Information Retrieval, Archives, and Social Commentary: Researching the Dynamics of Race at the Metropolitan Opera

Dr. Maurice B. Wheeler
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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
Stream: Ethnicity, Difference, Identity
Presentation Type: Paper Presentation in English
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Dr. Maurice B. Wheeler

Associate Professor, School of Library and Information Sciences, University of North Texas

Dr Maurice B. Wheeler is Associate Professor in the School of Library and Information Sciences at the University of North Texas. He began his career as a music archivist, combining music and librarianship, the two areas in which he has continued to work over the past 15 years. His professional positions include director of the Detroit Public library and a variety of administrative posts at the University of Michigan Library. Maurice has earned music degrees from Shorter College and the University of Michigan, and degrees in Library Science from the University of Michigan and the University of Pittsburgh. He is a frequent speaker at professional conferences and meetings and has consulted with museums and libraries on preservation and cultural programming. Maurice's professional affiliations and activities include board and committee positions with Detroit's University Cultural Center Association, the American Library Association, Michigan Governor's Awards for Arts and Culture, Detroit Symphony-Orchestra Hall, Heritage Museum of Fine Arts, Michigan Opera Theatre, and Opera America/Opera for Youth.

Ref: H05P0310