Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Black Swan: A Tribute Concert

By Mary Sheeran

 The African American participation in classical music has been prodigious, even before Lincoln and the Civil War. Here is one story.
She was born a slave in 1809 (or 1817 or 1819, sources differ) in Natchez, Mississippi and took the name of her owner, a Quaker, who freed her when taking her north to Philadelphia. Taking the name of her mistress, the former slave taught herself piano, guitar, harp, and singing. Possessed of an incredible and powerful 27-note-range, she was unable to take singing lessons herself, but she eavesdropped others’ lessons. That was how Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield became the first African-American singer to gain recognition in both the United States and Europe, and she was celebrated while slavery was still widespread in the United States. Touring, in fact, was a danger, as she could have been captured as a runaway slave in some states.           
            After her mistress died, Greenfield began singing at private parties and small public concerts, gaining fame (and the title, “the Black Swan”) for her astounding repertory and “her remarkably sweet tones and wide vocal compass,” according to contemporary James Trotter. Four thousand people came to her New York debut at Metropolitan Hall on March 31, 1853. They were all white; the people of her own race could not be “accommodated.” Greenfield apologized to who had been denied the chance to hear her and subsequently gave a concert they could attend to benefit the Home of Aged Colored Persons and the Colored Orphan Asylum.
            On May 10, 1854, she gave a command performance for Queen Victoria at Buckingham Palace, while enjoying the patronage of Harriet Beecher Stowe.  Back in the United States, she opened a music studio in Philadelphia and created and directed an opera troupe in the 1860s. She passed away on March 31, 1876, her obituary published in The New York Times.
            Last Sunday, I found myself quite moved by a tribute program to Greenfield at Saint Bartholomew’s Church, in their chapel. To emphasize her abilities, material Greenfield sang (works by Handel, Bellini, Donizetti, and the popular Sir Henry Bishop), a soprano and a tenor performed Greenfield’s repertory! The operatic selections were from the bel canto genre, popular at Greenfield’s time, and also incredibly demanding, with difficult runs and sky high notes requiring expertise at approach and placement, concentration, and agility.
            Heather Hill lit through “O luce di quest anima” (Donizetti, Linda di Chamounix) with cool intelligence that turned hot with Bellini’s meltingly beautiful “Ah, non credea” and its brilliant followup, “Ah, non giunge” from Bellini’s La Sonnambula.
            Tenor Joshua Stewart sang “Si, ritrovarla io giuro,” from Rossini’s La Cenerentola and the beautiful “Una furtive lagrima” from L’Elisir d’amore by Donizetti with ringing head tones and a relaxed demeanor. Both singers sang gorgeous arrangements of arias from Handel’s Messiah.
            I had to remind myself that I was not just attending a lovely Sunday afternoon concert, but that another singer – one singer – had performed these selections, someone who had not been so rigorously trained as Hill or Stewart, someone who had had to struggle for her training and for the mere right to sing, someone who was gibed by critics justifying their racism by attacking her appearance and calling her technique “rough.” And as I listened to the concert, I felt both a sadness that Greenfield was not there to enjoy the tributes, and the talents and training given those who followed her, and then I felt a growing sense of her presence among us.
            One additional delight for me was that the concert was structured like a nineteenth century recital, which rarely just did one thing. Lisa Despigno played a portion of a Mozart flute concerto with pianist Jonathan Kelly (I wish I knew which concerto). A typical program would also have included the pianist performing variations of opera themes or popular songs. Kelly composed his own variations on "Yankee Doodle Dandy" in historically accurate style. And, as there might well have been, a speaker provided some narration, in this case, marvelously done by Dwight Owsley, who provided historical commentary in between musical selections. The concert also closed typically. Hill sang "The Last Rose of Summer," a contemporary hit and paired with "Despigno" for Bishop’s "Lo, Hear the Gentle Lark." As it would have in the 1800s, the concert closed with Bishop’s "Home, Sweet Home" (words by John Howard Payne).
            This extraordinary  concert was the work of Opera Exposures (, headed by Edna Greenwich, and the audience was not only appreciative but moved.
During the program, something Owsley said made me sit up straight and almost raise my hand wildly. He mentioned that after Greenfield returned from Europe, that she toured with one of her pupils, another African-American singer Thomas Bowers.
            Because of my novel, Who Have the Power, which in part parodies the old TV western "Bonanza," I’m pretty solid on the first five seasons of that show! Season Five, the highest rated season of that show by the way, had an episode called Enter Thomas Bowers, Bowers being an African-American opera singer. So someone must have heard of him, but I haven’t been able to find any mention of Bowers on a quick Web search except for that "Bonanza" episode. (He is not mentioned in any of the major histories of the time, although I remember reading news accounts in the San Francisco Chronicle of the 1860s of a “Negress” opera singer named Eliza. I don’t know if the reference was to Greenfield.)
In this 1964 episode, Bowers, beautifully played by William Marshall, is returning from a successful European tour and, once hitting Virginia City, is accused of being a runaway slave. The episode is a bit over the top with lectures on the Dred Scott decision from Adam, and Bowers is put in jail by Sheriff Coffee to protect him from a lynching. The episode even comes with a lunch counter, never before or again seen on "Bonanza," where Bowers is refused service and Hoss comes to his rescue. The Cartwrights were on Bowers’ side, of course, but there is this alarming exchange that startled me when I first heard it as a child. You can hear it for yourself on Youtube. Ben suggests that they could prove Bowers was not the runaway slave, “Just hear him sing!” Sheriff Coffee wonders what that will prove since all “those people” can sing. Ben agrees with him, and Bowers goes off to jail.  Even as a kid I was banging my head against the wall and incredulous; once free and happy and lectured to by Hoss about tolerance for the ignorant, Bowers sings a Mozart aria in German and everybody’s won over.
            How did they know about Bowers? Someone must have. And if they did know, why hadn’t they known about Greenfield, too? Or did "Bonanza" delete her as it had routinely deleted women from the story of the West?
In my book, which focuses on the Native American experience, history that hasn’t been told is uncovered gradually, revealed in the air, like the (once) signals of television and felt by more sensitive women. Our stories really are in bits and pieces, scattered about. It takes a long time, but we eventually do come home to ourselves, but it means work.  Fear and prejudice dog us throughout history, and none of us is really safe from feeling that fear. We are blessed by those who take the time, talent, and treasure to steer us toward the true.
"The Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield Story." Presented by Great Music at St. Bartholomew’s Church in cooperation with Opera Exposures ( For more information about Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield, see contemporary writing of her in the Frederik Douglass Paper at, and an account of her Buffalo concerts at
Writer/singer Mary Sheeran’s new novel is Quest of the Sleeping Princess (, which unfolds during a gala performance of the New York City Ballet, She has also sung through several operas, cabarets, and song recitals in New York, including several performances of Songs From the Balanchine Repertory, which led to this book.  Her first novel, Who Have the Power, an exploration of cultural conflict, feminism, and Native American history set on the American frontier, was published in 2006 (

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