Sat. Oct 31st, 2020

Black Opera Ebony Enters New York City | 12/1977

Mervin Wallace, Radamus, makes his triumphant entrance in Verdi's Aida

Have you ever wondered if the day would come when we could look forward to seeing and hearing an All Black Opera. I mean, an opera written by a Black composer, sung by Black artists, played by Black Musicians, conducted by a Black person and promoted by Blacks. Well, wonder no more. On December 3, 1977, National Opera Ebony will perform for the first time in New York City. ROUTES learned of this event scheduled to take place at the Beacon theater and wanted an inside look at Opera Ebony. What is it really and who are the people involved? We met the man who dreamt it all and who has taken the time to put it all together. In an interview with Benjamin Matthews, a very successful Bass-baritone himself, we learned just what December 3, 1977, means to all of New York.

ROUTES: Mr. Benjamin Matthews, tell us about yourself?

Matthews: Well, I am a singer, primarily singing opera and symphony concerts right now. I started with recital work, then oratorio and now opera.

ROUTES: When and where did you start singing?

Matthews: In Chicago, I started in 1958. That was 19 years ago when I had my first voice lesson and nine years later I went to Europe for my very first concert tour. When I returned from Europe, I said I would stop in New York for a few days to see what was going on and the few days have lasted ten years. I have been here for ten years now and it is here that I really learned what it means to be a professional singer. I learned what it means to be prepared. New York will teach you when you are and when you are not prepared. It is the place to get prepared. I call it the Mecca. Everything is here. They came to New York to hire me back to Chicago, not that I was that much better when I went back.

ROUTES: Who are they?

Matthews: The Chicago Symphony, the Grant Park’s Summer Concerts, television stations. I went back for a recital, won a big competition, then I went back to sing with the symphony and I did some things for NBC television. This was after I had been gone for about four or five years. And they came and they heard me. I did all of the intermediate things that a singer would do in Chicago. But you have to move to prove that you can do bigger and better things. And then they bring you back.

ROUTES: What experiences did you have in Europe? When were you there?

(L-R) Hilda Harris, Mezzo: Arthur Thompson, Baritone; Rochelle Poffer, Soprano; Everett Lee, Conductor; Benjamin Maffhews; Bass: Moises Parker, Tenor; and Carolyn Srm!ford, Mezzo
(L-R) Hilda Harris, Mezzo: Arthur Thompson, Baritone; Rochelle Poffer, Soprano; Everett Lee, Conductor; Benjamin Matthews; Bass: Moises Parker, Tenor; and Carolyn Stanford, Mezzo

Matthews: Hamburg was my first trip; then on to Berlin, Vienna, and Frankfurt. I did recitals in those cities. Then I have made about 5 trips to Europe since. I’ve been to Holland, Sweden and Austria to sing with the Opera Company there. And I will go back next year to sing in Sweden again, then to Copenhagen, Milan and Rome. Then off to Poland for some recordings. Someone now is working on a State Department Tour of Russia for me. It seems as though I am on my way.

ROUTES: How did you get interested in opera?

Matthews: Nineteen years ago Blacks in opera were basically unheard of, so my first teacher said to stay away from opera. It’s too hard on your voice. She tried to discourage me. Yes! She said, “Don’t sing opera and if you ever sing opera, sing after you are thirty years old.” Well, I thought she was crazy. During one of my first lessons, she looked at me and said, you want to be a singer, huh?” I said, “Yes, I do.” She said, “It’s going to take you ten years… ” I said TEN YEARS!”  “Yes — that’s not long,” She said. And nine year later, she almost called it to the year, I began my professional career.

ROUTES: What do you think is the reason for Blacks having difficulty getting into classical music?

