Aida’s Brothers & Sisters


Music Documentary, 100 min, 1999

Directed by Jan Schmidt-Garre, Marieke Schroeder

The film tells the story of classic black singing against the background of black emancipation in politics and society. This story stretches from the first successes of the bass Paul Robeson, who all his life regarded his voice as an instrument of liberation, to the young singing pupils of the Harlem School of Arts, who identify themselves with their origins in rejuvenated pride. The great African-American singers express their views, as do opera company directors and critics. Historical and contemporary film extracts and specially produced film sequences demonstrate the richness and variety of black singing. The film also tries to give an answer to the the question: Are we really colourdeaf?

Betty Allen
Marian Anderson
Anne Brown
Grace Bumbry
Simon Estes
Götz Friedrich
Reri Grist
Barbara Hendricks
Bobby McFerrin
Jessye Norman
Leontyne Price
Paul Robeson
George Shirley
Edward Said
Rosalyn M. Story
Shirley Verett
Camilla Williams
Opera Ebony

Cinematography: Wedigo von Schultzendorff, Craig Braden
Editor: Gaby Kull-Neujahr

A co-production with BR, SWR, WDR, DRS, TSR, NRK, YLE and WNET/Thirteen

Distributed with the support of Media II


Opening the Gates for Black Opera Singers
(by David Mermelstein – New York Times: February 13, 2000)

