Anderson, Marian. (1897–1993)
Original Photograph in Metropolitan Opera Debut "Un ballo in maschera"
Stunning original silver gelating Sedge Le Blang photograph of the great African American contralto in her pathbreaking Metropolitan Opera debut as Ulrica, in Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera. 8 x 10 inches (20.5 x 25.2 cm). Photographer's stamp on verso with notations, edges slightly worn, overall fine.
Anderson was a great favorite of Toscanini and, in 1955, broke the color barrier by becoming the first African-American to perform at the Metropolitan Opera. She remains a legendary figure in the history of opera, remembered for, among other highlights, her Lincoln Memorial concert and her performances at the inaugurations of both Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy.
The history of Anderson's Met debut is more complicated than often discussed. "Ulrica is a divining witch who Verdi expressly noted should be portrayed as a “negro,” and the nuanced connection between a darker skin color and stereotypically ancient, heathen practices are hard to ignore. The racial politics surrounding Bing’s decision to cast Anderson for the role are hairy — we take joy in knowing that Anderson was the first black person to sing at the Metropolitan, but in today’s climate it’s hard to look at that performance without finding fault. This decision, as noted in Bing’s own memoirs, was carefully calculated; it is not difficult to see why the director deliberately chose Ulrica as Anderson’s first role. It was a move to make her surprise appearance somewhat more palatable. Verdi’s fortune-telling character is actually based on a true historical figure, Ulrica Arfvidsson, a medium who was widely known among the court of King Gustav III. Verdi’s original work drew the ire of censors, who suggested the setting be moved to a more distant era more congruous with what were perceived as “backwards” beliefs, far removed from the Christian tradition. The censors imagined an old Celtic backdrop, but Verdi kept it contemporary and moved his character across the Atlantic to Boston, Massachusetts. The character would be a black woman. However, the unique hatred and separation that kept black people out of opera houses across the country meant that, traditionally, white women singing Ulrica would often blacken their skin. Bing would have seen Anderson’s casting as a perfect fit because it would have projected an image of progressiveness without transgressing upon the politics of the era. There was no way he would offer her a non-racially charged supporting role, let alone a lily-white lead. The first black woman on the Met Stage was type-cast, and it’s that detail that’s often left out of discussion. The ground-shaking impact Anderson had on that stage is undeniable. Though past her prime, her presence indicated to a generation of aspiring vocalists of color that they too could grace the stage of one of the nation’s most prominent opera houses. Anderson’s work paved the way for a number of great singers: Grace Bumbry, Leontyne Price and Jessye Norman are but a few of the talents who would go on electrify the Metropolitan in the years to come. But as we reflect on her life and work, we mustn't allow those deeper struggles to be lost in the success of her story. Understanding the entire situation — the beauty as well as the ugliness — allows us to appreciate her achievements all the more." (James Bennett II, "The Complicated History of Marian Anderson's Met Debut," WQXR Editorial Blog, 2/27/17)