Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
This dissertation explores African American engagement with opera in the United States between the 1850s—when Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield, dubbed the “Black Swan,” drew comparisons to white superstar Jenny Lind—and the 1940s, when Black singers began to access “white” stages such as the Metropolitan. I foreground how musicians who knew they would never receive a fair hearing acted not just as singers, but as entrepreneurs, managers, composers, and collaborators in order to create careers for themselves. In order to do so, these singers navigated a complex set of aspirations and realities. Black opera singers engaged with ideologies of racial uplift, contemporary attitudes toward class and gender, uncertain divisions between “high” and “low” performing arts, and racism within the culture of classical music. Within and beyond musicology, African American opera gives us a chance to productively synthesize and transform the studies of opera, American studies, and African and African American studies. In this work, I examine and contextualize case studies which provide multi-layered spaces in which to analyze performers’ activities and agency. Chapter One studies Black music historiography from the 1870s through the 1930s. These authors engaged with artistic canons and ideologies of racial uplift while creating an alternate narrative of classical music which centered Black musicians’ histories, successes, and potential futures. In Chapter Two, I examine the performance strategies and career choices of the nineteenth-century African American Queens of Song, several Black women who performed operatic standards and ballads in concert. Through their efforts, these women created a possibility of the Black prima donna in the American imagination. Chapter Three focuses on Sissieretta Jones, known as the “Black Patti.” Her public career was the longest of all the Queens of Song: a decade as a concert singer, followed by almost twenty more years on the vaudeville stage, singing operatic excerpts as the frontwoman of the Black Patti Troubadours, an entirely Black troupe. Jones’ own scrapbook and the complex archive generated throughout her long career enable a particularly close look at how she created performing opportunities and her image as a glamorous, yet respectable prima donna. In Chapter Four, I explore how Black singers turned particular works from the operatic canon into professional gateways. I argue that Black singers were often given roles which resonated with contemporary racial stereotypes, and then re-interpreted them as acts of resistance. In chapter Five, I analyze Jules Bledsoe, who made his reputation with the musical Show Boat, and how he navigated race, sexuality, and black masculinity in opera through his performances and compositions. Although Bledsoe has been marginal in studies of Black classical musicians, he opens a window into the lived experience of Black men on the operatic stage. These case studies all emphasize the malleability of performance: even the most ironclad giants of the canon are subject to the directors who stage them, and even more so to the performers who bring them to life. Through centering these performers and their choices among the currents of the world in which they lived, commonalities arise between their choices and the work that performers still do today. Whether or not their names are remembered, or their voices are recorded, their impact remains.
Chair and Committee
Farel, Elena Arredondo, "African American Opera Singers, 1850-1950: Ambition, Uplift, and Performance" (2022). Arts & Sciences Electronic Theses and Dissertations. 2673.