Everyone knows Bobby McFerrin’s 1988 earwormy hit and its gloriously silly video. I remember dancing round the living room with my sisters singing along full pelt, each of us taking turns to try our hands at imitating the vocal percussion. Más recientemente, a friend put it on one evening. I took that as an invitation to sing and dance, but really she just wanted to test my trivia. Did I know that Bobby McFerrin’s dad was an opera singer? No. Did I know Bobby’s dad – born 100 years ago – was a baritone, como yo? No. Did I know that Bobby’s dad was the first Black man to sing at America’s flagship opera company – the Metropolitan Opera? I had no idea.
It was in the role of Rigoletto – Verdi’s tragic disabled jester – that Robert McFerrin Sr became the first Black man to sing a title role at the Met. En a photograph from McFerrin’s Met debut, you see the young baritone smiling, in full costume, and shaking general director Rudolf Bing’s hand. That picture is full of hope. McFerrin’s Rigoletto emerged against the backdrop of the burgeoning civil rights movement in the US. His debut with the prestigious company came in January 1955 – hot on the heels of the Supreme Court ruling that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional and the final elimination of all racially segregated regiments in the armed forces.
Within the Metropolitan Opera, this cause was being spearheaded by Bing, who knew what it meant to be an outsider. An Austrian of Jewish heritage, Bing had fled the Nazi regime in the 30s. He arrived in New York having helped set up Glyndebourne Opera festival in England and later the Edinburgh international festival, where he programmed a recital by the African American baritone Todd Duncan in its opening year. At the Met, he set about casting without racial prejudice, starting with principal ballerina Janet Collins, the first full-time Black American artist in the company, and followed by the contralto Marian Anderson, who appeared in Verdi’s Un ballo in Maschera just three weeks before McFerrin made his first appearance on the Met stage, as the Ethiopian King Amonasro in Aida. Regarding his casting of Black singers, Bing simply said: “As far as the Metropolitan Opera is concerned, I shall be happy to engage [them] if I find the right voice for the right part.”
McFerrin’s voice is one of warmth, of golden luminosity, a voice that displays all the charisma and personality of McFerrin the stage performer. But it’s also a voice that holds the hopes and struggles of the Black singers in Nueva York City at that time – who, his son Bobby recalled, would congregate at his parents’ apartment.
Él dijo: “It felt as if the entire classical-music African American community would come by the house for classical jam sessions. It was a wonderful experience as a kid to hide behind the piano while they would sing and talk about the opportunities – or the lack thereof – they had to perform their art. I clearly remember that they would discuss the fact that my dad was auditioning at the Met at the time and what that would mean if he won the audition.”
McFerrin Sr’s voice holds all of this. sí, it’s a baritone of beautiful quality, the evenness of his tone from the lowest notes through to the highest, and the brilliance of his high notes, akin to a tenor’s ringing sound, always grab me, but McFerrin’s voice is more than just a technical reference point. He’s a model and an anchor, a potent reminder of the cyclical nature of conversations about representation in classical music – conversations that are still going on today. The great African American soprano Leontyne Price gave an interview in the 80s in which she pointed out that the continued lack of Black operatic heroes in opera is absurd because “there is a wealth of talent around”. She was speaking three decades after McFerrin broke the colour bar for Black men in opera. Three decades after McFerrin resigned from the Met, porque, en sus propias palabras:
“Opportunities [...] were at a stalemate. I had been there for three years and had done only three roles. I did not want to continue the uncertainty of my future of whether or not I would progress beyond the status of singing the role of a brother, or father. I wanted to sing Wotan o Count di Luna, or a romantic lead. I guess this would have created too much controversy; por lo tanto, I simply chose to resign my position on the Met roster and take my chances in Hollywood.”
En 1959, he provided the vocals for Sidney Poitier’s Porgy in Otto Preminger’s film adaptation of Gershwin’s Black-cast-only opera Porgy and Bess. He sang some operatic roles in Europe, gave concerts and taught. Despite suffering a stroke later in life, his voice was in supreme shape into his 80s. But the fact remains that he was woefully under-recorded, and those romantic leads never came.
As tenor George Shirley – the second Black man to sing at the Met – wrote in an obituary tribute: “McFerrin instilled in Black males the resolve to pursue our destinies as performers in the profession of grand opera.”
Entonces, rather than tell the young singers I coach that here in the UK today I’m able to count on two hands the number of men in the opera world who, like them, are Black and British, instead I pop on a bit of McFerrin. Hearing him is enough for us to collectively lean in, poised and ready to open wide the doors to one of western classical music’s most exclusive clubs – Black Men in Opera.