The Miraculous The Miraculous: Music
7. January 7, 1955, the Metropolitan Opera House, New York
The first African American to sing a leading role with the Metropolitan Opera is cast as Ulrike in Verdi’s Un ballo in mascara. A century earlier when the opera debuted in Italy, the composer was compelled by censors to repeatedly change the setting, first from Sweden to Poland, then from Poland to the United States, specifically to Boston. In the libretto he noted that for the Boston setting the character of Ulrike, a fortune-telling witch, should be played by “a negro.” During the decades when this contralto role was performed by white singers, they would frequently darken their skin in response to the composer’s instructions. The singer at the Metropolitan, who at the age of 57 has a long illustrious career behind her, is incredibly nervous during the first performance, trembling as she mimes the act of mixing a witch’s brew. The audience begins vigorously applauding before she even sings a note, which only adds to her anxiety. What she may or may not know is that the Met had considered hiring her 16 years earlier, when she was still in her prime as a singer, before evidently concluding that their sophisticated audience was not ready for a Black soloist.