It must have seemed like such an inconsequential decision back in 1939. By barring Marian Anderson from singing at Constitution Hall simply because she was black, the Daughters of the American Revolution were merely following Washington custom. Yet this single act of discrimination would have an impact far beyond the capital‘s cultural life. lt would, in fact, light a slow-burning fuse, one that set off an explosion in late 1955 when another black woman – Rosa Parks – refused to move to the back of a Montgomery, Ala. , but like Ms. Parks, Ms. Anderson did not meekly accept the injustice. Having been refused the D.A.R. hall, she sang instead at the Lincoln Memorial, to a crowd of 75,000 on Easter Sunday. The scene is indelible: the modest but unbowed contralto, standing at the temple to the Great Emancipator, singing "America". That image stands at the center of a new documentary, "Aida’s Brothers and Sisters Black Voices in Opera", which will be shown on wednesday in PBS’s "Great performances" series.
The program charts the complex history of black Americans and their struggles to enter the musical mainstream. Unfolding without benefit of narration, the documentary allows those who helped break the color barrier, and those who followed in their wake, to relate the story in their own fashion.
The film makers, Jan Schmidt-Garre and Marieke Schroeder, have assembled a roster of witnesses that includes Anne Brown, who in 1935 created the female lead in "Porgy and Bess"; Camilla Williams, the first to record that role in its entirety; Betty Allen, a friend of Ms. Anderson and the president emeritus of the Harlem School of the Arts; Grace Bumbry, the first black to sing at the Bayreuth Festival; and the sopranos Shirley Verrett and Barbara Hendricks. Among the array of vintage film clips in the program is the particularly gratifying one of the soprano Leontyne Price singing before a D.A.R. gathering 43 years after the organization barred Ms. Anderson. But the story of the black ascent in American concert and operatic life began well before the Lincoln Memorial concert. Though thwarted by fierce prejudice, Elizabeth Greenfield and Marie Selika, both born slaves, had significant careers during the 19th century. And Sissieretta Jones, dubbed the "Black Patti," in Reference to the celebrated soprano Adelina Patti, performed before four American presidents and at Madisonsquare Garden before retiring in 1916.
Unlike white singers from the late 19th century on, none of these early black divas left a recorded legacy. "The most regrettable aspect of any discussion of black opera singers is that there may have been black singers as great as Melba or Patti, but we'll never know for sure," said Rosalyn Story, the author of "And So I Sing: African-American Divas of Opera and Concert", which the film makers relied on heavily for their work. Ms. Anderson, it is true, was the first black to sing at the Metropolitan Opera, in 1955, preceding the baritone Robert McFerrin (the father of Bobby) by three weeks. And that milestone, coupled with the legendary Easter Sunday concert, assured her iconic status in the annals of social as well as musical history. But others were staking claims in opera contemporaneously with Ms. Anderson, and even before her.
Ms. Williams, whose 1951 recording of Bess remains a benchmark, made her debut at the New York City Opera in the title role of "Madama Butterfly" in 1946, nearly a full decade before Rudolf Bing allowed Ms. Anderson to grace the Met stage. Unmentioned in the documentary is the tenor Roland Hayes, who died in 1977. A recitalist who performed from World War I until 1972, he was the first black singer to appear with a symphony and the first to bring spirituals to predominantly white audiences. The importance of religion in establishing and supporting black singers can hardly be underplayed. In the film the bass-baritone Simon Estes and Ms.Hendricks draw direct links between their musicianship and their faith. "The ability to express the suffering in a Mozart aria is something that I learned from singing spirituals", Ms. Hendricks says. Ms. Verrett calls these songs of sorrow and faith: "America’s music". Ms Williams chimes in with a mini-primer on spirituals, deconstructing "Nobody Knows the Troubles I’ve Seen" in the process. "You can’t sing a Negro spiritual and be proper", she says wryly.
Of course, no account of blacks in opera is complete without reference to "Porgy and Bess" and the lingering controversy as to whether Gershwin’s folk opera (even that term invites argument) helped or hindered black singers. Ms. Allen, who ran the Harlem School of the Arts for more than a decade, confesses that she at first "loathed" the work. And Ms.Bumbry terms it "an insult". to black people, a curious comment coming from a woman who sang Bess at the Met just 15 years ago. Others disagree. In the film, Bobby McFerrin says that Gershwin should be applauded for an honest attempt at understanding the black experience. Apart from this program, Peter Hemmings, the executive director of the Los Angeles Opera, called the piece "a great help to black singers, because it has given them substantial work over many years".
In a telephone interview, Ms. Story, who appears in the documentary, largely agreed with Mr. Hemmings, referring to the l985 Met production in which Ms. Bumbry starred as a "pivotal point" in the history of black singing. With the nation’s premiere opera house suddenly committed to employing scores of black singers, an unrivaled showcase emerged for black talent. "It put black people on the minds of those who die for opera", Ms. Story said. "And so they got jobs, at least for a while”. BUT Ms. Story, who is herself black, sees black success on the operatic stage as something that requires continued cultivation. Like most observers, she thinks overt racism is not much of a factor anymore.
Yet that alone, she says, won’t guarantee the gains. "It’s not like the 60’s now when people made an extra point of including people of color," she said. "We don’t have that kind of spirit now. Opera is not removed from that, and hiring for opera is a very subjective thing. So with the exception of extraordinary talents like Jessye Norman and Kathleen Battle, who are going to be hired regardless, if you’re not necessarily thinking about black people, they can be easily overlooked".
Ms. Schroeder too, senses that fewer blacks are visible on opera stages today than, say, 10 years ago. "I don’t want to take a position on that subject," she said by telephone from Germany. "But I do wonder why there are so few young black singers at the moment." Mr. Hemmings, whose business is hiring opera singers, will have none of it, "I honestly don’t think about what color people are when we’re casting", he said. "Nor do I feel that it’s important that we should have black singers merely because they’re black singers. We have a black resident artist at the moment, but we don’t have him because he’s black. We have him because he’s a good singer." Of course, the last word – if there is a last word on this tangeled subject-really belongs to black artists themselves, for no one better understands the impact of race on their work. Ms. Hendricks, for one, freely admits that her color has fed her musicianship. Yet she is quick to point out that she considers art universal and "not worth breaking down into little categories". "When I stand onstage and sing Schubert", she said in a recent conversation, "I don’t sing it as a black woman I just sing it".

