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Commentary

31 Oct 2004

Obstacles to Celebrity

Brownlee lends voice to the subject of race By Richard Dyer, Globe Staff | October 31, 2004 African-American divas have swept triumphantly across the international operatic stage for decades, and in this country Leontyne Price became a household name and...

Brownlee lends voice to the subject of race

By Richard Dyer, Globe Staff | October 31, 2004

African-American divas have swept triumphantly across the international operatic stage for decades, and in this country Leontyne Price became a household name and a national icon.
Lawrence Brownlee

On the other hand, male African-American singers, especially tenors, have had a rougher time of it. That's one of the reasons the popular touring concert ''Three Mo' Tenors" was created in 2001. The show is devoted to celebrating the versatility that African-American tenors had to develop because so many operatic doors are closed to them; they sang art songs, spirituals, jazz, gospel, and blues instead. Baritones and basses can play fathers and priests; tenors usually take the romantic lead, which means they have to embrace the soprano sooner or later, and that is still a taboo if the soprano happens to be white.

In the 40 years since Price became a star, the world has applauded Shirley Verrett, Grace Bumbry, Jessye Norman, Kathleen Battle, and Martina Arroyo. No black tenor has achieved a comparable level of celebrity. Boston's great tenor Roland Hayes broke the color barrier for concert singers early in the last century. Charles Holland was the first African-American tenor to make a career in opera in the 1950s, but he had to go to Europe to do it.

Since Holland, only three African-American tenors have achieved real operatic prominence. George Shirley arrived in leading roles at the Metropolitan Opera in 1961. He also regularly sang with the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood. Vinson Cole came onto the scene in the 1980s and he's still going strong; last Monday night he stepped into Ben Heppner's big shoes in the Boston Symphony Orchestra's performance of Mahler's Eighth Symphony under James Levine in Carnegie Hall. And right now, there's Lawrence Brownlee.

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