15 Black Opera Singers You’ll Love – Male and Female Singers

Here are 15 awesome Black opera singers, both male and female singers

The opera scene hasn’t exactly always been the most hospitable spot for black performers. Throughout the many decades, they’ve been discouraged by teachers to pursue their dreams and outright locked out of opportunities due to their skin color.

But thankfully, the black singers on this list never gave up hope or fed into the negativity or racism that they faced. So in this article, we’re going to highlight fifteen amazing black opera singers that found a way to push past adversity and shatter various glass ceilings (and close minded perceptions) along the way.

Black Male Opera Singers

Let’s first begin with Lawrence Brownlee. 

Lawrence Brownlee

Lawrence Brownlee

Lawrence Brownlee is one of the most sought-after Bel Canto tenors performing today. His brilliant and bright tone soars freely through houses and into the audience’s hearts. The resonance in Brownlee’s high C’s and above is exciting and almost unbelievable. Truly, how does he do it? 

One of my favorite recordings of his is not anything flashy, but an intimate setting of Yeat’s poem, “Lake Isle of Innisfree” by composer Ben Moore. Brownlee’s dedication to the musical line and poetry brings the listener directly to Innisfree. 

Simon Estes

Born to a working-class family in Centerville, Iowa, Simon Estes dedicated himself to music and went from the fields to singing at top opera houses all over the world. As a black man singing at places such as the Metropolitan Opera in the 80s, he paved the way for other black singers. 

You will feel his bass-baritone voice in your bones. This magnificent instrument balances wonderfully between brilliance and warmth, something hard for every voice type, but, especially difficult for bigger voices. Estes brings his full voice to every note, and throughout his entire range, we hear beautiful tension-free production. 

Estes’ repertoire is huge and amazing – be sure to listen to his many Verdi and Wagner recordings. 

John Holiday

Countertenor John Holiday’s voice transcends genre. He can seriously sing anything. A contestant on the Voice in 2020, Holiday wowed the audience and judges with his impeccable range, agility, and sense of style. 

He transitions into classical music flawlessly and performs in opera houses all over the world. His vibrant tone is enhanced by the word painting and phrasing he brings to his music.

George Shirley

Trailblazing singer George Shirley was the first African American to win the Metropolitan National Council Auditions, and the first black tenor to sing at the Metropolitan Opera. With an international career of experience to share, he teaches voice at the University of Michigan and supports the upcoming generation of singers through a voice competition. 

The George Shirley African-American Art Song and Operatic Aria Competition gives out $5,000 in prizes to young singers and encourages singers to break out of the white canon and explore composers of color. 

Enjoy this sit down interview with Shirley:

Russell Thomas

Russell Thomas’ voice is like a mountain range. At the heights, we feel the full power of his massive instrument ringing out resonantly through the peaks, and in the valleys, we melt in his energized soft, musical singing. His extraordinary voice has him booked every season. 

My favorite recording of his is Barber’s “Knoxville: Summer of 1915.” Originally written for soprano, this piece holds a special place in my heart. Though it is a longer listen, you will feel rewarded at the end by Thomas’ excellent vocal storytelling and this gorgeous setting of Agee’s unanswerable questions of growing up. 

William Warfield

William Warfield was known for his concert, recital, and acting work. During the height of his performing career in the 1950s, racism made being a black man on the leading opera stages impossible. 

But this wouldn’t stop Warfield, “Opera wasn’t ready for me, or any black male …But it never occurred to me to give up.” You can read more about this dynamic singer’s career here

Warfield’s voice is like curling up in a blanket. The comforting tone and timbre mixed with his elegant and soothing phrasing ensure no part of his range feels disconnected. His excellent technique, combined with great showmanship, creates deeply moving musical moments for the audience. Check out this gorgeous recording of “Ol’ Man River” from the musical Showboat. 

Black Female Opera Singers

How about we begin our discussion of the ladies with a very recent award winner: Angel Blue!

Angel Blue

2022 Richard Tucker Award winner Angel Blue is an internationally acclaimed soprano making strides for other black women in the opera industry. In 2019, she was the first black woman to sing the full role of Violetta at Teatro alla Scala in Milan. In 2021, she won a Grammy for her portrayal of Bess in Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” at the Metropolitan Opera. This season, she sang in the first opera performance by a black composer at the Met, “Fire Shut up in My Bones” to critical acclaim. 