Matthews: It is very interesting that twenty, thirty or forty years ago, singers like Marian Anderson, Paul Robeson, Roland Hayes, Elizabeth Greenfield, so many wonderful singers … . The interesting thing is that these singers found difficulty being accepted by the White establishment. But, they had a Black audience. Consequently, they had an advantage that today, we do not have. When they couldn’t sing for the White folks, they’d sing for the Black folks. Because the Black people had pride in the arts then. They had pride in culture. The church has always been the seat of culture and the church became the recital hall. You don’t find them bringing our great artists into the churches now. They bring many of our intermediate artists to the churches. The churches were Paul Robeson’s recital hall. And when the White folks didn’t want to hear it and the Black folks wanted to hear it, and when the White folks didn’t want to hear Marian Anderson and the Black folks wanted to hear her and when she went throughout the South and was not accepted into concert halls, her concerts were given in the churches. And the critics came to the churches. And the Black people filled up the churches. So they had an audience. Interestingly enough, when I think about the singers today, I keep remembering the singers of the past. I wonder how many singers of today could fill a hall with Black people. And, in our progress, I wonder sometimes how much we have gained intellectually and has it really effected us culturally? Has it given to us or has it taken from us. Twenty-five years ago, you could have asked any person, twelve or fifteen years old, if they had heard of Marian Anderson. I first heard of Marian Anderson when I was five. They began to teach me Marian Anderson in the schools. The pictures were up. I knew of Roland Hayes when I was twelve. I knew of Dorothy Maynard and a couple of singers around town. When a singer was coming to town who was supposed to be an opera singer they sold out the house. And we would go and we would hear that lieder. This was in Alabama, in Mobile, Alabama. And this is how it was throughout the South. When I go to Mobile, now, there is a big audience. But hit the cities, the metropolises, and ask a twelve or fifteen year old who is Shirley Verrett. They will say, “I don’t know.” They have no audience. They might know who Leontyne Price is. Most of them might know who she is or Marian Anderson. But ask them about Paul Robeson, or Roland Hayes today, and they will be at a complete loss. When I was coming up, we knew about it at six or seven. And we wanted to hear them, we wanted to be a part of it. Marian Anderson had to give two to three concerts a year in some places because she could not accommodate her audience. Who of all Black artists could fill Carnegie Hall three times a year? Leontyne Price is probably the only one. Which of our Artists could fill up Avery Fisher Hall with all Blacks?

ROUTES: (Mr. Matthews has a commanding robust voice and bellows forth with such a captivating force that we were entranced by his resonant speaking voice). Now tell us about Opera Ebony, Mr. Matthews.

Matthews: It’s my pet. It’s like my baby. It’s like a mother with a bad child. It drives me almost crazy, while other times it makes me very happy. When there is a production, and we come out of it with great success, and wonderful things are going on stage, things are fine. But when it comes to the business of it and actually confronting people and trying to get support, trying to raise money and get foundations to support us, it is extremely difficult and agonizing. Because I believe in Opera Ebony. — I don’t believe Opera Ebony was formed. Opera Ebony was created — created out of problems.

ROUTES: What problems in particular are you referring to?

Matthews: Racism! Racism perpetuated by opera companies. When I am looked at or listened to, I am not looked at or listened to as an opera singer. My color comes first and my voice comes second. Being a Black man, I have it three times as difficult as a Black woman. For instance, there are about six or eight Black women who have had a debut within the past 16 or 17 months at the Metropolitan Opera House, since Mr. Levine took over. And, not one Black man has had a debut in that house, not one. Now if there is a company that really is the most opened company, I would say it is the New York City Opera Company. Say what you will, I was there. I wasn’t particularly happy with what I sang, but I was there.

ROUTES: Why were you unhappy?

Matthews: Well, I was an understudy. And, being an understudy in Faust, I was in excellent voice but didn’t have the opportunity to use it. There I was, a wonderful artist, watching another wonderful artist. Doing so did more to destroy me than to help me. I traveled to Philadelphia and sang the role and got rave reviews. So, my being in the wings did not help. So I had to get out. I had to remove myself. It was destroying my spirituality. It was destroying my emotional stability. I did not need to surround myself with that. Now, a lot of people thought it was a marvelous opportunity and would not understand my not wanting to be an artist on that particular level. But I understand it. And probably the reason that I am having the success that I am having when I do sing, is because I understand it. I took time to place a value on me. I withdrew to find me. When I step on stage, I have no fear. I know I am good and I know my own spirituality. I am emotionally ready and I feel good.

ROUTES: This spirituality that you speak of, do you find it with Opera E.

