Lillian Evanti: We see her success but cannot hear it

Lillian Evanti was a prominent opera singer, and one of the first, if not the first African-American women to tour with a European opera company. Additionally, she was a founding member of the National Negro Opera Company, performing as Violetta in their performance of Verdi’s La Traviata. As a famous performer, Evanti gave concerts and recitals all over the United States and Western Europe. One such performance was at the Hall of Americas in the Pan-American Union, celebrating many Latin American composers.

Lillian Evanti with John Hoskins at the Pan-American Union.
Robert H. McNeil, Lillian Evanti and John Hoskins perform at the Hall of the Americas Pan American Union, 1946, Anacostia Community Museum Archives, Box 26, Folder 54.

Evanti’s program included works from Mexican, Cuban, Argentinian, and Venzuelan composers (both women and men), an aria from Il Guarany, an opera composed by Antônio Carlos Gomes, as well as a few of her own original compositions. Her performance of a diverse range of composers shows that she uplifts silenced and underrepresented voices. Her contribution of original compositions for this occasion, “Himno Panamericano,” and “Honor a Trujillo,” not only shows musical virtuosity, but also a willing spirit to participate in diplomacy and international relations. 

Recital program, detailing the composers and pieces she performed, including her originals.
Program featuring Lillian Evanti and John Hoskins, Union of American Republics, 1946, Anacostia Community Museum Archives, Box 32 Folder 29.

While researching Lillian Evanti, both for this blog post and for my group mapping project, I found myself confused and frustrated at the fact that recordings of Lillian Evanti singing either do not exist, or are extremely hard to come by. It made me wonder why such a prominent and successful singer was not documented in this way. In just a few simple google searches, I found recordings from two other female opera singers who were contemporaries of Lillian Evanti. So why are there no recordings of Evanti even though her contemporaries received this kind of documentation and legacy? Of course, I cannot say the true answer because I do not know. But I can only speculate as to why Evanti’s legacy lives on in pictures rather than audio. Even if she was a famous performer and traveled the world giving performances, the fact still remains that she was African-American. Her success was revolutionary and a great step towards diversifying the Western canon, but unfortunately her identity as a member of a marginalized community may have contributed to her lack of existent audio recordings compared to her contemporaries. While you might not immediately think about the repercussions of something that happened 80-100 years ago, this proves that the effects of racism and inequity are still felt today, as now we cannot truly discover the legacy of Lillian Evanti. We can read reviews of so many concerts, recitals, and other performances telling us how beautiful and lyrical her voice was, but as far as I know, we will never be able to hear her voice and understand part of why she was so successful.

Citations included in photo captions.

Lillian Evanti making ways for diverse classical performers

1

Lillian Evanti, unknown to me before this class, is an iconic figure in the operatic world. In 1925, she emerged as the first African American to perform as a professional opera singer in Europe. The Howard University alumna was also a soror (Zeta Phi Beta), speaker, teacher, art collector, activist, and goodwill ambassador for the Department of State.

Throughout her life, she traveled across the United States and Europe as an accomplished musician. One of her most notable performances debuted in  Delibes’s Lakmé in Nice, France in 1925. 

2

Despite being praised in Europe, her success in America was exclusively highlighted by black newspapers. The Pittsburg Courier and The Oakland Tribune are some examples of black newspapers bringing Lillian Evanti to American audiences.

3

Her popularity in America compared to her popularity in Europe was fairly contrasting. In American newspapers, she would be visiting a high school and typically black schools, whereas in Europe she was endlessly praised for her beautiful voice and performances.

4

One specific sentence in this newspaper roughly translates that her pure and well-posed voice played without difficulty with the perilous air of bells. How different she is talked about in Europe.

As my group project on Lillian Evanti’s career continues to develop, I continue to learn more and more about her and what she accomplished for black classical musicians during her time.

1 Evans-Tibbs collection, Anacostia Community Museum Archives, Smithsonian Institution, gift of the Estate of Thurlow E. Tibbs, Jr.

2 Evans-Tibbs collection, Anacostia Community Museum Archives, Smithsonian Institution, gift of the Estate of Thurlow E. Tibbs, Jr. Box 1, Folder 6.

