CAG archives: early support for African-American singers

by Elena Goukassian

In the early days of the organization’s existence, Concert Artists Guild offered important career opportunities to some of the most talented African-American opera singers of the postwar era. In the 1950s and early 1960s, several of these extraordinary singers won CAG’s annual competition, going on to perform in opera houses and concert halls all over the US, Europe, and often, even the USSR. The singers included baritones Andrew Frierson and Thomas Carey, mezzo Betty Allen, tenor George Shirley, and sopranos Martina Arroyo, Reri Grist, Shirley Verrett, and Beatrice Rippy. Largely inspired by Marian Anderson, who would become the first black singer to perform with the Metropolitan Opera in 1955, these CAG alumni ran in the same circles as Leontyne Price and Grace Bumbry. Due to their race, many of them were initially cast in the few parts specifically for African Americans, like those in Show Boat and Porgy and Bess, before breaking the color barrier into larger roles and international recognition. CAG is very proud to have helped these important artists early in their careers, especially in light of the civil rights struggle happening at that time.

Andrew Frierson (CAG ’52), whose grandfather was a slave, grew up in Kentucky, making his Carnegie Hall debut in 1948, while a student at Juilliard. After serving in WWII and winning the CAG Competition, Frierson went on to sing with the New York City Opera for six seasons, notably performing Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo under the baton of Leopold Stokowski. In 1963, he sang at the March on Washington. Frierson taught at Southern University in Baton Rouge and at Oberlin College. In the 1960s, he was director of the Henry Street Settlement Music School in Manhattan. Although primarily an opera singer, Frierson also performed with Harry Belafonte. In the 1980s, Frierson co-founded Independent Black Opera Singers to promote black male singers into the leading roles on stage often given only to white singers, a result of racist notions of black male sexuality. In 2000, Frierson won a “Lift Every Voice” Legacy Award from the National Opera Association in honor of his work in promoting racial and ethnic diversity. Frierson died in December 2018 at the age of 94.

Betty Allen (CAG ’55) was born in Ohio, but spent most of her life in Harlem and Bronxville. Escaping her alcoholic father as a girl, Allen spent her teenage years in the foster care system. While in college in Ohio, Allen met tenor Theodor Heimann, who encouraged her to pursue a singing career. In the early 1950s, Allen studied at Tanglewood, where she met Leonard Bernstein, who would often invite her to sing with the New York Philharmonic. In 1954, Allen made her City Opera debut in Show Boat. After winning the CAG Competition, Allen went on to perform with opera companies throughout the US. In 1989, she became the first American to teach a vocal master class at the Rimsky-Korsakov Conservatory in St. Petersburg. Allen taught at the Harlem School of the Arts (where she was also executive director for 13 years), Manhattan School of Music, Curtis Institute, and North Carolina School of the Arts. She died in 2009 at the age of 82.

Martina Arroyo (CAG ’56) grew up in a middle-class family in Harlem. Although already trained as a musician, Arroyo graduated from Hunter College with a “more practical” degree in romance languages and taught Italian in the New York public school system. After winning the CAG Competition, she also won the Met Opera’s Auditions in the Air, allowing her to study at the Met’s Kathryn Long School in 1958. That same year, Arroyo made her Carnegie Hall debut in the American premiere of Ildebrando Pizzetti’s Murder in the Cathedral. By the 1970s, Arroyo was a regular performer at the Met Opera, known widely for her interpretations of Verdi and Puccini, and a frequent guest on The Tonight Show. Arroyo has taught at several schools and universities, including Indiana University Bloomington. In 2003, Arroyo founded the Martina Arroyo Foundation, a non-profit that trains and promotes young opera singers. Arroyo was awarded an NEA Opera Honor in 2010 and a Kennedy Center Honor in 2013. She lives in New York.

Thomas Carey (CAG ’56) was born in South Carolina and raised in New York. He served in the Korean War, before studying at Henry Street Settlement and the City College of New York. After winning the CAG Competition, Carey went on to win grants to study in Europe. He spent almost ten years in Munich, before returning to the US as an artist in residence at Oklahoma University, where he became one of the school’s first African-American faculty members. In 1970, he performed in the world premiere of Michael Tippett’s The Knot Garden at the Royal Opera House in London. Carey’s accolades include the 1975 Governors Artist of the Year Award and the 1976 Oklahoma Man of the Year award. In 1975, Carey and his wife, singer Carol Brice Carey, founded Cimarron Opera close to the Oklahoma University campus. Carey died in 2002 at the age of 70.

Reri Grist (CAG ’57) was born in Brooklyn and grew up in the East River Housing Projects. In her early teens, she acted in small roles on Broadway, later attending the High School of Music and Art and Queens College. Three years after graduation, Grist won the CAG Competition. That same year, she was cast in the original production of West Side Story. Championed by Leonard Bernstein, Grist sang with the New York Philharmonic, which led to her casting in Die Fledermaus with the Santa Fe Opera in 1959. There, she met Igor Stravinsky, who invited her to perform in Le Rossignol a few years later. Grist sang the Queen of the Night in The Magic Flute at the Opernhaus Köln in 1960, joining the company as a result. She was the first African-American woman to be a permanent member of any European opera company. Grist made her Met Opera debut in 1966, becoming a regular performer there for the next dozen years. Grist has taught at Indiana University Bloomington and the Hochschule für Musik und Theater München. She lives in Hamburg.

Shirley Verrett (CAG ’57) grew up in New Orleans and California. She worked in real estate before moving to New York to attend Juilliard. During her first semester, she tied for first place in the Marian Anderson Voice Competition. Two years after winning the CAG Competition, Verrett was invited to sing with the Houston Symphony Orchestra under Leopold Stokowski, but the organization withdrew the offer when they discovered Verrett was black. Stokowski invited her again, this time to sing with the Philadelphia Orchestra, a performance that launched her international career. In 1963, Verrett became the first African-American singer to perform with the Bolshoi Opera (as Carmen); she also performed a number of recitals in the Soviet Union. She made her Met Opera debut as Carmen in 1968. Verrett is perhaps most famous for singing Lady Macbeth at La Scala in Milan under the direction of Claudio Abbado. The production was so popular that locals started calling her “the Black Callas.” She was also very respected in France, where she lived with her family for a few years in the 1980s. Verrett later taught at the University of Michigan. She died in 2010 at the age of 79.

Beatrice Rippy (CAG ’59) was born in Harlem. A year before winning the CAG Competition, she starred in a touring production of Porgy and Bess, alongside Cab Calloway. Rippy would later become known for her interpretations of Puccini, especially as Madama Butterfly. She taught at the Third Street Music Settlement, the Henry Street Music Settlement, and the Harlem School for the Arts. Later, she worked at the Ethical Culture School. Rippy died in 2012.

George Shirley (CAG ’60) was born in Indianapolis and grew up in Detroit. He majored in music at Wayne State University and became the first African-American member of the United States Army Chorus when he was drafted in 1956. Discharged in 1959, he lived in Washington DC, before moving to New York. A year before winning the CAG Competition, Shirley made his operatic debut in Die Fledermaus in Woodstock, New York. In 1961, Shirley successfully auditioned for the Met Opera, where he would go on to sing 28 roles in 26 operas in 11 years, the first black tenor (and second black man) to sing leading roles at the Met. He won a Grammy in 1968 for his role as Ferrando in a recording of Così fan tutte. Shirley taught at the University of Maryland and the University of Michigan. He was awarded the 2014 National Medal of the Arts and the National Opera Association’s 2016 Lifetime Achievement Award.