If her career highlights aren’t enough to pique your curiosity, listen for her legato and warm tone. Her recording of “Vissi D’arte” from Puccini’s Tosca is breathtaking. And that last high note is just pure Heaven.

Pretty Yende

Pretty Yende

South African soprano Pretty Yende performs all over the world and is one of today’s top singers. Her clear, light voice pings out like a bell and cleanly articulates coloratura.

Yende doesn’t overly darken or manufacture her sound. She sings with her voice; she’s not trying to sound like anybody else. The result is a vibrant free tone with a spinning, fluttering vibrato. 

Kathleen Battle

Kathleen Battle

Where to begin with the diva Ms. Kathleen Battle? Her effervescent and joyful singing sets her apart. Her acting and storytelling abilities are top-notch, breathing life into everything she sings. Battle began her career singing concert repertoire and oratorio with her first professional performance in 1974 as the soprano soloist in Mahler’s 8th Symphony with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. 

One of my favorite clips of her is from Carl Orff’s oratorio Carmina Burana. “Dulcissime” is less than a minute of music, but the pitfalls are many. Sitting mostly above the staff and littered with coloratura, this vocalese is demanding. Battle sings the excerpt with such sweetness and confidence that it sounds easy.

Jessye Norman

There are few things more beautiful than Jessye Norman’s voice. Her expressive instrument takes listeners on a journey. Her artistry is unmatched and highlights the romantic nature of the lush repertoire she sings.

New York Times music critic, Edward Rothstein, captured the power of her voice perfectly in her 2019 obituary: “It contains sunlit rooms, narrow passageways, cavernous halls.” In short, her voice can fill any space regardless of size and conjure up worlds of dreams.

J’nai Bridges 

Grammy award-winning mezzo-soprano J’nai Bridges brings something special to each performance. Her character portrayals are real, and when she performs, we see humanity on stage. She’s not overdone; she’s just like us – with incredible vocal talent, of course. 

On top of her vocal work, she advocates for equality and diversity within the opera field and was recently named one of the Kennedy Center’s NXT50 cultural leaders. 

Her rich, velvety tone is perfect for roles such as Carmen. Below, you can listen to her recording of the ever-famous Habanera. 

Golda Schultz

Golda Schultz

Golda Schultz brings tender musicality to all her repertoire with an incredibly lush and warm lyric soprano. Her commitment to legato makes each phrase like liquid gold. Her voice packages the scope of human emotion and delivers it to the audience in sweeping musical gestures. She is a true artist and will be remembered as such. 

An advocate for increased diversity in music, she released an album in 2022 of songs by female composers titled, “This Be Her Verse.”

Leontyne Price

Leontyne Price

As the first internationally acclaimed black singer, Leontyne Price is an icon. Her plush tone delivers a sensuous dramatic soprano that she uses to enhance her musicality. Price sang all over the world in major houses such as the Met and Teatro alla Scala in Milan and made an impact on the musical community of her time. 

Price has many delightful recordings, but her recording of the beloved aria “Casta diva” showcases her at her best. 

Marian Anderson

Marian Anderson

Contralto Marian Anderson was the first African American to sing a lead role at the Metropolitan Opera.  Performing in the 1930s, she faced racial challenges and discrimination during her career. In 1939, she was barred from singing at Constitution Hall in D.C. due to the hall’s only white performers policy. 

As a means of protest, Anderson and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt arranged a nationally televised recital for Anderson at the Lincoln Memorial. On the day of the performance, 75,000 people came to hear Anderson sing.

Denyce Graves

Legendary mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves is known for her depictions of bread-and-butter mezzo roles like Carmen and Dalila. Her acting abilities paired with her consistent, stunning tone make her a dynamic performer in demand all over the world. 

This season, she directed her first Carmen at Minnesota Opera and Glimmerglass sharing her expertise with the next generation.

Conclusion

Exploring past, current, and rising black opera singers is important to combat racism within opera. Being a successful singer, especially a classical singer, is difficult work, and compared to their white colleagues, these musicians of color had to overcome challenges of institutional and direct racism to get to where they are today. When we understand those barriers, their creative output becomes that much more beautiful. 

This article was written by Anne (edited by Michael of Devoted to Vinyl).

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