Information Retrieval, Archives, and Social Commentary: Researching the Dynamics of Race at the Metropolitan Opera
African Americans' accomplishments and contributions to the art form of opera, either before or after Marian Anderson's historic Metropolitan Opera (MET) debut in 1955, have not traditionally been included in the mainstream of music history. Nonetheless, people of African descent have been involved in opera as composers and singers in America since the mid 1800s. A review of the literature reveals that while much has been written about Anderson, Leontyne Price and a few other contemporary singers, only minor attempts have been made to examine their careers and achievements in the social, historical, cultural, and political context of the MET. The struggle for civil rights in America took place in a variety of venues across the country, and the Metropolitan Opera was the site of tremendous progress in race relations in the mid-to-late 20th century. It is no coincidence that Marian Anderson's debut at the MET was made the same year as the U.S. Supreme Court's decision to desegregate public schools. With only a few exceptions, such as Leontyne Price, the voluminous writings about the MET's history have neglected to discuss, collectively or individually, the careers of the approximately 200 African Americans engaged to sing at the MET during the past 50 years. This presentation will focus on a research project that explores in detail the careers of all African American singers who have performed roles at the MET. The discussion will consider the historical, cultural, and political significance of their debuts, roles performed, and frequency of engagements. In addition, various challenges that were overcome while conducting the research will be discussed; including incomplete or deficient historical records, the fragile condition of aging resource materials, and how innovations in use of technology both hampered and enhanced the research process.
Keywords: Opera, Metropolitan Opera, African American, Singers, Race, Information Retrieval
Dr. Maurice B. Wheeler
Associate Professor, School of Library and Information Sciences, University of North Texas