"Aida’s Brothers and Sisters is fine music drama"
(by Robin Washington – Boston Herald: February 15, 2000)

Everybody knows, or should know, the story of Marian Anderson: Denied a 1939 engagement by the Daughters of the Revolution, the great black contralto took her concert out of the Lincoln Memorial at the urging of Eleanor Roosevelt and created a performance far more memorable than whatever was sung to the grand ladies of the D.A.R. at Constitution Hall.
Operatic though that incident might have been in plot, it was not entirely so musically, unless "My Country Tis of Thee" has been incarnated as an aria in some yet-to-be-discovered work. Regardless, Anderson is linked indelibly with opera, and her story, along with those of the black artists who followed her, are chronicled in Great Performances "Aida’s Brothers and Sisters: Black voices in Opera" (...)
Anderson finally did grace the stage of the Met in 1953 to become its first black singer and helped to end American apartheid a year before the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown vs. Board of Education. Like Jackie Robinson, who broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier six years earlier, Anderson soon was followed by other African-Americans. Two weeks after her debut, Robert McFerrin became the first black male to sing at the Met. Unlike Anderson, he was offered a three-year contract, sparking a career that if not notalbe for its own achievements would have been respected for spawning that of Robert McFerrin the younger, or Bobby as he is known to fans of "Don’t Worry, Be Happy" fare.
Indeed, it is the voices of black forebears that inform the contribution of Leontyne Price, Simon Estes and Barbara Hendricks, whose entrances on opera’s main stage have long buried any notion that blacks do not belong there or that the form would be worth following today without them. "The ability to express the suffering of a Mozart aria is something that I learned from singing spirituals," says Hendricks in the 90-minute film. Be that as it may, one should not assume that spiritual singing comes naturally just because the singer is black. "I did learn from Sylvia Lee that my singing of spirituals is terrible!" says diva Martina Arroyo, invoking the master voice coach who preceded Anderson as the Met’s first black staff member.
If there is a sin of omission in the film, it is the absence of any further mention of Lee. A barely 5-foot-tall dynamo. Lee shares the fair skin of her mother, Sylvia Olden, who was offered a Met contract in 1913 and would have eclipsed Anderson by four decades – if she had chosen to pass for white. Yet the film does include others who never graced the opera stage but contributed greatly to it. Most notable is Paul Robeson, who had no problem singing spirituals or any other kind of music. His influence also defines dignity – in changing , for instance, the last lines of "Old Man River" from "I’m tired of living, but afraid of dyin’" to "I must keep fighting until I’m dyin’".
That spirit lives on in the decades since, in which blacks have played every nontraditional role – from George Shirley’s Pinkerton to Arroyo’s Cio-Cio San in Puccini’s "Madama Butterfly" – as well as those relegated to them. "I did my first Sport’n ’ Life (from "Porgy and Bess") in 1998. At this point, I felt I could afford to do it", Shirley says with a chuckle.
One drawback: Interviews in the German-produced show are framed by wannabe-arty travelogue footage that’s seemingly inspired by Dieter’s "Schprockets" school of producing. Ignore it. Close your eyes and listen, which, at heart, is the point.

John Leonard’s TV Notes
(New York Magazine – February 21, 2000)

Aida’s Brothers and Sisters: Black Voices in Opera is an absorbing look, with fabulous archival footage, at the struggle of African-American singers to achieve such stages as the Metropolitan, from Marian Anderson and Paul Robeson to Leontyne Price and Simon Estes, from Martina Arroyo and Bobby McFerrin to Jessye Norman, Grace Bumbry, Shirley Verrett, and George Shirley. They all tell horror stories, usually in good humor. Don’t miss Edward Said, taking time off from the Middle East to speak of music.

Black opera singers star in film
(by Richard Dyer – The Boston Globe: February 16, 2000)

