And So I Sing: African American Divas Of Opera and Concert
About this book
Chapter OneSissieretta JonesIt was not the best time to be black. Like a beaten boxer, the South of the late nineteenth century staggered from the devastating blows of war, while carpetbaggers and scalawags swarmed the ravaged states like vultures. For blacks, emancipation glinted with the promise of a double-edged sword. Freed slaves, who just before the war comprised nearly forty percent of the southern population, were eyed with hatred and spite as they grappled with the ramifications of their new-won freedom and, for the first time in their lives, pondered life without bondage. Postwar America hardly provided a fecund environment for the flowering of the black classical musician. Resentment ran high toward blacks not only in the South, but also 'in the more liberal North, and musical training for even the most gifted blacks was unlikely. In slavery, many blacks had shown themselves to be musical, translating sorrow into song while struggling to survive. But that was folk music. Classical music was as remote from black culture as America was from Europe, and the concept of a skilled black classical artist strained the most vivid imagination.Perhaps the most interesting artistic revelation witnessed in the antebellum South was the career of a young blind boy named Thomas Bethune. Born a Georgia slave in 1849, "Blind Tom," as he was called, showed prodigious musical talent from an early age. And though he was never taught to play piano, he could perform with extraordinary skill technically advanced pieces from memory after one hearing. Under the aegis of his self-serving owner Colonel Bethune, Blind Tom barnstormed the South, amazing listeners with dazzling demonstrations of theEuropean classics, including works by Bach, Beethoven, and Chopin.Blind Tom was, of course, an idiot savant, a chromosomal curiosity who parlayed his abnormal gifts into a recital career. But although the nature of his genius transcended intellect, Blind Tom showed white southern Americans in particular something they had never seen-an intimate alliance between a low-born American black and the "highbrow" music of the European composers. The specter of a black classical artist was, at the time, a hazy image, but one that would gather sharper focus in the years to come. Unfortunately, Blind Torns genius was too rare to inspire a tradition of great black pianists, but black American classical music would not have to wait for another piano-playing savant. Instead, the legacy would belong to classical singers, the black divas, culminating at the end of the century with the artistry of Sissieretta, Jones.Whether Sissieretta Jones was the greatest black performer of the nineteenth century is a matter for speculation, but there can be no doubt about her enormous celebrity. There is no other artist whose fame has more successfully survived the usual oblivion and neglect suffered by the black artists of her generation. Critics were generous with their accolades, lavishing praise upon her and, as often as not, comparing her favorably with the reigning white diva, Adelina Patti. Patti's voice set the standard by which all others were judged, and if Jones' artistry could not always shine under such scrutinizing comparisons, neither could that of any white singer at the time.Jones was early dubbed the Black Patti, a move combining journalistic circumstance with managerial shrewdness. Almostimmediately after the dubiously flattering nickname first appeared in print, she had to resign herself to a label that worked both for and against her. Often, listeners were disappointed in Jones' inability to duplicate exactly Patti's great talent, and reviewers criticized her management heavily for setting the singer up for a standard of comparison she could not live up to. But in spite of the "perilous sobriquet," as one reporter put it, Jones was soon able to establish herself as an individual artist with her own special talent.Adelina Patti, the Italian-American prima donna who captured the hearts of opera lovers in the late 1800s, was a diva "to the manner born" and destined for deification. Courted by nobility, worshipped by audiences and critics alike, she floated through the world of opera and concert music with ease, grace, and immutable perfection, possessing a compelling childlike beauty and a voice that never ceased to enrapture her public. Even George Bernard Shaw, a tough critic and latecomer to Patti's crowded gallery of admirers, acknowledged her special gifts, praising "that wonderful instrument with its great range, its birdlike agility and charm of execution and its unique combination of the magic of a child's voice and the completeness of a woman's." Patti's career spanned five decades; toward the end she made a mini-career of farewell concerts for twenty years. Finally, she did retire, with all the pomp and panache of an exiting diva, to her private castle in Wales.Doubtless, Sissieretta Jones' managers felt invoking Patti's name would lend a certain cachet to their star's billing and draw curiosity seekers eager to witness a black version of their ideal."How would a "black" Patti sound?" they surely wondered. And since the public was interested in anything even vaguely resembling their demigoddess, they came in droves to find out.They liked what they heard, and the more they heard, the more they liked. By all accounts, Sissieretta Jones had a phenomenal voice and solid training to back up her lofty billing. Whether she sounded exactly like Patti seemed not to be the issue, for the two women had obviously dissimilar styles and types of vocal endowment. But the critics and public seemed to agree that Sissieretta Jones was to blacks what Adelina Patti was to whites -- a Queen of Song.On a less grand scale, Jones enjoyed a career as one of the most sought-after concert artists of either race. She performed before four U.S. presidents. On her tours in South America and the West Indies, heads of governments and wealthy private citizens showered her with diamonds, gold, rubies, and pearls as tokens of admiration. At one concert in New Jersey, 1,000 people were said to have been turned away...