This Day In History: January 7

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On the evening of January 7, 1955, the curtain at the Metropolitan Opera in New York rises to reveal Marian Anderson, the first African American to perform with the Met.

By then, Anderson was in the twilight of a career that was equal parts acclaimed and hamstrung by racism. First noticed by an aunt, who convinced her to join a church choir and helped her put on her first professional shows, Anderson spent her early career in the eastern United States. She was successful but consistently thwarted from mainstream stardom by racism and segregation, and she eventually decided to continue her career in Europe. She became a sensation there, particularly in Scandinavia, and major figures such as composer Jean Sibelius and conductor Arturo Toscanini praised her as a singular vocal talent.

Upon returning to the United States, Anderson performed regularly, but continued to be denied bookings, hotel rooms and other basic opportunities that were afforded to whites. In 1939, the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to let her perform at Constitution Hall on account of her race. A group of supporters that included President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his wife, Eleanor, who resigned from the DAR in protest, helped her instead put on a concert at the Lincoln Memorial. Attended by 75,000 people, including prominent members of Roosevelt's cabinet, and broadcast across the nation, the concert not only bolstered her fame but also thrust Anderson into the nascent struggle for civil rights.

Rudolf Bing, who became director of the Met in 1950, was intent on signing Anderson to perform there from the outset. Though she had been courted by companies foreign and domestic, Anderson had shied away from opera in the past, feeling her voice was not right for it and deterred by the lack of roles for Black singers. When Bing finally convinced her to sign with him, he did not tell the Met's board of directors until after the fact. He cast Anderson as Ulrica in Verdi's Un ballo en maschera. The role, a witch-like figure often portrayed by white women wearing dark makeup, was not the lead, and it was freighted with racial stereotypes connecting primitive and "backwards" traditions with people of color. Nonetheless, her debut at the Met was a major moment in the history of integration of the arts, and the New York Times reported that Anderson's performance left many audience members in tears.

The Met made Anderson a permanent member, although Un ballo en maschera was her only appearance with the company. She would go on to perform at the inaugurations of Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy. In 1965, she retired following a farewell tour that began at Constitution Hall, where she had once been barred from performing, and ended at Carnegie Hall. She died in 1993.