"Aida‘s Brothers and Sisters" is a documentary about African-American singers in opera that airs tonight. (...)
Flawed by the consequences of low budget and lofty pretensions, it is nevertheless worth watching for some wonderful views of Marian Anderson, Leontyne Price, Shirley Verrett, Jessye Norman, Reri Grist, and Paul Robeson in full cry and by some spectacular displays of ego, eccentricity, personality, and intelligence in the interview segments.
Apparently Price, Norman, and Kathleen Battle, who goes unmentioned, declined to participate in this film by Jan Schmidt-Garre and Marieke Schroeder; their absence weakens it. Longtime Boston opera lovers will be happy to see how often Verrett appears to comment with sharply focused observations, and there is a tantalizing glimpse of her as Saint-Saens’ Dalila. Anne Brown, who created Bess in "Porgy and Bess," speaks briefly and brightly, and we see her in a film of "Summertime"; others speak very disparagingly of Gershwin’s opera. Other divas interviewed include Betty Allen, Martina Arroyo, Grace Bumbry (who discusses shades of Max Factor stage makeup with great enthusiasm), Grist (as precise and elegant in speech as in song), Barbara Hendricks, and Camilla Williams (in the most outrageous get-up of all). Tenors George Shirley and Thomas Young, along with baritone Simon Estes, eloquently state the problems that African-American men face in opera. Paul Robeson Jr. and Bobby McFerrin (son of Robert McFerrin, the first African-American man to sing at the Met) deputize for their fathers. There is cultural commentary from stage director Goetz Friedrich, Edward Said, who is inclined to spout off; and Rosalyn M. Story, who wrote the book about this subject, "And So I Sing," offers perspective and shading.
The film has manneristic touches. Most of the interviews occupy only a portion of the screen image; the rest of it is taken up with desolate urban landscapes that pass by in the style of a 19th century panorama, although what this has to do with opera or indeed with most of these cosmopolitan singers is unclear. Members of Opera Ebony also appear to link episodes by performing scenes in arty stagings that do not conceal the lack of orchestral accompaniment, or accompaniment of any kind, Geraldine McMillian, who sang Aida for the Boston Lyric Opera this season, is one of them.
Controversial subjects are not shirked – "Is there such a thing as a black voice?" – "Do male African-American singers pose a sexual threat onstage that troubles an audience?" The film opens and closes with images of Anderson, singing both at the historic Lincoln Memorial concert in 1939 and at President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration – 22 years, but, the film makes clear, not enough, then or now; there’s still a long road to travel.

TV celebrates Black singers in opera field
(by Kimberly C. Roberts – Philadelphia Tribune: February 15, 2000)

"If it doesn’t bother you that Zinka Milanov really isn’t Ethiopian when she sings Aida, if it doesn’t bother you that Mario Del Monaco isn’t a Moor when he sings, Othello ... if you’re not bothered by that, then why would you be bothered by the fact that I am African American, singing the role of a French nobleman?"
Tenor George Shirley poses this thought-provoking question in a Great Performances special, "Aida’s Brothers and Sisters: Black Voices in Opera". (...)
Fittingly, this enlightening program begins with Marian Anderson, whose groundbreaking contributions paved the way for today’s operatic stars such as Kathleen Battle, Denyce Graves, Jessye Norman and Simon Estes, who are celebrated worldwide. "She was our mother, in effect, of every Black singer," said mezzo-soprano Betty Allen. "She was the mother who opened the door for us. She made everything possible. She opened all those doors that had been closed. All the hotel rooms that would become open for us to stay , all the halls that people said we couldn’t sing in. She made things possible for us."
There are also observations from some of our greatest voices, including Shirley Verrett, Anne Brown and Reri Grist. Rosalyn M. Story, whose volume "And So I Sing" is considered the definitive account of African-American divas and their roots. Barbara Hendricks gives testimony to the influence that the "negro" spiritual has on a Black singer’s approach to classical music. Martina Arroyo recalls "shakin’ in her shoes" when internationally acclaimed African-American vocal coach Sylvia Lee, a Mount Airy resident, coached her in the spirituals, and Paul Robeson, Jr. shared an amusing anecdote about his legendary father.
In a most intriguing, telling moment, the great Grace Bumbry, who is being interviewed by a German reporter at the 1961 Bayreuth Festival, answers his question in fluent German.
In addition to breathtaking performances by established stars such as Leontyne Price, Jessye Norman and Simon Estes, we also get to hear, in a particularly inspiring segment, some promising young Black voices, both male and female, as the artistic torch is passed by their ebullient and talented teacher Dianne Randolph.
"Aida’s Brothers and Sisters" is far more than an entertaining episode about the unique history lesson that celebrates our rich and varied heritage.

