Marian's Song: The Story of the First Black Artist to Sing at the Metropolitan Opera

In rehearsal for Marian's Song
In rehearsal for Marian's Song Photo by Lynn Lane
Marian Anderson was an accomplished singer of classical music and spirituals who grew up at a time that was not welcoming to African American performers of any kind in the United States.

Her story of perseverance and undeniable talent is legendary as she traveled to Europe for the kind of recognition that eluded her at home, even after she won a contest that entitled her to make a solo appearance with the New York Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra.

However, the moment she is most remembered for occurred back in the United States in 1939 when she performed on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial (after the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to allow her to perform at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C. — a decision which led to Eleanor Roosevelt withdrawing her from the DAR) where she sang "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen" and "America."  She went on to become the first black artist to sing at the Metropolitan Opera in 1955. Eventually, President Dwight Eisenhower made her a delegate to the United Nations General Assembly and President Lyndon Johnson awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1963.

Now, in a special production entitled Marian's Song commissioned by HGOco, the outreach and education branch of Houston Grand Opera, her story will be told — appropriately enough — in opera form. Mezzo soprano Zoie Reams (West Side Story), a graduate of the HGO Studio, will take on the Marian Anderson role. About a year ago she was contacted about possibly performing in this, even though the libretto hadn't been written yet.  "As a black opera singer it's a huge honor. It's exciting. It's definitely something that I was immediately interested in. Her story is so powerful."

The one-act opera composed by Damien Sneed to a libretto by Deborah D.E.E.P. Mouton, Houston’s poet laureate emeritus. clocks in at under an hour and includes spoken word portions and "visuals," showing Anderson's journey, Reams says. It is set in a story within a story framework, starting with a young modern day college student in Philadelphia who sees that the church where Anderson sang is about to be torn down.The cast includes 12 chorus members and a five-member principal cast including  the young college student who serves as narrator. "She so upset about it because growing up she knew that Marian's music and voice touched her grandmother’s soul. It's like two parallel stories which comes together when we see how they're connected."

The story is told in two separate time periods. "I have period dress. Then it's the juxtaposition with the students who are going to have on  jeans and sweatshirts," Reams says, adding that she will be "donning my iconic fur coat that she wore at the Lincoln Memorial."

"She was born in 1897 and she was doing concerts in Europe by the '30s and '40s. Our minds might not be able to capture how dramatic this really was for her to be so renowned.  She was able to step on the Lincoln Memorial steps and sing to America. At a time that sort of pushed black people to the side," Reams says.

"The story starts in her teenage years; it covers her time in Europe, her time that she spent in school as well and the National Mall. So we get right up to the big moments." It was in Europe that Anderson got the kind of success she was hoping for in the United States before coming back home. 

Reams says even as a child she loved opera. "I was that kind of weird kid. I remember one Halloween. my mom dressed me up. I wore a kimono. I dressed up as Madame Butterfly and we went to see Madame Butterfly at the Chicago Lyric Opera. That's how I wanted to spend my Halloween." Her father was in a band when a teenager and her mother when she was younger did fashion design. "So I definitely come from a creative family but not necessarily in music and especially not in classical music."

At first the plan was for her to be a ballet dancer but after about 12 years she says she grew too tall for ballet. Since dance training had already exposed her to a lot of classical music, her transition to viola, piano and eventually singing was a natural progression.

She likes to do new music, new operas, which often allow her to have some input into the process. "And when you perform it it's for the very first time. It's kind of exciting to think that there was a first time that Don Giovanni was performed. And there was a first time that Magic Flute was performed and how those singers felt. It's kind of cool to step into that as well."

The music in Marian's Song is unique, Reams says. "There are touches of jazz and then there are excerpts of actual arts songs and arias that she sang." Add to that the visual aspects and spoken word and she believes that students as well as adults will enjoy and benefit from hearing and seeing all that Anderson accomplished in life.

"I knew about her growing up. She is pretty iconic," Reams says. "The opera touches on the fact that she was a fighter but not in the way that people would now or would have handled it or would have wanted her to be. She picked her battles. Whatever she came up against, she came up with grace and humility in a way but she was also extremely talented. I think that's how and why everyone black and white was able to get behind her. And even when she did face adversity there was enough support for her.

Performances are scheduled for Thursday March 5 and Friday March 6 at 7 p.m. at the Wortham Center, 500 Texas. For information, call 713- 228-6737 or visit houstongrandopera.org. $15-$50.
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Margaret Downing is the editor-in-chief who oversees the Houston Press newsroom and its online publication. She frequently writes on a wide range of subjects.
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