Rudolf Bing and a New Direction for the Met

The arrival of Rudolf Bing as Met General Manager in 1950 brought a new direction for the company. In an early media interview, he was forthright: “I shall be happy to engage Negro singers, if I can find the right voice for the right part.” Dancer Janet Collins was his first African American hire and became the Met’s prima ballerina in 1951. The same year, baritone Fred Thomas became the first African American winner of the Met’s Auditions of the Air. But it was the 1955 debut of contralto Marian Anderson as Ulrica in Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera that garnered worldwide attention and permanently eliminated the race barrier for singers in principal roles at the Met. A legend as a concert singer, Anderson was past her vocal prime by the time of her historic Met performances, but she emerged triumphant as a potent symbol of a new era at the company. A succession of major Black debuts followed—baritone Robert McFerrin and sopranos Mattiwilda Dobbs and Gloria Davy.

In 1952, the U.S. State Department sponsored a European tour of Porgy and Bess starring the young Leontyne Price. A proposal to mount the production at the Met before the regular season opened foundered on scheduling issues, but Bing then offered to make Gershwin’s opera part of a projected televised series financed by the Ford Foundation. While those plans never materialized, Bing remained alert to Price’s potential. Her subsequent successes in core Italian repertory, and particularly a 1959 performance of Il Trovatore in Verona that Bing attended, convinced him to offer her a Met contract. Price, who would go on to become the most celebrated Black opera singer of the century, made her Met debut in 1961 and quickly became one of the company’s biggest stars. 

A broad array of Black talent joined the Met roster in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Sopranos Martina Arroyo and Reri Grist, mezzo-sopranos Grace Bumbry and Shirley Verrett, and tenor George Shirley were a few of the best-known names in the first wave of Black leading singers.

Met principal ballerina Janet Collins (1917–2003) debuted in Aida (November 1951) as the first full-time Black artist in the company and the first soloist since Hemsley Winfield in 1933. Bing offered her a contract without consulting his Board. (Photos: Sedge Leblang, Met Archives)


BVM_P2_1A_Thomas.jpgBaritone Frederick Logan Thomas, a native of Good Hope, Georgia, tied for second place in the Met’s Auditions of the Air, becoming the first Black singer in the winners’ circle. The Auditions were founded by Edward Johnson in 1935 to develop the pipeline of North American vocal talent. (Courtesy Musical America)


Breen-Davis Porgy and Bess (1952) 

The Everyman Opera Company production of Porgy and Bess enjoyed extensive national and international tours under the direction of Robert Breen, funded in part by the U.S. State Department as Cold War “soft diplomacy.”

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In a letter to Ira Gershwin, Met General Manager Rudolf Bing proposed a “specifically prepared” for television production of Porgy and Bess, after plans to present the Breen production at the Met fell through. (Met Archives)


BVM_P2_1B_BreenPB.jpgCab Calloway, La Vern Hutcherson, and Leontyne Price in scene from Breen production of Porgy and Bess (Met Archives)


BVM_P2_1B_PriceWarfield.jpgLeontyne Price and William Warfield starred in the production’s 1952 premiere. Carl Van Vechten photographs. Original 35mm color slide. (Beinecke Library © VanVechtenTrust.)


Marian Anderson Debut (1955)

“Anderson Debut Jams Met”
New York Amsterdam News, 1955

Rudolf Bing’s 1954 engagement of contralto Marian Anderson made international headlines as the first principal role debut for a Black singer at the house. Journalist Vincent Sheean congratulated Bing: “Your effort to correct the errors of your predecessors has never had a nobler result.”

BVM_P2_1C_AndersonBingStage.jpgRudolf Bing welcomes Marian Anderson to the stage of the Metropolitan Opera (1954). (Photo: Tim Fitzsimmons, Associated Press)


BVM_P2_1C_AndersonContract.jpgMarian Anderson signs her Metropolitan Opera contract as her manager, Sol Hurok, and Met General Manager Rudolf Bing look on (1954). (Photo: Sedge Leblang, Met Archives)


BVM_P2_1C_AndersonBallo.jpgMarian Anderson debut performance as Ulrica in Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera, January 7, 1955 (Photo: Sedge Leblang, Met Archives)


Robert McFerrin

BVM_P2_1D_McFerrin.jpgBaritone Robert McFerrin, a 1953 Auditions of the Air winner, was the first Black male singer to join the Metropolitan Opera artist roster. Carl Van Vechten photograph. Original 35 mm color slide. (Beinecke Library © VanVechtenTrust.) 


