Singer lends name, stature to UM vocal competition


July 14, 1991|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Sun Music Critic

Marian Anderson was a singer who just wanted to sing. In spite of herself she became Joan of Arc.

Because she was one of the greatest singers this country has ever produced, Anderson is being honored this week in College Park as the University of Maryland inaugurates the first American Vocal Arts Congress and the new competition named after the great contralto. But with Anderson it's always impossible to forget that what she is is inextricably connected with whom she is.

The beauty of the voice -- with its earthy darkness at the bottom, clarinetlike purity in the middle and its piercing vibrancy at the top -- was always matched by a personal beauty as rare as it was purely human. As Martin Feinstein, the Washington Opera's executive director, puts it: "Even if she had never opened her mouth, she would have been one of the century's great ladies."

Now that nearly one-quarter of the Metropolitan Opera's vocal roster is made up of African-Americans, it is sometimes hard to remember that the classical concert world was once as segregated as major league baseball was before Jackie Robinson.

Anderson changed all that. She was able to do so partly because her famous 1939 Easter Sunday concert at the Lincoln Memorial -- the Daughters of the American Revolution had denied her permission to sing in Constitution Hall because of her race -- had transfixed and helped to transform a nation. But mostly she succeeded because she sang fabulously for more than 40 years and endured the frustrations caused by prejudice with dignity and intelligence that eventually defeated all obstacles.

"Her power came from the fact that she never allowed resentment to have power over her, knowing that resentment redounded on the resenter," says her nephew James DePriest, the well-known conductor.

Now 89, Anderson plans to attend the banquet in her honor that the university will give this Thursday, but no longer gives interviews. "Although she knows that she cannot help but be remembered as an instrument of destiny, she doesn't like to call attention to herself," DePriest says. "I myself have always felt that her legacy of art gets lost in admiring her as a force of conscience and as a witness to history. But it's not every day that the wife of the president of the United States resigns from an organization because of you and that the president makes available the Lincoln Memorial so that you can give a concert."

In 1939, Marian Anderson was one of the most famous singers alive. She had sung at the White House in 1936 for President Franklin Roosevelt and his wife, Eleanor; she was considered a nonpareil interpreter of Bach, Handel and Schubert as well as of spirituals; and like Luciano Pavarotti or James Galway, she was a crossover artist whose $2,500 concert fee made her one of the five highest-paid classical musicians in the United States.

But Anderson's critical acclaim and her celebrity were not enough to get her onto the stage of the Metropolitan Opera; they were not enough to get her a room in a whites-only Manhattan hotel (she had to sleep at the Harlem YWCA); and they were

apparently not enough to induce the DAR to let Howard University rent Constitution Hall so Anderson could perform there.

A NAACP protest sparked a controversy that climaxed when Eleanor Roosevelt resigned from the DAR, eloquently explaining her reasons in her widely read, syndicated newspaper column, "My Day." A Gallup Poll reported that more than 67 percent of the nation agreed with Mrs. Roosevelt, and the Department of the Interior offered Howard University the use of the Lincoln Memorial.

The image of the great singer singing before 75,000 people and triumphing over narrow-mindedness at the feet of the "Great Emancipator" sent an unforgettable message to the American conscience.

"I have never been so proud to be an American and never so proud to be an American Negro," says the great baritone Todd Duncan, who created the role of Porgy in Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess." "The only time that even came close is when Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his 'I Have a Dream' speech in the same place."

That Anderson even became famous enough as a classical singer to draw such crowds is itself little less than miraculous. The popular image of African-Americans was that of big-eyed fools who couldn't be expected to speak English properly, much less sing expertly in foreign languages. When the young Anderson first began to dazzle audiences with her singing, her appearance was felt to be so unusual that one critic even compared her to a chocolate bar.

Although she had won two of the most important vocal competitions in the country -- those of the Philadelphia and the New York Philharmonic orchestras -- Anderson's career had hit a dead end by the beginning of the 1930s. She was shrewd enough to realize that she would have to go to Europe -- where there was less prejudice -- to have a career based on the sound of her voice rather than the color of her skin.

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