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Thursday, June 23, 2011

Black Music Month

Evanti publicity photograph for the Barber of Seville.
On February 12, 1932, opera singer and composer Madame Lillian Evanti (1890–1967) wrote a letter to her mother  expressing confidence in her audition for the New York Metropolitan Opera. However, it wasn’t until twenty-three years later in 1955 when Marian Anderson debuted as Ulrica in Giuseppe Verdi's Un Ballo in Maschera that a black person performed with the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

June is Black Music Month, a time to celebrate and acknowledge the contributions of singers, composers, and musicians of African descent such as Madame Evanti.  Born Annie Lillian Evans in a highly educated, prominent middle-class family, the lyric soprano thrived as a member of Washington, D.C.’s black elite.  Her father, Dr. Bruce Evans, was a founder of Armstrong Technical High School and served as its first principal. Her mother, Annie Brooks Evans, was a music teacher in the public school system of Washington.  Poet Langston Hughes was a relative and Joseph Brooks, her maternal grandfather, served in the D.C. Territorial legislature in the 1870s.  Hiram Revels, the first African American senator in the United States Congress, was her great-uncle, and two relatives took part in John Brown’s raid on the armory at Harpers Ferry in West Virginia. Perhaps Lillian Evanti’s pride in her rich American heritage contributed to her determination to rise above racism and adversity to purse a musical career.

Madame Evanti—a name suggested by the author Jessie Fauset—was the first African American to sing in an organized European opera company.  In 1925 Madame Evanti made her operatic debut in Nice, France, in the principal role of Léo Delibes’ Lakmé.  Before her retirement in the 1950s, Evanti received acclaim in Europe, South America, Africa, and the Caribbean for her operatic talents.  Celebrated internationally, she was denied the opportunity to perform at many venues in her native country despite performing at the White House during the Roosevelt administration in 1934.  This continued until 1943 and her performance in Verdi’s La Traviata with the National Negro Opera Company at Washington’s Watergate Theater, a moored barge that floated on the Potomac River, while the audience sat along the riverbank to watch the performance.  Madame Evanti’s career spanned some thirty years.  She was decorated by several countries, served as a good will ambassador, and composed ten songs that were published by W. C. Handy.

Evanti helped to dispel the myth that people of African origins could only perform and succeed in selected musical genres.  In a letter sent to Madame Evanti, Marian Anderson asserts, “we feel you were indeed a pioneer in making a place for our race in the operatic field.”  

To explore contributions of blacks to various musical forms check out the resources here.

View the Amistad Research Center blog to learn about opera singer Mattiwilda Dobbs, born in Atlanta, Georgia.

Jennifer Morris
Anacostia Community Museum Archives

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