Norman Johns, a 46-year-old black cellist with the Cincinnati Symphony, told me he never knew other black string players until 1972, when he played a gig with Aretha Franklin near Philadelphia. "She was going to cancel if there were not more blacks in the orchestra" Johns reminisces. "We had folks from New York and DC coming down to fill up the string section, and that's when we began networking. [See also extensive and interesting comments by Joseph Striplin, a violinist with the Detroit Symphony, which I didn't have room for in this piece.]

In Chicago, a white woman named Jeanette Kreston runs the Chicago Youth Symphony, which, as she tells it, used to be mainly from the suburbs. So she started the Chicago Youth Concert Orchestra to train minorities; it's fed a dozen members into the Youth Symphony. Dorothy Jackson, a black Chicago elementary school and part-time college teacher, whose niece Euletta went through both orchestras, can't praise Kreston strongly enough: "She's bending backwards to involve the African-Americans."

[Hold Up The Funding]

The St. Louis Symphony runs a music school, with branches all over town, including the heart of the inner city. Even more strikingly, the orchestra has relationships with 23 black churches. The result, says Community Relations Manager Kevin Smoot (who grew up in the black community not far from the orchestra's downtown office), has been "broad participation by African-Americans in nearly every facet of the symphony, even volunteer work." [For much more on the St. Louis Symphony, read my Wall Street Journal piece about their community programs.]

The Detroit Symphony does much the same, working through public schools. Like many classical music institutions, it was pushed by funders, most dramatically by two African-American members of the Michigan legislature, who in 1988 held up more than $2 million in funding until the orchestra hired another African-American musician. (They promoted a substitute bass player.)

But now Mark Volpe, the Detroit Symphony's executive director, sounds like an evangelist. "I forced the issue," he told me. "I told the staff and musicians, 'Your job is going to change'" Fully aware of the people whom he hopes will be his future Detroit audience, he won't allow auditions for new members until minorities apply. He engages black soloists and conductors; his staff is 35 per cent black, his board of directors 20 per cent. [Volpe now runs the Boston Symphony. That's a very different situation -- it's a prosperous orchestra, with no immediate need to change. Still, Volpe had told me that the trends that hit St. Louis and Detroit would hit the largest orchestras as well, though they're "kind of still in denial," and might not feel the impact of the future for "a decade."(Click to read his full remarks about this.) I've talked to him in Boston, and found him still committed to his vision, even if -- after just six months on the job -- he has years to go before he can implement it fully.]

In Chicago, by contrast, Dorothy Jackson wonders "whether there's a silent agreement that African-Americans won't be in the symphony." Henry Fogel, admitting that his own outreach is only just beginning, can only say: "If I came from her perspective, I'd probably share that view."

And what planet is New York on? It's not that outreach efforts aren't happening. But can anyone imagine the Philharmonic opening a music school in Bed-Stuy? Given the racial composition of New York's elite, African-Americans aren't the standout candidates for board membership, as they are in a smaller, blacker city like Detroit. Still, when I spent a morning with Betty Allen -- once a distinguished mezzo soprano, now the president emeritus of the Harlem School of the Arts -- I was meeting one of two African-Americans on the 32-member New York City Opera board, one of three on Carnegie Hall's, which is almost twice as large, and the only one on the 22-member board of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.

This, said Susan Woezl, City Opera's press director, is something the company's new general director, Paul Kellogg, "wants to address in the future." Jay Golan, director of development and planning at Carnegie Hall, notes that "every institution has to try to work with the black community in different ways." Carnegie's way, he said, is educational outreach in the public schools, and "our board members, black and white, support what we're doing." Donaldson C. Pillsbury, chairman of the Chamber Music Society's board, says he has approached African-Americans but has been turned down. He thinks the problem begins with the training of black musicians: "If there were more African-Americans on the stage, there might be more in the audience, and then we might have more to talk to about joining the board."

Still, Allen won't be anybody's token. She's proud of how hard she pushes, insisting, for instance, that the Chamber Music Society sponsor a black string quartet. But I can't help thinking that, by comparison with African-Americans in St. Louis I spoke to, she's swimming upstream. [See, for instance, my conversations -- not quoted in the piece -- with Donald Suggs, who publishes the St. Louis African-American newspaper, and John Mason, president and chairman of the Monsanto Fund.]


Which brings me back to Vinson Cole, who said two opera companies had "told my management that they couldn't hire a black singer with a [white] female partner. It hurts." He thought of taking legal action, but decided he'd rather be a singer than a cause.

I also called George Shirley, a soaring lyric tenor who somehow did sing leading roles at the Met in the '60s. "I cannot begin to tell you why," he said when I asked how he'd account for his success. But overall he sounded bitter. "It was my experience," he told me, "that the darker the skin color of a [black male] singer, the less likely the singer was to have a successful operatic career." He advises younger colleagues never to accept a role in Porgy and Bess unless they're also offered a role from the standard repertory.

Barbara Hendricks, speaking from her home in Switzerland, observed that "black women have been allowed to integrate across the board in a way that black men haven't. We don't intimidate, nobody thinks we're going to jump them." Her words, I realized afterward, were stronger than her tone. She'd nailed that ghastly white fear: black men are sexually dangerous.

What do opera companies say? The Met has always stated that its casting is completely color-blind. On the other hand, Speight Jenkins, who runs the Seattle Opera and does choose black men for leading roles, says straight out that, "Yes, there is racism" in the opera world, though he thinks other company directors aren't themselves biased. Instead, he says, they worry needlessly about what their white audience will think.

Marc Skorka, president of Opera America, which represents the nation's opera companies, says he's "perplexed." Skorka notes "an urgent desire on the part of opera companies to hire singers of color, because audiences are increasingly of color" But he adds: "How practice may differ from articulated belief, I don't know."

It's possible, of course, that opera companies may just be exercising their artistic judgment. Simon Estes, I'm told off the record, simply isn't very good. Vinson Cole, it's said, has a small voice and is best at singing French operas, which aren't often staged. But why aren't black men singing leading roles when so many black women are? It's not enough for opera producers to say they don't discriminate, even if that's true. The feeling that they're racist runs so deep among African-Americans in classical music that it has to be addressed, strongly, publicly, and now.

(from the Village Voice, April 8, 1997)