3 Soprano to Sing Tomorrow Night, Oakland Tribune, Monday, April 01, 1935

 4Messager, Jean. “Mme Lillian Evanti Dans ‘Lakmé.’” Comoedia. January 24, 1927. Accessed 11/15/2022. https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k7651736k/f3.item.r=lillian%20evanti.zoom

Jazz, genre fusion as stereotyping, and Gershwin

George Gershwin was an internationally renowned composer most famous in the 1910s through the 1930s. Starting out as a song plugger, he eventually worked his way up the food chain as a composer, and he got so far up that, when he asked Maurice Ravel to teach him composition, Ravel said that Gershwin should teach him (1)! Much of his body of work is still performed today, such as “Rhapsody in Blue”, the opera “Porgy and Bess” and the most famous song from it, “Summertime”, and “Fascinating Rhythm” (2).

The most prominent feature of Gershwin’s compositional style is the fusion of jazz with other classical advances in composition. Other composers of the time period, like Copland, were also fusing genres, but Gershwin was more outright about including specific techniques and harmonic progressions that were known to be used solely in jazz. “Rhapsody in Blue” is a prime example of this. Gershwin also was inspired by French composers like Ravel, Debussy and Nadia Boulanger, and fused those along with jazz and other American musical tropes (1).

While Gershwin helped bring attention to jazz as a legitimate genre amongst concertgoers (3), many Black musicians share understandably mixed feelings about how Gershwin adopted Black music conventions. One of the primary reasons for these criticisms comes in “Porgy and Bess” (here is a link to its most famous number, “Summertime”).

The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess and the Quest for American Opera – UMS –  University Musical Society

“Porgy and Bess” is a story about Black characters that stereotypes a lot of their actions, as the novel upon which the opera was based was written by a white man and displayed how he thought Black people lived (6). Within the plot, there is a cocaine dealer with purchases made off him, a murder, and marital infidelity, which isn’t abnormal for the plot of an opera, but in the context of minstrelsy stereotyping that Black people thought infidelity was fine, it is certainly questionable (4). In terms of cocaine, it was demonized at the time and was stereotyped as a Black drug that caused them to commit more crime, especially in the South (5). Karen Henson also argues that each character in “Porgy and Bess” represent certain common minstrel characters: Porgy resembles ‘Samba’, the cocaine dealer Sportin’ Life represents ‘Trickster’, and Bess represent ‘Jezebel’ (7).

Apart from how problematic “Porgy and Bess” is, there were positives in getting actually Black actors and featuring Black styles of music more respectfully than most in the traditionally white-dominated field of opera at the time. While helping jazz and Black music become more respected and legitimized was helpful, other people were also doing it at the same time just as well as he was who were actually Black, like Burleigh and Joplin. Efforts should be made to uplift Black voices from this time period more.

Sources:

(1) “George Gershwin.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, November 6, 2022. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Gershwin#Musical_style_and_influence.

(2) Paul Whiteman Orchestra. Fascinating Rhythm. Vinyl recording. New York, New York: Victor, 1924.

(3) Downes, Olin. “Gershwin Caused New Jazz Values.” The New York Times, July 12, 1937, 86 edition.

(4) Lemons, J. Stanley. “Black Stereotypes as Reflected in Popular Culture, 1880-1920.” American Quarterly 29, no. 1 (1977): 102–16. https://doi.org/10.2307/2712263.

(5) Courtwright, David T. “The Hidden Epidemic: Opiate Addiction and Cocaine Use in the South, 1860-1920.” The Journal of Southern History 49, no. 1 (1983): 57–72. https://doi.org/10.2307/2209306.

(6) “Porgy and Bess.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, October 23, 2022. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Porgy_and_Bess#Synopsis.

(7) Henson, Karen. “Black Opera, Operatic Racism and an ‘Engaged Opera Studies.’” Journal of the Royal Musical Association 146, no. 1 (2021): 219–30. doi:10.1017/rma.2020.27.

Public Reception of the Hyers Sisters

CW: Racist representation of Black Americans

Newspapers are valuable resources for studying the public perception of musicians. (Yes, young people still know what newspapers are.) The writings of newspapers reflect their audience’s values. I found some articles mentioning singing sensations Anna Madah and Emma Louise Hyers: the Hyers Sisters. The duo started performing opera selections and art songs in the late 1860s, soon adding spirituals to their repertoire. However, by 1876, they ventured into musical theater, for which they are most known.1

An article reviewing a performance of the Hyers’ Sisters drama “Out of Bondage.”

