The First Black Artists Arrive at the Met
The history of African American artists at the Metropolitan Opera dates back to the late 19th century, much earlier than opera audiences today may imagine. The first known Black performers to appear at a Met-sponsored event were the Broadway and vaudeville entertainers Bert Williams and George Walker, who took part in an 1897 gala benefit for New York’s poor. Their performance began an association with aspects of minstrelsy, such as blackface makeup, that endured in the opera house for the next three decades.
In the early 20th century, a gradual cultural shift took place as the Met slowly engaged more Black artists. Behind the scenes, writer and diplomat James Weldon Johnson made history in 1916 by authoring the English translation for the Met’s world premiere of Enrique Granados’s opera Goyescas. Black dancers were engaged for the corps in Henry F. Gilbert’s 1918 ballet The Dance in Place Congo, and a chorus of Black singers was hired for the 1926 production of John Alden Carpenter’s modernist ballet Skyscrapers. But in 1929, fear of potential controversy surrounding interracial love scenes in Ernst Krenek’s opera Jonny Spielt Auf prompted the Met to change its title character from a Black musician to a white entertainer wearing blackface.
White singers during these years continued to have exclusive access to principal singing roles, including those for Black characters. In 1933, despite encouragement from progressive elements of society to consider African American singers such as Paul Robeson and Jules Bledsoe, the Met cast white baritone Lawrence Tibbett in the title role of Louis Gruenberg’s operatic setting of the Eugene O’Neill play The Emperor Jones. Although the chorus and dancers were a mixture of both Blacks and whites in blackface, the primary dance role was performed by African American dancer Hemsley Winfield, the first Black performer to receive a program credit for a named role.
Williams and Walker (1897)
Egbert A. “Bert” Williams (1874–1922) and George W. Walker (1873–1911) brought their comedy, song, and dance skills to a Met benefit evening sponsored by William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal on February 9, 1897. Williams was known for his brilliant comedy, cleverly subverting expected blackface caricatures and creating popular song hits in the new ragtime idiom. The duo famously introduced the cakewalk at the 1900 Paris Exposition Universelle and at a 1903 command performance for Edward VII at Buckingham Palace.
Souvenir Programme for the Benefit of New York’s Poor (1897). (Billy Rose Theatre Division, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts)
Bert Williams and George Walker, early vaudeville career portrait. H.C. Miner Lithography Company, New York City. (James Weldon Johnson Collection in the Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library)
Williams & Walker promotional card (c. 1890s) (James Weldon Johnson Collection in the Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library)
Johnson Brothers (1916)
Lyricist, novelist, and diplomat James Weldon Johnson (1871–1938) and his musician brother, Rosamond (1873–1954), were among the earliest Black musical theater creative teams on Broadway. James’s fluent Spanish produced the singing translation published in the score and libretto for Enrique Granados’s new opera Goyescas, premiered by the Met in 1916. He was the first Black artist to be engaged as a contributor to a Met production.
The Johnson brothers, with musical collaborator Bob Cole, en route to European engagements (c. 1905) (J. Rosamond Johnson Papers, Irving S. Gilmore Music Library, Yale University)
Goyescas librettist Fernando Periquet y Zuaznábar (1873–1940), portrait inscribed to James Weldon Johnson (James Weldon Johnson Collection in the Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library)
Colored American Review (March 1916) (James Weldon Johnson and Grace Nail Johnson Papers, Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library)
J. Rosamond Johnson as Lawyer Frazier, with Todd Duncan and Anne Brown. Porgy and Bess, Alvin Theatre, New York (1935). (Photo by Vandamm Studio© Music Division, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts)
The Dance in Place Congo (1918)
“Most Artistic Piece of Negro Ragtime Rhapsody Ever Shown”
—New York Times, 1918
The Met premiere of American composer Henry F. Gilbert’s The Dance in Place Congo in March 1918 was welcomed as the “first American ballet.” While most of the company performed in blackface, choreographer Ottokar Bartik included a small group of Black male dancers among the Met corps, infusing an African American element without blackface makeup into the historic New Orleans scenario with the first appearance of Black performers in a Met production. (Critic Pitts Sanborn noted in the New York Globe: “The few real Negroes on the stage were worth many times all the host of disguised whites.”)
