TV On-Air “Divas”

TV Review: PBS toasts African-Americans in opera


Wednesday, February 16, 2000

By Rebecca Redshaw

The attitudes are missing. Also absent are the entourages, the tantrums and the outrageous demands of which diva legends are made. Instead, “Aida’s Brothers and Sisters: Black Voices in Opera,” the “Great Performances” special airing on PBS tonight, features superbly talented, intelligent, thoughtful artists sharing their experiences as African-Americans in the world of opera.
Many of the divas’ performances (and in this special, “divas” refers to men as well as women) have been preserved for posterity on film or tape, and the documentary is filled with wonderful remembrances. Although it’s not possible to hear Anne Brown as Bess in the world premiere of “Porgy and Bess,” her retelling of her audition with George Gershwin is priceless.

In fact, “Porgy and Bess,” thought of by many in the white community as a great black opera, is viewed with mixed emotions by the African-American soloists who fear being stereotyped.

Rather than putting Gershwin down, however, Bobby McFerrin, son of former Metropolitan opera star Robert McFerrin, commends the composer for going to black churches and studying Negro spirituals in his attempt to pay homage to the black community.

But the world of serious music in regards to the role of African-Americans changed forever with one event — the refusal of the Daughters of the American Revolution to allow Marian Anderson to sing in Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C. Eleanor Roosevelt led the campaign for an outdoor concert, and more than 75,000 people gathered in front of the Lincoln Memorial to hear Anderson sing. News footage from the 1939 event is included in its entirety in this special. It was more than 15 years later that Rudolf Bing, the new general manager of the Metropolitan Opera Company, offered Anderson a contract.

Contralto Betty Allen calls Anderson “the mother of all black singers. She opened all the doors.” Allen, like many of her contemporaries, experienced prejudice on and off the stage. “I’m an American, but I’m obviously black. You see, I can’t wash this off, so what you have, you have with you forever.”

Simon Estes, whose soft speaking voice belies the power he commands on stage, recalls swimming in the public pool as a child but only on Saturday mornings and only until 11 a.m., “because the attendants had to have time to add more disinfectant before the white children were allowed to swim in the same pool.”

Interspersed between the memories of struggle and determination are wonderful performances. Barbara Hendricks, Reri Grist, Paul Robeson, Grace Bumbry, George Shirley and Leontyne Price are but a few divas immortalized in film clips. Intercut between interviews are provocative musical teasers from Opera Ebony.

Rosalyn M. Story, the author of “And So I Sing,” a history of African-American opera performers, adds an interesting historical perspective throughout the program.

The only drawback to this program is the editing. A fear of some documentary filmmakers is the stagnant camera on their subject, sometimes known as the “talking head” syndrome. Continually splitting the screen between the interviewees and moving images of city locations or traffic scenes was annoying rather than interesting. In this case, the divas, all intelligent communicators, would have been better served given the camera’s undivided attention.


Rebecca Redshaw is a free-lance classical music critic for the Post-Gazette.