Marian Anderson: A Majestic Voice That Broke Barriers

Marian Anderson was, and is still, considered one of the most prolific opera singers not only of the early 1900s, but as well as present day. A great influence on American and Black American culture, as well as around the world, her mesmerizing operatic vocal range has captured the hearts and souls of many. Although she had garnered a great amount of success, her success did not come without trials and tribulations, and extensive heartbreak. Everything considered, Ms. Anderson lived an admirable life filled with respect, tremendous talent leaving a lasting legacy within opera and beyond.

Born and raised in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on the 27th February 1897, as the oldest of three sisters, she was raised in a middle-class, devoted Christian family. Her father, John, worked several jobs, including operating a liquor store and selling ice to make ends meet. Her mother, Annie, worked caring for children. As mentioned previously, Ms. Anderson grew up in a deeply religious home and attended church regularly. While attending Sunday services, she would often participate in singing with the church choir, as well as displaying her vocal prowess during religious concerts, and regularly sang solos when church was in session. Seeing she had great operatic talent that could potentially take her to a broader audience, her aunt, who had a profound influence on her career, suggested that she perform around Philadelphia and earn money while helping further her budding career.

Marian Anderson in a dress with a piano behind her.
A photograph of Marian Anderson in c. 1970.

Wanting to expand her musical education as well as her already extensive vocal range, Marian applied to music school. However, due to her race, opportunities were limited. Even so, she was able to continue her studies with private tutors in her hometown. Luck came for her when she caught the attention of Giuseppe Boghetti, an aspiring opera singer hailing from Italy but living in Philadelphia. Under his mentorship and encouragement, Marian received her first big singing engagement outside Philadelphia at a singing competition in New York City, which she won.

After gradually gaining success in various parts of the United States, she decided to take a leap of faith and travel to Europe to test her talents to a different crowd of people. This leap of faith proved to be successful when she arrived in London for her debut. Her performances were met with grand applause and praise. During her time in Europe, she met with different instructors, composers, and musicians to enhance her performances and gain more experience. In 1934, she met with famed manager Sol Hurok who offered to manage her career. She agreed, and he became her manager for the rest of her career. Ms. Anderson arrived back in the United States to perform in New York City in 1935. After this concert, and receiving great reviews, she traveled and toured both the United States and Europe. Her singing engagements proved successful in both locations.

The United States was a very different environment to what Marian Anderson experienced across Europe. Although she had garnered greater success than when she started, it did not seem to matter in some parts of the country. She was refused singing engagements in some venues, denied hotel stays, and could not dine in certain restaurants and cafes due to her race. In 1939, one of her most prolific racial incidences was when the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) refused to have her perform at an event they were hosting in Washington D.C. However, due to their refusal, a bigger opportunity was presented to her when then Secretary of the Interior Harold L Ickes arranged for her to sing at the Lincoln Memorial. Ms. Anderson agreed and the subsequent performance at the Lincoln Memorial led to a massive interracial crowd of thousands as well as broadcast to millions through radio across the United States, on Easter Sunday 1939. Her performance led to sensational praise and acclaim, in which she received many awards and gained many accolades.

In the following decades, she continued to reach many firsts, including being invited back by DAR and performing for invited audience in 1943. She was also the first African-American singer to perform at the Metropolitan Opera in 1955. Ms. Anderson sang at the Inaugurations of Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower (1957) and President John F. Kennedy (1961).

She retired from singing in 1965 but continued to make appearances to benefit the arts. Even after retirement, she received many awards which included, but are not limited to, three honorary doctorates, the National Medal of the Arts, a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, the NAACP Spingarn Medal, as well as a Peabody. Ms. Marian Anderson died on the 8th April 1993, at the age of 96. Her legacy continues to live on through many musical artists, such as fellow African-American opera singers Leontyne Price and Audra McDonald, but not just in opera, but through all genres.

An elderly Marian Anderson holding flowers surrounded by celebrities
A 94-year-old Marian Anderson (centre) surrounded by (left to right) Jessye Norman, James Levine and Kathleen Battle in 1991.

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