Aida’s Brothers and Sisters – Black Voices in Opera and Concert
– DVD of the month / Editors Choice, Gramophone Magazine –
(by Peter Quantrill – Gramophone: November 19, 2009)

An engaging and thought-provoking history from Jan Schmidt-Garre
Jan Schmidt-Garre has made four films since 1992. The history of black singers overcoming racism and prejudice is mostly told by the singers themselves, Shilrey Verrett, Reri Grist and Grace Bumbry in particular, and if George Shirley and Simon Estes are outnumbered, then Shirley’s rhetorical question offers a pointed explanation: if you’re not bothered by Zinka Milanov singing Aida, why is the idea of him singing a French nobleman still uncomfortable? The film’s tour of the issues such as what makes a black voice allows for a brief excursion on what might make a black opera: the debate over Porgy and Bess is crystallised by Edward Said, for whom it’s "condescending", and Bobby McFerrin, with his praise for Gershwin’s attempt to "understand the black experience". The extracts are too brief to give pleasure in themselves (and it’s a shame they are unsubtitled), except for Marian Anderson singing „Ave Maria“ at Christmas 1939 and Jessye Norman as Strauss’s Ariadne, both lit from within by unshakeable technique and faith in their own powers of communication. Norman and Leontyne Price have probably been the most visible represenatives of black voices in opera, and the film perhaps loses a little authority without their personal witness. In compensation, we see Price dedicationg her appearance in 1982 at the convention of the ballgowned and beribboned Daughters of the American Revolution to the memory of Anderson, whom the convention had infamously shunned in 1939. The film ends on a downbeat, With Paul Robeson’s eloquent fury at being forbidden to travel outside the US for his communist sympathies abd „Anti-American“ activities. By declining invitations to star at the great opera houses, Robeson chose not to be a standard-bearer for Black participation of White culture-a role left to Price in particular-but became th efulcrum to unite issues of racial, class and cultural equality. The path to those temples is rockier now than it was in the age of the Black diva. Back in 1999, Verrett hopes that „the Metropolitan can get back to the place that it was". Whatever they tried hasn’t worked: Nicole Cabell ist he sole singer of African-American ancestry scheduled to take a lead role at either the Met or Chicago Lyric opera in the 2009-10 season.

(by Harald Eggebrecht – Süddeutsche Zeitung: Oktober 16, 2009)

Dass die USA seit fast einem halben Jahr erstmals einen schwarzen Präsidenten haben erscheint angesichts der Aussagen berühmter afroamerikanischer Sänger in Jan Schmidt-Garres und Marieke Schroeders Film „Aidas Brothers and Sisters” von 1999 als damals schier unerreichbare Utopie. Was etwa Barbara Hendricks oder Grace Bumbry, Reri Grist oder Simon Estes zur Situation Schwarzer Sänger auf den Opern- und Konzertbühnen zu sagen haben, von welchen Kämpfen und Demütigungen der Weg zum Erfolg begleitet wurde, wie wenige sich weltweit durchgesetzt haben und wie Sänger etwa die wunderbare Marian Anderson diskriminiert wurden – davon erzählt dieser Film auf so unverstellte Weise, dass oft blanker Zorn aufsteigt. Etwa die tragische Geschichte des einmaligen Bassisten Paul Robeson, der als Schwarzer und als Kommunist gleich zweimal in Amerika missachtet wurde und dort nicht auftreten konnte, dafür in der feindlichen Sowjetunion oder in der DDR als wahrer Amerikaner propagandistisch gefeiert wurde. Neben den bewegenden Archivaufnahmen aus Oper und Konzert beeindrucken die bitteren Kommentare der Stars, so jener von George Shirley: „Stört es Sie, dass Zinka Milanov keine Äthiopierin ist wenn sie Aida singt? Stört es jemanden, dass Mario del Monaco kein „Mohr“ (im englischen Originalton sagt Shirley tatsächlich „moor“!) ist, wenn er Othello singt? Wenn das niemanden stört, warum tut es dann der Umstand, dass ich als Afroamerikaner die Rolle eines französischen Edelmannes singe?"