These Black newspapers offered much praise but did so in ways that reflect how the authors perceive the Hyers Sisters’ careers. This 1886 article, published in the Cleveland Gazette, reviews a performance of one of their old dramas. The author wrote that their theater company has the best Black musical and dramatic talent in the country, and they deserve a packed crowd everywhere they perform.2 Such high praise comes with a qualifier of race, asserting that the Hyers Sisters are great Black musicians rather than simply great musicians. Continue reading

Marian Anderson and Double Consciousness: Why did Marian Anderson not consider herself an activist?

Marian Anderson (1897-1993)

After hearing Carol Oja give a lecture on Marian Anderson, a black woman and arguably one of the greatest opera singers of the 20th century, one thing that stood out to me is that Marian Anderson did not consider herself an activist. It is easy to question Marian Anderson’s hesitancy in this description of herself, especially from a contemporary standpoint when celebrity political activism is not so taboo. After all, Marian Anderson’s time of popularity was during the pre-civil rights era. She was still a black singer in an overtly racist society, and this placed limitations on her. Despite the overwhelmingly white field of opera and classical music, she gained popularity among greater American society. She had great vocal talent, but her “palatable” performances and public presentation of self likely contributed to her success as a black singer in a racist society. She appealed to common western society through things such as her western vocal training, western repertoire (although she did sing spirituals along with European repertoire), and western dress. This is not to say she did all of these things purposely to appeal to a greater, white audience. She was also extremely popular among black communities, and her pure vocal talent leading to much of her success cannot be denied. This point is also not implying that appealing to these traditionally western ways was necessarily against her nature. However, as one of the first famous black opera singers, her appeal to white, “traditional” opera culture likely aided her popularity gain on such a mass scale.

Although Marian Anderson in many ways appealed to white operatic tradition, she also acted in a variety of ways to show resistance against the racism present in her life as a vocalist. She had performance contracts that prohibited segregated audiences, gave her famous Easter concert at the Lincoln Memorial (video clip shown above) in response to the DAR denying her performance at the Constitution Hall, and was the first black singer to debut with the Met. Marian Anderson’s impact on the Civil Rights movement was indeed significant. The newspaper clipping on the right, published in 1991, discusses the struggle for equality for black people over the past 200 years, and mentions Marian Anderson in the fourth full paragraph in the far right column. The impact Anderson’s Lincoln Memorial performance had in “reactivating the NAACP in Washington” is acknowledged, thus emphasizing her important role in the Civil Rights movement as a whole. Some may question Anderson’s denial of an activist label, and even criticize her for not going “all the way” in terms of her activism. Although Anderson’s true motivations behind this statement cannot be clear, one can give her the benefit of the doubt when appealing to Du Bois’ idea of “double consciousness.” W. E. B. Du Bois coined the term “double consciousness” as a phenomenon in which a person’s conception of self manifests under conditions of racialization. Thus, there are different types of self formation depending on one’s racial group and societal context. Du Bois argues that the “self” develops from others’ conceptions of us. For black people and other people of color, Du Bois believes a sense of “two-ness” forms due to their dual positions: one in the “dominant community that denies their humanity and [one in] their own community which is a source of support and an arena of agency” (Itzigsohn). There is constant tension between these two versions of the self that is manifested within people of color living in a racist society.

Marian Anderson Singing at the Lincoln Memorial

Marian Anderson’s double consciousness manifests as her “self” that had to survive as a black singer in a white society and her “self” that was a black woman outside of a white context. It is possible that Marian Anderson resisted the label of activist because of tension between her two selves. She lived in a racist society and likely would have been criticized even more than she already was if she had been more explicit about her activism. At the same time, she acted in ways to resist the racism within society, as mentioned earlier. Double consciousness and tension of the two selves may not have been at the root of Anderson not considering herself an activist. However, it is important to note that Marian Anderson’s lived experiences likely shaped her perception of self and the way she acted as a public figure nonetheless.

Sources:

“Black History Month Special.” The National Chronicle, February 22 (1991): Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, SQN: 12BE222679916188.

Feman, Seth. “Marian Anderson’s Presence.” American Art 28, no. 1 (2014): 104-17.

Itzigsohn, José, and Karida Brown. “Sociology and the Theory of Double Consciousness.” 12, no. 2 (2015): 231-48.