Livingston Platt, costume designs for The Dance in Place Congo (1918). (Met Archives)
The Dance in Place Congo, Met production (1918). Members of the Black dance group are positioned in a semicircle in the back row. (Photo: White Studio, Met Archives)
Met principal dancers Giuseppe Bonfiglio and Ottokar Bartik (both wearing blackface makeup), The Dance in Place Congo (1918) (Photo: White Studio, Met Archives)
The modernist American ballet Skyscrapers reached the Met stage in 1926, at the height of the Harlem Renaissance. John Alden Carpenter’s symphonic jazz score featured a central “Negro Scene” for an all-Black chorus, for which the Met engaged African American actor-singer Frank H. Wilson as leader and identified him with a program credit—the first for a Black performer at the theater. Celebrated theatrical designer Robert Edmond Jones (1887–1954) masterfully evoked 1920s Manhattan, and the work’s popular reception encouraged its revival the following season. Wilson’s acting career flourished, and he created the role of Porgy in its first dramatic representation in 1927.
Wilson contract (1925), Skyscrapers (Met Archives)
Frank H. Wilson, portrait inscribed to DuBose Heyward (c. 1929). (DuBose Heyward Papers, South Carolina Historical Society, Charleston)
Robert Edmond Jones, costume designs for Skyscrapers (1926). Originals pastel on paper. (John Alden Carpenter Papers, Newberry Library, Chicago)
Met program (1926), Skyscrapers (Met Archives)
Robert Edmond Jones, set designs for Skyscrapers (1926). Original watercolors, gouache, graphite on board. (McNay Art Museum, San Antonio)
Jonny Spielt Auf (1929)
“Metropolitan Opera Company Feared Race Singer”
—Baltimore Afro-American, 1929
The Met’s limited inclusion of Black performers stalled in 1929 with the ambitious American premiere of Austrian composer Ernst Krenek’s operatic sensation Jonny Spielt Auf (Johnny Strikes Up the Band). Krenek embellished his admittedly minimal jazz experience with minstrel elements in creating the title role of a Black jazz musician who conquers the European musical world. The Met production redefined the title character as a white entertainer in blackface, a stratagem designed to avoid the score’s interracial love scenes. The African American press was vehement in its protest: “It seems to me,” declared James Weldon Johnson, “that the Metropolitan Opera Company and its public should be willing, at least for art, to face the facts of life or leave them alone.”
The Pittsburgh Courier, one of the nation’s leading Black newspapers, editorialized against “miscegenation phobia” among the Met’s New York public in 1929. (© Real Times Media)
Alfred Jerger (wearing blackface makeup) starred in the Vienna production of Jonny Spielt Auf, which George Gershwin saw in 1928. New York Times clipping. (©1928 The New York Times Company. All rights reserved. Used under license)
Met assistant manager Edward Ziegler identified interracial romance as a potential “risky point” with the Metropolitan’s public in 1927. (Otto H. Kahn Papers, Princeton University Library)
German baritone Michael Bohnen (wearing blackface makeup) in the title role of Jonny Spielt Auf at the Met in 1929 (Met Archives)
Lillian Gärtner Palmedo, costume design for Jonny Spielt Auf (1929). (Met Archives)
The Emperor Jones (1933)
The opportunity to cast a major Black role was revisited soon after the Jonny production, when the Met became aware of an operatic setting by American composer Louis Gruenberg of Eugene O’Neill’s monodrama The Emperor Jones. African American actor Charles Gilpin had achieved renown for his creation of the title role, but the Met turned away an appeal from the NAACP to consider leading Black baritones of the day in favor of noted white singer Lawrence Tibbett. It was Tibbett who insisted on engaging the New Negro Art Theatre, led by pioneering modern dancer Hemsley Winfield (1907–1934) in the role of the Congo Witch Doctor.
The Met selected baritone Lawrence Tibbett (wearing blackface makeup) for the title role of its world premiere of Louis Gruenberg’s The Emperor Jones (1933). (Met Archives)
Singer and actor Paul Robeson portrayed Brutus Jones in a film adaptation the same year. (Margaret Herrick Library, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Beverly Hills, California)
NAACP secretary Walter White argued strenuously in 1932 in favor of casting a Black singer in Gruenberg’s opera, naming Paul Robeson and Jules Bledsoe as candidates for the title role. (Met Archives)
Winfield led his own New Negro Art Theatre troupe in the final scene of the drama (1933). (Photo: Carlo Edwards, Met Archives)
Dancer Hemsley Winfield was the first Black artist to receive a role credit in a Met production. He died of pneumonia at the age of 26 after his debut season. (Photo by Martinus Andersen (c. 1933). Collection Todd Andersen)
The First Black Artists Arrive at the Met