In this four-part series, former Metropolitan Opera violinist Erica Miner shares histories, backgrounds and quirks of the world’s greatest opera stars.

Marian Anderson
Marian Anderson
1. Marian Anderson was the first black female classical singer to break the glass ceiling of racial bias. Born in Philadelphia in 1897, she was met with racial epithets at the local music school, and instead opted to study with a local singer. After a disappointing debut at New York’s Town Hall in 1924, Anderson went on to London, where she caught the attention of Toscanini. Hers was “a voice one hears once in a hundred years”, he proclaimed, and fostered her career. Back in the US, she concertized to great acclaim but was still barred from restaurants, hotels, and concert halls because of her race. In 1939, when the Daughters of the American Revolution banned Marian from performing at Washington DC’s Constitution Hall, Eleanor Roosevelt arranged for Marian to sing in front of the Lincoln Memorial, before a crowd of 75,000. The event, also heard by thousands on the radio, made Marian an overnight star; more importantly, it focused national attention on the issue of race discrimination, thus awakening the consciousness of an entire country. In 1955, at the age of 57, in a long overdue debut, Marian became the first American of her race to perform on the Met Opera stage. Her dignity, faith, and strength in the face of adversity inspired and enabled an entire generation of black female singers who followed in her path...

Jessye Norman © Carol Friedman
Jessye Norman
© Carol Friedman
2. Jessye Norman’s stellar career stands as a testament to Anderson’s legacy. Born in Augusta, Georgia, in 1945, she started listening to recordings of Marian Anderson at an early age and credits Anderson and Leontyne Price (see below) for inspiring her career. By the time she made her Met debut in Berlioz’s Les Troyens to open the Met’s 100th anniversary season in 1983, Norman had won competitions in the US and abroad and made impressive debuts at major European houses, including Deutsche Oper Berlin and La Scala. Her rich, powerful voice, which encompasses a uniquely vast range, as well as her impressive bearing and dramatic flair, have made her a star of uncommon versatility, in much demand at notable events such as the 100th anniversary of the French Revolution in 1989. Currently she focuses on concertizing and participates in a number of philanthropic organizations, including the Jessye Norman School of the Arts after-school program for deprived students in her native Augusta.

Kathleen Battle
Kathleen Battle
3. Kathleen Battle possesses one of the world’s most achingly beautiful voices but is not known for her nobility of bearing. Brought to the Met in 1977 by James Levine, the Ohio native debuted at age 29 as the Shepherd in Wagner’s Tannhäcuser. The unique beauty of her instrument catapulted her to fame, perhaps too precipitously. She gained a reputation for being difficult to work with, and during rehearsals for a new production of Donizetti’s La Fille du Régiment with Luciano Pavarotti in 1994, she was fired from the Met for behaving unprofessionally. Battle continues to perform in concerts and recitals, and still performs with Jessye Norman and singers from the pop world; but her career has never been the same.

Leontyne Price
Leontyne Price
4. Born in 1927 in Laurel, Mississippi, Leontyne Price has proved herself to be a diva for all seasons while always maintaining a thoroughly professional, dignified, yet good-natured demeanor. Known for her rich, luxurious voice and commanding stage presence, she first was inspired to become a singer when, on a school trip as a teenager, she heard Marian Anderson sing. Price then performed in various choirs, intending to become a schoolteacher. Her life path changed dramatically when she starred on Broadway in 1952 in Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. Her Met debut in Il Trovatore in 1961 garnered one of the longest ovations in Met history, and she remained there for many years as a much-beloved presence. Subsequently she became the first African-American to build a singing career both in Europe and the US, and reached a pinnacle when she appeared in the 1966 Lincoln Center opening production of Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra. After retiring from the stage, she gave a number of master classes, passing on Marian Anderson’s legacy to future opera stars.

Next: Equal time to tenors: “The Three” plus one