For half a century, Opera Ebony has been one of the leading lights for black performers looking to make their mark in the world of opera. Born out of a need to develop talent often overlooked, the company gave many of its singers a much-needed break in the industry.
“Opera Ebony started in that living room, literally,” the company’s 81-year-old co-founder, Wayne Sanders, told NPR as he settled back into a vintage sofa.
His Upper West Side apartment, filled with heavy antiques, was where he started the company in 1973, along with a white nun named Sister Mary Elise Sisson and his longtime roommate, friend and fellow musician Benjamin Matthews.
The trio was concerned about the lack of opportunities for black performers and helping young musicians get into opera early.
“You had to sing all this music and you had to have that experience with it and the world needed to hear you,” Sanders said.
The world heard Opera Ebony. For decades, the company has toured internationally, in venues large and small, focusing on black voices. Blacks participated fully in opera, receiving opportunities to direct, design sets and costumes, and play in the orchestra.
Opera Ebony’s staying power is remarkable, said professor Naomi Andre, who works on opera and issues related to gender, voice and race at UNC-Chapel Hill. “I mean 50 years! This is huge for American opera companies. I don’t know of any other Black opera that’s lasted this long,” she explained to NPR.
Andre pointed out that when Opera Ebony started in 1973, some black opera singers, such as Marian Anderson and Leontine Price, had become household names. But at the time, it was more difficult, she said, for black performers to be cast in operas with white singers on stage.
“We just had Loving v. Virginia, which allowed interracial couples to be legal in the United States in 1967,” she noted.” So at the time when Opera Ebony opened in the early 1970s, she it was still a big thing to have close interracial relationships and play them out on the opera stage still … it made some people think.”
This was also the time of the Black Arts movement. Artists such as Benjamin Matthews and Wayne Sanders not only explored traditional classical works, but also music that reflected the African American experience. Spirituals, work songs, jazz and gospel were all included in Opera Ebony’s repertoire, highlighting often overlooked black composers. The company commissioned several original works, incl Frederick Douglass by Dorothy Rudd Moore in 1985, Sojourner Truth by Valerie Capers in the following year and The exile by Noah Ain in 1990.
“We had to make sure we kept doing a lot of our own music because it wasn’t common back then,” Sanders said.
Opera Ebony helped change the landscape of classical music, but now the company is falling on hard times. The organization, which once averaged three shows a year, has shrunk to one, and co-founder Wayne Sanders, 81, is frail and ailing. But he believes Opera Ebony will outlive him.
“We black people have shown that we can make our mark wherever we go,” Sanders said.
Sanders’ life story is like an opera itself. He and his friends took risks, focused on black magic and artists, and insisted on making the music they loved.
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