Music: Debut

3 minute read

In Box No. 35 of the Golden Horseshoe, the place usually reserved for visiting statesmen and royalty, sat a small, aged lady who had once been a washerwoman in Philadelphia. Her name was Anna Anderson. As a girl, her daughter dreamed of singing in this great gilt and plush house. Now, at 52, Contralto Marian Anderson was realizing the dream. The first Negro singer to appear at the Metropolitan, she was making her debut in Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera.

Overdue. Seats for the Anderson debut sold weeks in advance, with orders from as far away as California. On the day of the performance, the line for standing room began to form at 5:30 a.m. At curtain time that night, there were more Negroes in the audience than anyone had ever seen at the Met. The audience waited impatiently through the opening scene, for Anderson would appear only in Scene 2. Her role: the fortuneteller Ulrica, who appears for 27 ominous minutes in order to bring the hero together with another man’s wife and to predict his murder. When the curtain rose, Marian Anderson was discovered in a shadowy set, stirring a green-steaming cauldron flanked by a pair of skulls. The great contralto was clearly nervous. Her first notes were parched and shaky, and it was only later, when she reached her smooth upper register, that she began to produce those emotionally charged tones that have moved listeners around the world.

She acted with the dignity and reserve that she has always presented to the public, although she intermittently showed her nervousness during the rest of the haunting scene. Her unique voice—black velvet that can be at once soft and dramatic, menacing and mourning—stirred the heart as always. But critics who remembered that voice in the past felt that her debut was at least 15 years overdue.

Overanxious. Although one of the Met’s most imposing casts surrounded Contralto Anderson, the performance was full of flaws. Tenor Richard Tucker growled out notes that were too low for him, Soprano Zinka Milanov let her voice swoop and squawk through Act II, and when she flipped a disguising shawl over her face, she looked so much like an animated teacozy that the audience snickered. Only Roberta Peters’ pearly coloratura and pert presence were thoroughly pleasant. But for Marian Anderson the evening was a soaring personal triumph. There were eight curtain calls. “Anderson! Anderson!” chanted the standees, and men and women in the audience wept.

“I’m not quite sure it’s happening,” Contralto Anderson told friends and reporters. Apologizing for her jitters, she added: “A serious person, when beginning anything, is usually a little overanxious.” With opening night past, she would be her old self in her next two performances this season (one of them scheduled for her home town of Philadelphia, this week). As for the possibility of other roles at the Met, she said in her modest, impersonal way: “One is so involved in this one, no other has been thought about.”

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