BVM_P2_1D_McFerrinBing.jpgMcFerrin made his house debut as Amonasro in Aida on January 27, 1955, three weeks after Marian Anderson’s debut. (Met Archives)


BVM_P2_1D_PBFilm1959.jpgRobert McFerrin left the Met in 1957, having been offered only three roles during his three seasons with the theater. He dubbed the singing voice of actor Sidney Poitier in Otto Preminger’s 1959 film adaptation of Porgy and Bess (prod. Samuel Goldwyn). (Courtesy Samuel Goldwyn Jr. Family Trust.)


Gloria Davy

BVM_P2_1E_Davy.jpgSoprano Gloria Davy joined Robert Breen’s Porgy and Bess company after Leontyne Price departed, singing the role of Bess in the opera’s La Scala premiere in 1955. Her Met debut as Aida took place on February 12, 1958. Carl Van Vechten photograph. Original 35mm color slide. (Beinecke Library © VanVechtenTrust)


BVM_P2_1E_DavyBing.jpgBing congratulates Davy at her 1958 Met debut. (Photo: Louis Mélançon, Met Archives)


Leontyne Price

“Bing Chooses Singers For Ability, Not Race.”
Ottawa Citizen, 1954

BVM_P2_1F_PriceBingTrovatore.jpgSoprano Leontyne Price joined the Met roster on January 27, 1961, in Il Trovatore after achieving a considerable reputation across the United States and Europe. Tenor Franco Corelli also made his debut and the evening was reported as an international news event. Price had sung “Summertime” on an April 1953 Met Jamboree fundraising broadcast program, but waited nine years for her official company debut. (Photo: Louis Mélançon, Met Archives)

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Visiting the Met’s tour locations in the South was a major challenge for Bing in the early desegregation period, as indicated by an exchange he had with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Leontyne Price also wrote personally to Bing, deeply concerned about the possibility of facing segregated accommodations and audiences in Dallas. While Bing declined to involve himself in public political debates, he worked quietly behind the scenes to ensure that Met artists received equal treatment on the company’s annual spring tour and performed before integrated audiences. (Correspondence from the Met Archives)


First Wave of Major Black Artists at the Met 

A stellar group of Black singers, many of them Met Auditions winners, were engaged at the Met in the wake of Marian Anderson’s debut: mezzo-sopranos Grace Bumbry (Princess Eboli, Don Carlo, 1965) and Shirley Verrett (Carmen, 1968), soprano Martina Arroyo (Celestial Voice, Don Carlo, 1959; photo as Aida, 1965), tenor George Shirley (Ferrando, Così fan tutte, 1961; photo as Don Ottavio, Don Giovanni, 1963), Mattiwilda Dobbs (Gilda, Rigoletto, 1956), Reri Grist (Rosina, Il Barbiere di Siviglia, 1966), and conductor Henry Lewis (La Bohème, 1972).

BVM_P2_1G_BumbryVerrett.jpgGrace Bumbry (Princess Eboli, Don Carlo, 1965)
Shirley Verrett (Carmen, 1968)


BVM_P2_1G_ArroyoShirleyDobbs.jpgMartina Arroyo (Celestial Voice, Don Carlo, 1959; photo as Aida, 1965)
George Shirley (Ferrando, Così fan tutte, 1961; photo as Don Ottavio, Don Giovanni, 1963)
Mattiwilda Dobbs (Gilda, Rigoletto, 1956),


BVM_P2_1G_GristLewis.jpgReri Grist (Rosina, Il Barbiere di Siviglia, 1966)
Henry Lewis (La Bohème, 1972)


BVM_P2_1G_PriceShirleyBohm.jpgLeontyne Price and George Shirley with conductor Karl Böhm (Don Giovanni, 1966)


Black Voices at the Met

The First Black Artists Arrive at the Met

Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess: Vision and Impact

Rudolf Bing and a New Direction for the Met

Porgy and Bess Comes to the Met

Confronting Issues and a New Met Production