You always remember your first. As the curtain rose on 1955, the Metropolitan Opera presented its first African-American cast members: contralto Marian Anderson as Ulrica in Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera and, three weeks later, baritone Robert McFerrin as Amonasro in Verdi’s Aida. McFerrin was subsequently specially chosen by composer/conductor Virgil Thomson to breathe life into his Five Songs from William Blake—both the singer’s Ravinia and Chicago Symphony Orchestra debuts—on a program of Thomson’s works at Ravinia on July 5, 1957.
The Met and opera world at large now rightly recognize innumerable African Americans among their leading singers, but as bass-baritone Ryan Speedo Green observes in his Ravinia magazine interview, there’s still a way to go. The legacy of McFerrin and Anderson will be evidenced on Ravinia’s Martin Theatre stage on July 3 when Green makes his festival debut, and on August 9 when bass Morris Robinson, who has appeared in many of Ravinia’s opera presentations over the past decade, gives his first recital at the festival. Robinson will also be leading a free, public master class for the singers of Ravinia’s Steans Music Institute on August 7.