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"Aida’s Brothers & Sisters" – Quotes

“No matter how big a nation is, it is no stronger than its weakest people, and as long as you keep a person down, some part of you has to be down there to hold him down, so it means you cannot soar as you might otherwise."
Marian Anderson

“Sometimes, it’s like a hair across your cheek. You can’t see it, you can’t find it with your fingers, but you keep brushing at it because the feel of it is irritating."
Marian Anderson

“It was Miss Anderson who stood as a symbol for the emergence of the Negro; and while she herself never militantly participated in the civil-rights movement, she was revered as one who, by the force of her personality, talent and probity, was able to become a world figure despite her humble birth and minority status. In a way, she was part of the American dream. And her success story was an inspiration to younger Negro musicians."
Harold C. Schoenberg, on the occasion of Marian Anderson’s farewell concert

“It is well to remember that the America which we know has risen out of the toil of many millions who have come here seeking freedom from all parts of the world. The Irish and Scots indentured servants who cleared the forests, built the colonial homesteads, and were part of the productive back bone of our early days. The millions of German immigrants of the mid-nineteenth century, the millions more from Eastern Europe whose sweat and sacrifice in the steel mills, the coal mines and the factories made possible the industrial revolution ... the brave Jewish people from all parts of Europe who have so enriched our lives on this continent; the workers from Mexico and from the East – Japan and the Philippines – whose labor has helped make the West and the Southwest a rich and fruitful land. And, through it all, from the earliest days – before Columbus – the Negro people, upon whose unpaid toil as slaves the basic wealth of this nation was built! These are the forces that have made America great and preserved our democratic heritage."
Paul Robeson

“People of colour – in those days were called coloured people, and later on we became Negroes and then Black and now African-American. But we were not allowed to sit downstairs in the movie theatre with white people. I could not play golf on the golf course; we were not allowed to swim in the swimming pool with white people at the same time. They would only let people of colour swim on Saturdays in the mornings. And then we had to get out of the pool around eleven o’clock, and then they would put in more disinfectant in the water before they let the white students come in."
Simon Estes

“I always loved the theatre, I loved acting, and the reason that I rejected a career as an actress was that the only role an African-American could get at that time, was a servant on a stage or in a film, and mostly men, or you had to be a cook, or someone serving someone else. And I thought that’s not for me."
Anne Brown

“I said, thank God, I never had to sing Bess, I never had to sing Aida, because I’m not a soprano. But I really was a little against the typical casting, which has nothing to do with your voice, or your type, but just because you had to have a dark skin."
Betty Allen

“I can always tell when there is a black singer or a black speaker. I can always tell, I may be wrong one time out of one hundred."
Grace Bumbry

“I hear a throatier sound placed lower with a very low larynx, a sound that can be – not always and I speak only of classical singing now – warm and rich. Sometimes it is harsh and very open throat. But I would also like to say that I have heard this sound on occasion in the singing of Marilyn Horn and Kathleen Ferrier. And I’m sure there are several others around who are not of African-American descent who have these qualities in their operatic singing voices."
Reri Grist

“Does it bother you that Zinka Milanov really isn’t Ethiopian when she sings Aida? Does it bother you that Mario del Monaco isn’t a moor, when he sings Othello? If you are not bothered by that then why would you be bothered by the fact, that I’m an African-American singing the role of a French nobleman?"
George Shirley

“The piece that I’m going to be singing here in this theatre tomorrow is ‘Die schöne Müllerin’ by Schubert, which is only sung by men. But I love this piece and I feel, that the feelings that this young man expresses from the beginning of his arrival and his whole emotional journey are something that any human being can express. So I think this is what we’ve been able to do through the fact that the barriers to the opera houses and to the concert halls were broken down. So we go past the exteriors of colour and gender even, to get through to what the real meaning of the music is."
Barbara Hendricks

“I’m sure that during the years when we were all at the Metropolitan Theatre – Bumbry, Price and so – there were many people who didn’t want to see us there. But we did help to sell tickets."
Shirley Verrett