Marian Anderson singing at Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., April 9 before 75,000 persons. Washington D.C, 1939. Print. https://www.loc.gov/item/2009633558/.

My Country Tis of Thee. Performance at Lincoln Memorial. Video. Performed by Marian Anderson. 1939. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mAONYTMf2pk.

Oja, Carol. “Marian Anderson and the Desegregation of the American Concert Stage.” 2016-2017 Fellows’ Presentation Series at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Cambridge, MA, October 20, 2016.

Van Vechten, Carl. “Portrait of Marian Anderson.” Van Vechten Collection. Jan. 14, 1940. Print.

The ‘Practical Idealism’ of “Porgy and Bess”

The day after the premiere of George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess at the Colonial Theatre in New York City, a review of the performance appeared in the New York Times that would both articulate the positive aspects of the opera while also aptly summarizing its importance to American music. A portion of the opening paragraph reads:

“An audience which assembled, uncertain whether they should find a heavy operatic work or something more resembling musical comedy, discovered a form of entertainment which stands midway between the two. The immediate response was one of enthusiasm that grew rather than diminished as the evening progressed.” [1]

In other words, Porgy and Bess was an immediate hit because it successfully bridged the gap between the styles of European grand opera and American musical theater in the style of tin-pan alley. By extension, Gershwin was cementing his reputation as the quintessential American composer: a perfect combination of elite artist and regular American. While this synthesis may appear to be a contradiction, there are a number of descriptions in this and other contemporaneous reviews that support this statement.

A scene from the original Broadway projection of “Porgy and Bess”.

 

From the New York Amsterdam News:

“The first act represents George Gershwin’s most serious writing. It is Gershwin struggling for a greater expression, endeavoring to transcend into the world of great music. Contrapuntally speaking, he does. This is evident in the crap game fugue.” [2]

The author (Allen Gilbert) goes on to compare Gershwin to “Brahms, Bach, or Beethoven” for his clarity of theme in symphonic writing, effectively lifting him into a pantheon of greatness. Yet, Gilbert goes on to call the second act a “let down”, describing it as a musical side-show that more resembles a smorgasbord of primitive American music (hot jazz, broadway ballads, negro spirituals) than it does the work of a grand master. He attributes to Gershwin a false quote suggesting that opera is for the “masses” but that they cannot understand it if it’s not dumbed down for them.

But it is the third act that truly shows Gershwin’s greatness, a “gathering together of the parts” that utilizes both ends of the spectrum without compromising on beauty and emotional power. It is with this in mind that the author crowns Gershwin as the “practical idealist”.

While this is a deserving title for the young composer, we can see quite clearly how mind-numbingly kitschy this is, yet another example of American determinism seeking out the next great musical representative for the U.S. of A. This is especially frustrating when we consider the most problematic yet simultaneously inspiring aspect of the work and its initial performances: its nearly all-Black cast. While the New York Times review emphasizes this historic achievement (even including it in the subtitle), the New York Amsterdam review doesn’t even mention it. The first lauds each cast member and the “characterizing detail” given to a normally inhuman and primitive setting; the latter lauds only Gershwin and his ability to humanize to black music without mention of the African Americans involved.

I don’t mean to suggest that Gershwin is responsible for this discrepancy, but it is worth remembering that in the evolving world of American art music in the early 1900s, Porgy and Bess may have been more akin to minstrelsy than to grand opera for many white audiences. Though an article in the Chicago Defender less than a month later claims that “race music is dignified” by Porgy and Bess, this primarily African-American viewpoint doesn’t necessarily reflect a popular perspective of the work. [3] While Gershwin’s “idealistic” genius and his roster of memorable songs is undoubtedly responsible for the works success, it is fascinating to see how the “practical” matters of the performances may have been ignored.


[1] Special to The New York Times. “Gershwin’s Opera Makes Boston Hit.” New York Times (1923-Current File), Oct 01, 1935. http://search.proquest.com/docview/101340968?accountid=351.

[2] Allen, Gilbert. “George Gershwin, Practical Idealist.” The New York Amsterdam News (1922-1938), Nov 16, 1935. http://search.proquest.com/docview/226210087?accountid=351.

[3] McMillan, Alan. “‘Porgy and Bess’ Scores on Broadway.” The Chicago Defender (National Edition) (1921-1967), Oct 19, 1935. http://search.proquest.com/docview/492522466?accountid=351.