Thursday, September 24, 2015

Aida at the Met in 1925, Viola Davis in 2015, and Shifting Targets

There's a joke that I'm sure you've heard before about pianists in New York City. If you shake a tree in New York, the saying goes, three pianists will fall out all ready to play Rachmaninoff's third piano concerto. There's an overabundance of talent and few chances for musicians to flash their brilliance.

Something in the same spirit as this joke (minus the tree-shaking and musician-toppling) actually happened in New York in the summer of 1925. The popular Italian tenor Eduoardo Ferrari-Fontana put out a call: were there any black women in America who could sing the part of Aida? He would stage a competition to see if he could find a singer, and the winner was to perform with him in the opera at the Metropolitan Opera House.
Much to his shock, over 250 classically-trained singers replied, ready to audition for the part.

"I have never heard such remarkable voices in all my life," he told the New York Amsterdam News. "All of them can sing, and it is difficult to eliminate a single one of them."

It's true. The women who made the top 24 cut were remarkable. Florence Cole Talbert, Muriel Rahn, and Nettie B. Olden were among the names I immediately recognized. And they all had fabulous careers in the United States and in Europe.

Muriel Rahn

Florence Cole Talbert

Why did Ferrari-Fontana hold this competition? Did he really believe that the Metropolitan would welcome a black singer? He told the New York Amsterdam News, "It has always been a mystery to me why impresarios have not sought a Negro voice for an opera like Aida." Really? A mystery? Huh.

So here's the thing. We know that 1925 wasn't the year that the first black woman performed at the Metropolitan Opera House. No. That minor miracle didn't occur until 1954- thanks, Marian Anderson! So what happened?

Eventually realizing that it would be impossible to bring a black woman to perform in a lead role at the Metropolitan Opera House in 1925, Ferrari-Fontana settled on holding semi-final and final auditions to award two women the chance to study grand opera with him privately.

But for a moment, just a brief moment, the opera world faced up to the fact that there was a brilliant, sparkly, shiny pool of rich, beautiful talent that they had assumed did not exist. That they thought was incapable of existing.

I mention this story because Viola Davis's instant-classic speech at the Emmy awards sparked my memory of this competition. 
Viola Davis, in all her glory and splendor (praise be to God)

Here's an excerpt from her speech:
"‘In my mind, I see a line. And over that line, I see green fields and lovely flowers and beautiful white women with their arms stretched out to me, over that line. But I can’t seem to get there no how. I can’t seem to get over that line.’

That was Harriet Tubman in the 1800s. And let me tell you something: The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity.

You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there." 

She's right, of course. But how do you convince people to take you on for roles that are? That was the problem in 1925, and as much as I'm excited to see more diversity (of all kinds and stripes!) in performances (theatrical, musical, artistic, etc.), I still worry about shifting targets. It's long been an accepted fact that black opera singers have to be three times as good as everyone else to get noticed. Heavens knows what Hollywood is like. 

I think my suspicion here is that it's not the role itself that promises opportunities to all who are talented and deserving of recognition. It's not the equalizer that we hope it will be. It's a good start; of course we need more characters expressing a vast array of life experiences. But I still believe that directors, impresarios, producers, talent agents, and musicians will find ways to rhetorically tap-dance their way out of hiring different voices, in part out of intellectual laziness and lack of imagination. The yardstick will grow, the target will shift, the explanations will change in tone and color.

But history-making moments from 1925 or 2015 teach us how to identify them. And how to call out marginalization when we need to. And above all, they teach us to keep on musicking, to keep on dancing, and to keep on singing our songs anyway.