Female Opera Singers in History


All of us certainly miss the many cultural institutions that are not operating in their normal manner during the pandemic. These include theater, opera, the ballet and the symphony. This month we profile some of the stars of opera over the years and absolutely look forward to the time when we can convene safely again and see opera performed in person!

Marian Anderson

The first African American to be invited to sing at the White House, Marian Anderson was a contralto who is famously known for singing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday 1939, after being denied the opportunity to sing at Constitution Hall because of her race. Anderson’s musical education was funded in part by her church choir, who had such faith in her abilities that they raised money for ‘Marian Anderson’s Future Fund.’ In 1925, she won a contest for which she soloed with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. Although she encountered extreme discrimination through much of her career in the United States, European audiences were much more receptive to the amazingly talented African-American contralto. In 1935, she debuted at Carnegie Hall (with a broken ankle) and in 1955, she became the first African American to sing at the Metropolitan Opera (the Met) in New York City. Anderson has been inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.

Roberta Peters

Soprano Roberta Peters debuted at age 20 at the Met. Peters performed with only five hours’ notice in 1950 in Mozart’s Don Giovanni, after the soprano who was slated to sing came down with food poisoning. Over her 35-year career, Peters would be the reigning soprano and sing in more than 500 appearances at the Met. In 1955, she sang in Verdi’s “Masked Ball” in which Marian Anderson made her long-delayed Met debut. In 1998, Peters received the National Medal of Arts. Never one to take herself too seriously, she was featured in full operatic attire for a Chock full o’Nuts commercial. She also did an American Express commercial where she hailed a taxi in her operatic voice. Earlier in her career, to strengthen her diaphragm, she allowed Joseph Pilates (yes, of that Pilates fame) to stand on her chest.

Beverly Sills

Soprano Beverly Sills, who was known as “Bubbles” to her fans, began singing professionally on the radio at age four. Her professional stage debut was in 1945 and her operatic debut, the date of which is the subject of great debate, might have been in 1951. In 1962, she sang title roles for the famous operatic conductor, Sarah Caldwell. Sills’ 1966 performance in the New York City Opera’s presentation of Handel’s Giulio Cesare made her an international star. In 1971, Time magazine featured her on its cover and called her the American Queen of Opera. Her debut at the Met was in 1975. After her retirement from singing, Sills served as the general director of the New York City Opera, chairwoman of the Lincoln Center, and board member and chairwoman of the Met. Her many honors include the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the National Medal of Arts. Sills has been inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.

Leontyne Price

Beginning her formal music instruction when she was 5 years old, soprano Leontyne Price went to college at Wilberforce in Ohio and then on to the Julliard School of Music, with a full tuition scholarship. Her Broadway singing debut was in an opera in 1952. Her debut at the Met was in 1961 after she had sung on NBC-TV’s Opera Company; at the San Francisco Opera House; in Vienna, Austria; at the Covent Garden in London; and at La Scala. She was the first black singer to sing a major role at La Scala and one of the first African-American singers at the Met. In 1961, she was voted Musician of the Year and in 1964, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Price has been the recipient of many honors including the National Medal of Arts and the Kennedy Center Honors. She has received 19 Grammy awards including a special Lifetime Achievement Award in 1989.

Marilyn Horne

One of the world’s greatest mezzo-sopranos, Marilyn Horne was born into a musical family who recognized and fostered her talent. When she was 11, the family moved to California so that she could pursue a musical career. Before long, she was singing backup roles for Metro-Goldwyn Mayer movies. Her voice was dubbed for Dorothy Dandridge in the 1954 movie Carmen Jones. After a stint in television, she realized that her love was opera. Her big break in opera occurred in 1960. When the star became sick, Horne was summoned from Europe to sing with the San Francisco opera as Marie in Wozzeck. From that time forward, she was known as part of American opera. Horne brought a larger audience to opera through her television performances. She performed at President Bill Clinton’s inauguration in 1993. Her career spanned twenty-six seasons at the Met and thirty-nine seasons with the San Francisco Opera. A fifteen-time Grammy nominee, she took home the award four times. Her many other honors include honorary doctorates, foreign awards, and the National Medal of Arts. She was also bestowed with the Kennedy Center Honor. After retiring from the stage, she has devoted herself to encouraging aspiring singers.

Women participate and contribute to every area of our lives. These opera singers, as well as many other women, almost all of whom we have not heard about nor learned about in school, are profiled in our book, Her Story: A Timeline of the Women Who Changed America. Help us by continuing to tell women’s stories. Write women back into history! Tell young women especially, that their dreams in any field of endeavor or interest, can become a reality.

Jill Tietjen
Author: Jill Tietjen

Jill S. Tietjen, PE, is an author, national speaker, and an electrical engineer. After 40 years in the electric utility industry, her professional focus is now on women’s advocacy, worldwide. She blogs for The Huffington Post, speaks nationally on the accomplishments of women, nominates women for awards, and continues to write books (8 published to date), following in the footsteps of her bestselling and award-winning book, Her Story: A Timeline of the Women Who Changed America (written with Charlotte Waisman). She is a frequent keynote speaker as her positive energy and her ability to relate to the audience result in inspired and energized listeners. The recipient of many awards, her induction into the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame in 2010 remains one of her most treasured.

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