The history of African American artists at the Metropolitan Opera dates back to the late 19th century, much earlier than opera audiences today may imagine. The first known Black performers to appear at a Met-sponsored event were the Broadway and vaudeville entertainers Bert Williams and George Walker, who took part in an 1897 gala benefit for New York’s poor. Their performance began an association with aspects of minstrelsy, such as blackface makeup, that endured in the opera house for the next three decades.

In the early 20th century, a gradual cultural shift took place as the Met slowly engaged more Black artists. Behind the scenes, writer and diplomat James Weldon Johnson made history in 1916 by authoring the English translation for the Met’s world premiere of Enrique Granados’s opera Goyescas. Black dancers were engaged for the corps in Henry F. Gilbert’s 1918 ballet The Dance in Place Congo, and a chorus of Black singers was hired for the 1926 production of John Alden Carpenter’s modernist ballet Skyscrapers. 

But in 1929, fear of potential controversy surrounding interracial love scenes in Ernst Krenek’s opera Jonny Spielt Auf prompted the Met to change its title character from a Black musician to a white entertainer wearing blackface.

White during these years continued to have exclusive access to principal singing roles, including those for Black characters. In 1933, despite encouragement from progressive elements of society to consider African American singers such as Paul Robeson and Jules Bledsoe, the Met cast white baritone Lawrence Tibbett in the title role of Louis Gruenberg’s operatic setting of the Eugene O’Neill play The Emperor Jones. Although the chorus and dancers were a mixture of both Blacks and whites in blackface, the primary dance role was performed by African American dancer Hemsley Winfield, the first Black performer to receive a program credit for a named role…


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