Moises Parker, left as Faust and Benjamin Matthews as Mephisopheles
Moises Parker, left as Faust and Benjamin Matthews as Mephistopheles

Matthews: Well, I have to apply much of this. I do in many aspects. You see, people support us with ticket sales. Foundations could help support us with dollars. But, Foundations throw our materials in the garbage, or they won’t respond. But, my spirituality is not dullen. I continue to exist because I believe in Opera Ebony. Let me give you an example. I had written to American Express and along with my proposal, I gave them a three year projection, 1977-1979 . . . And I named all of the operas that we planned to produce in New York. They wrote me a letter back saying that they were concentrating only on projects in this area, and that they were putting their money into things that were being done in New York. Now if they had read my materials, they would have known that we had planned to do these things in New York. So when I wrote them a letter back, I said, I am not going to let them get away with this. So when I wrote them back stating that my materials are clearly marked for New York production, I never heard from them again. They didn’t tell me that they didn’t have any money, they just didn’t respond. I must have contacted 150 foundations and about 40 did not reply at all. The rest were all negative replies except one. And that one was in St. Paul, Minnesota, The Jerome Foundation. They gave us $10,000 to help us get started. Not a single New York foundation has given us a cent. And there is money here. This is the foundation capital of the world. And all of them give the same old line — and that’s discouraging. They have money when buildings are burning and there are looting and killings. They will respond to that. They will respond to programs that quiet things down. And as things quiet down, they begin to gradually withhold money until there are more problems. This is a peaceful time now. Most people are staying at home or busying themselves with other things and are not taking an Interest. Culture refines the personality. And only when they see the lack of culture are they concerned about getting culture to Black people. When they see the lack of it or when the lack of it is in focus, then they respond because they can see that they have no refinement. Because, refined people don’t loot or steal or rob. They have a more purified mind because they are exposed to better things. The mind, to cultivate it, means people are innovative and are innovated above those things that are low. Now something like Opera Ebony can pull a lot of people up. It gives them a different image and a lot of our young people need it, and will take it if it was presented to them. Most of our artists are not in Harlem, or in the slums. They don’t see them. Everybody I know wants to get out of the slums. So, consequently we move. Opera Ebony goes back in there and get them. We go to the churches and give it to them. We have a wonderful crowd at Abyssinian Baptist Church. We concertized there and they gave us $1,500 in support.

ROUTES: Why do you feel Opera Ebony will work?

Matthews: Opera Ebony is unique. There is nothing to compare with it. It’s a Black Opera Company being run by Black people that’s putting Black people on stage, getting Black musicians to play in the orchestra. I insist upon them being Black. I cannot accept an all white orchestra. The Metropolitan and New York City Opera companies have not a single Black player in the pit. I couldn’t have an orchestra like that for Opera Ebony.

ROUTES: Do you teach as well as sing?

Matthews: Yes I do. I want to share my experiences with the young talent that can benefit from them. I tell my students, “Get your heads together. Know who you are, what you are about and open your mouth and sing. Until you get that, you’re not going to sing. As long as the brain is scattered, that technique is going to be scattered. Get in tune with your inner being.”

ROUTES: How many people make up the company?

Matthews: We have six administrators. Philadelphia Committee has about 30 volunteers and New York has about 10 working volunteers. So, what we have, is a new opera company, bringing a new opera into New York.

ROUTES: What is the new opera?

Matthews: We will be premiering William Grant Still’s Opera in one act,  Highway One, USA. Highway One is a one act  opera and only lasts about one hour and 15 minutes. But to extend the evening, we are playing William Grant Still’s Symphony No. 1, The Afro American Suite. That will be the prelude to the opera and with a break for about ten minutes, it is going to be an exciting evening, with the perfect length, one hour and 45 minutes. It will be performed in English with wonderful singers and lots of beautiful things happening on stage. This will be our first production that we brought from scratch. The others, we rented costumes and sets. Everything you see in this one will be Opera Ebony. I am so excited. Can you imagine a Black woman conducting a Black Opera! I was asked by someone the other day, “You mean you are doing an opera written by a Black composer?”  “yes,” I said. He replied “I didn’t know Blacks were interested in opera,” I said, well this composer wrote seven. There is another Black. Dr. Freeman, he wrote eighteen, there, out in Brooklyn. His son’s wife has them. She as all of his works. I understand they’re all locked up in trunks. I called her to ask her about examining some of them in order to see the possibility of using some of them and she said, “Well, someone is coming to catalogue them for me. Everybody is after them, we’ll see.” So they’re still out there in those trunks. Now, all she needs is one fire or one flood to destroy them. She doesn’t realize the worth.

ROUTES: Is there anything else you would like to share with our readers?

Matthews: My spirituality could go on and on and I am afraid that ROUTES would not have the space to cover all I have to say to the world. Please support Opera Ebony in New York. Come out on December 3 at the Beacon Theater and experience a wonderful evening of music. We have a marvelous cast and we look forward to the history making occasion.

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