Adrienne Danrich’s solo show, “This Little Light of Mine: The Stories of Marian Anderson and Leontyne Price,” celebrates two African-American operatic pioneers. Photo courtesy Adrienne Danrich.
In a solo show, the celebrated soprano honors the legacy of pioneering African-American opera singers Marian Anderson and Leontyne Price.
BY MARK NIMAR
African-American singers were not always welcome on the operatic stage. Whites-only policies, and racial prejudice prevented hugely talented African-American artists from receiving the stage time and national recognition they deserved. But then came contralto Marian Anderson, the first African-American woman to sing at the Metropolitan Opera, and then soprano Leontyne Price, who has won 19 Grammy Awards for her work on the concert and operatic stages. With their lustrous voices and powerhouse presences, Price and Anderson ripped down barriers for African-American opera singers. They not only set the gold standard for excellence in their field, but also inspired a generation of black singers such as Jessye Norman and Kathleen Battle to follow in their footsteps.
Soprano Adrienne Danrich celebrates their legacies in her new solo show “This Little Light of Mine: The Stories of Marian Anderson and Leontyne Price.” Danrich uses photos, videos and her own glorious voice to talk about the singers’ careers and social significance. Danrich sings everything from American spirituals to operatic favorites such as “Tu Che di Gel” and “Tu, tu, piccolo iddio” to show the full scope of these artists’ rich and varied repertoire.
We caught up with Danrich as she was preparing for the New York debut of this beautiful and important solo show.When did you first hear Leontyne Price sing?
I was in high school, and I heard Leontyne Price sing in a commercial for the United Negro College Fund. I was struck by her regalness in the TV spot and her velvety, chocolaty sound. Hearing her perform made me say, “I wanna do that!” I would sing the commercial’s jingle so frequently around the house that my mom would say, “Stop singing that song!” The commercial made me want to research her more, and so I went to the library and rented a video of her singing in the opera “Aida.” In the opera, she is so poised; it is breathtaking how the audience responded to her.Why do you think it’s important for audiences to know about Leonytne Price and Marian Anderson?
In so many fields, you have groundbreaking achievers. The first woman to go to space. The first female newscaster. And in the field of opera, these ladies tore down barriers that have been a source of pain for African-American people. Marian Anderson was the first African-American woman to sing at the Met. But before that, she was denied the right to sing at Constitution Hall, because of its whites-only policy. That happened in 1939. But with the help of Eleanor Roosevelt, Marian Anderson sang “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” before a crowd of 75,000 people at the Lincoln Memorial, and many more listened on the radio. And that instance really started making things move forward, opening so many doors for artists like Ms. Leontyne Price.
These ladies brought a face, a voice to African-Americans for what they’ve been experiencing for the entirety of the history of America. They represent groundbreaking racial equality on the stage. Their message is about unity, about hope. And that is why it is important that these women’s stories are known.What’s a story you love about Leontyne Price, or Marian Anderson?
There are so many of them.... When Leontyne Price was 9, she went to a recital that Marian Anderson was doing in Jackson, Mississippi. When she watched Marian Anderson walk onto the stage in her gown, Leontyne Price said to herself, “I wanna do that.” And for real, that is what I thought of the first time when I heard Leontyne sing. These ladies, just by being themselves, made it possible for other African-American artists like Robert McFerrin, Grace Bumbry, Kathleen Battle and myself to have the careers we have had. And that is why that story affected me so deeply.What is your favorite moment in the show?
When I sing, “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee.” I get really emotional imagining how Marian Anderson felt before singing it. She said that she was really nervous before singing it, and couldn’t breathe. But then she closed her eyes, and she was able to sing it. I close my eyes too before I sing it in the show, and when I close my eyes, I feel a complete connection with her. In that moment, there is a complete silence from the audience. People are so still.... This reverence comes over all of us. It is magical.How do you feel about doing this show in New York for the first time?
This will be my 83rd time performing the show, and I will be performing it a block away from the Metropolitan Opera. This is where Leontyne Price was the first African-American to sing on the new Met stage, and I feel honored to be singing in such close proximity to history. New York and the Met in particular is the mecca of opera for so many singers. It is our holy grail, in a way. The people who come to shows at the Met have a certain level of expectation. You have to perform at a certain standard in order to garner a certain respect in the artistic community. But once you are accepted into that circle, it is so special.If you could meet Leontyne Price and Marian Anderson, and say one thing to them, what would you say?
I would say the same thing to them both: thank you for your grace within adversity. I would say thank you for being who you are. Thank you for the inspiration. Both women maintained their dignity, and maintained their regality even when faced with the Jim Crow restrictions. Their grace has inspired me not only to be a singer, but a singer with a purpose.
I feel I have a bigger purpose than just making beautiful sounds. If I can make one person feel solace with the sounds and words I am singing ... that’s what I am working towards. Healing is needed in this country right now, and that is what I am working for.