“Genius draws no color line,” U.S. Secretary of the Interior Harold L. Ickes said over cheers from a crowd of 75,000 as he introduced Marian Anderson on April 9, 1939. Truer words could not have been spoken as the internationally recognized contralto began to sing from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
This historic moment—one that News of the Day aired under the headline, “Nation’s Capital Gets A Lesson In Tolerance”—serves as the climatic moment in Marian’s Song, a new opera from Houston Grand Opera, which makes its world premiere with two performances this week.
The 60-minute chamber opera, which features a score by former HGO Music Director and Composer-in-Residence Damien Sneed and a libretto from Houston's poet laureate emeritus Deborah D.E.E.P. Mouton, is the latest new work commissioned by the company as part of its Song of Houston program.
“The way she communicated was through her art and through her craft,” Mouton says. “What better way to honor that than to let her sing?’”
Born in 1897, Anderson, who's known as one of the most highly regarded American voices of her time, broke racial barriers throughout her career. The contralto never had dreams of becoming a social campaigner, but when the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to allow her to perform in Constitution Hall—then considered D.C.’s premiere venue for classical music—Anderson found herself at the center of a political firestorm. The NAACP got involved and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who had invited the contralto to perform at the White House three years earlier, resigned from the DAR in protest. Eventually, Anderson was invited to perform at Lincoln Memorial where 75,000 listened to her live from the National Mall, and millions more heard her broadcast over the radio.
“She held the responsibility of really being the voice of a nation,” Mouton says. “We often look at activism as this very aggressive and in-your-face thing, but we're looking at Marian Anderson as this pioneer, and, in a lot of ways, what she did was stand their ground. I think that's really important for us to consider as we’re going forward.”
Anderson, a National Medal of the Arts recipient, would break even more barriers after her famed performance in 1939. She returned to D.C. a few months later to sing for the king and queen of England at the White House, became the first black artist to perform at the Metropolitan Opera, and sang at two presidential inaugurations. She would also eventually perform at Constitution Hall after its desegregation.
None of these later events are depicted in Marian’s Song, Mouton says. Instead, it focuses on Anderson’s early years, including her development as a performer and the challenges she faced because of her race, which allows the opera to end on a moment of triumph.
Mouton also took care to ensure today’s audiences could connect with the contralto, who died in 1993. Viewers see Anderson’s difficulties and ultimate success through the eyes of Neveah (Houston poet Tina B), a present-day college student fighting to save the opera singer’s childhood home from demolition—a choice that has allowed HGO to fuse opera with the spoken word.
“She’s kind of your narrator. She’s your guide,” Mouton says. “I think that she also is the one that helps us level the importance of what Marian Anderson did within our present-day context and our present-day struggles.”
Focusing on the earlier half of Anderson’s life “gives us windows into who she was,” Mouton says. “Her resilience, her perseverance, even why she carried herself with as much grace and almost a stoic nature the way that she did. We kind of get what's beneath that regal strength she exuded. We get to dig a little under that and kind of see what made her that way.”
This decision also leaves history’s door open for audiences to enter and learn, even after the curtain closes on Marian’s Song.
“We wanted to give people that prodding that says, ‘There's so much out there to know,’” says Mouton. “That it's kind of your time to start that journey of getting to know it for yourself.”
Thru Mar 6. From $15. Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas Ave. 713-228-6737. Tickets and info at houstongrandopera.org.