Marian Anderson Makes Her Metropolitan Opera Debut

Famed contralto Marian Anderson made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City on January 7, 1955, as Ulrica in Verdi's Un ballo in maschera.

She was the first African American to perform with the company.

Anderson was born in Philadelphia on February 27, 1897 and began her musical training at the age of six with the Union Baptist Church choir. Rejected by a local music school because of her race, Anderson had private voice lessons funded by her family, church, and friends. She toured the United States extensively, appearing in concerts and recitals, and, in 1925, won first prize in the New York Philharmonic voice contest. The contest yielded a number of performance dates, but it was not until she traveled to Europe that she gained major recognition.

An African-American, Anderson became an important figure in the struggle for black artists to overcome racial prejudice in the United States during the mid twentieth century. In 1939, the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) refused permission for Anderson to sing to an integrated audience in Constitution Hall. Their race-driven refusal placed Anderson into the spotlight of the international community on a level usually only found by high profile celebrities and politicians. With the aid of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, Anderson performed a critically acclaimed open-air concert on Easter Sunday, 1939 on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. to a crowd of more than 75,000 people and a radio audience in the millions. She continued to break barriers for black artists in the United States, notably becoming the first black person, American or otherwise, to perform at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City; this happened on January 7, 1955. Her performance as Ulrica in Giuseppe Verdi's Un ballo in maschera at the Met was the only time she sang an opera role on stage. Anderson later became an important symbol of grace and beauty during the civil rights movement in the 1960s, notably singing at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963. She also worked for several years as a delegate to the United Nations Human Rights Committee and as a "goodwill ambassadress" for the United States Department of State. The recipient of numerous awards and honors, Anderson was notably awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1963, the Kennedy Center Honors in 1978, the National Medal of Arts in 1984, and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1991.