Discrimination in Casting Black Singers at the Metropolitan Opera
By Zach Finkelstein and Jack Lindberg
"I don't think that I will have any Negro singers in next season's roster as there are no suitable parts, and the roster is complete, but I am afraid I cannot agree with you that as a matter of principle, Negro singers should be excluded."
-General Director Rudolf Bing, in a letter, dated April 20, 1950
"I've sung 97 major roles in major opera houses all over the world. Why is that I'm not good enough to sing in my own country?"
-Simon Estes, January 26, 1997, LA Times
On Tuesday, June 2, in response to the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor, the Metropolitan Opera paused its nightly programming to issue a statement of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement:
"The Met stands with those raising their voices in support of justice and equality. Today we join arts organizations across the country in observing Blackout Tuesday."
This statement was met with skepticism by some in the classical singing community. On the Metropolitan Opera's social media pages, as well as in private Facebook forums for singers, dozens of comments criticized the Met’s use, until 2015, of "black-face style make-up" as well as the company's problems of representation among its "board, staff, conductors, orchestra, and black composers in its 137-year history".
The Metropolitan Opera Database (1883-2020)
This article will examine that historical record with the following question:
Is there quantitative evidence of historical discrimination in the casting of Black singers at the Metropolitan Opera?
We examine only the most frequently hired performers at the Met, what we will call "Regulars"- those soloists in lead or supporting roles who have performed onstage at the Met at least 100 times. Middleclass Artist pulled its list of 761 singers from the Metropolitan Opera's own publicly available database of frequent performers, updated July 14, 2020. For this article, we coded into the dataset Black or Non-Black Met performers, the number of years performed, and, the most critical measure, the number of performances per year. (Here is a full explanation of our coding methodology.)
A note of caution: the Met's database is a partial snapshot. It tells only the story of those who performed on stage season after season.
We cannot tell the story of singers who sang less often at the Met.
Singers like Robert McFerrin, a world-class baritone and the first Black singer to win the Met's 'Auditions of the Air' radio contest. The prize was a "half-year training and a contract at the Met- instead, he received 13 months training and no contract."
We cannot tell the story of those talented enough to succeed on the Met stage, who were not even considered. Singers like soprano Lauren Michelle, a BBC Cardiff Singer of the World, a staple at the leading houses of Europe, never rehired by an A-house in the United States due to "racism and oppression in the Arts."
We cannot tell the story of the singers who could not afford the burden of weekly lessons, application fees, student debt, or who did not make it past white gatekeepers in their schooling or young artist career to be heard by the Met.
At best, we can answer only part of the question on discrimination -how Black singers who made it past the many initial hurdles compare to their non-Black counterparts.
With this caveat, we can narrow our question to a testable claim:
If we expect there to be no difference between the hiring policies for Black and non-Black Regulars, then we would see similar averages for total years performed, numbers of performances per year, and overall number of performances.
If the Met administration makes a long-term bet on a singer, whether in a leading or bit role, those singers should, in theory, receive the same number of chances to perform, regardless of race.
If the Met discovers a "once in a century" voice, as Toscanini once described Marian Anderson, one would expect that singer to be offered a role in every show possible ad infinitum, regardless of race.
Alternately, if we expect discrimination against Black performers, then we would see non-Black Regular performers given more opportunities to perform every year, for decades.
This would follow the experience of Black opera stars like Simon Estes, who felt "invisible" to American casting directors and argued that "African-American men who are more than qualified are not given the opportunity to sing leading roles."
Where are the Black Singers?
Last year, the Met released a "historic new exhibition" (with accompanying audio CD) featuring "the great African American artists who have graced the Met stage." Listed Black Met opera stars included at least 19 people, some household names in the industry: Marian Anderson, Robert McFerrin, Bert Williams, and George Walker, Mattiwilda Dobbs, Leontyne Price, Grace Bumbry, Simon Estes, Martina Arroyo, Angel Blue, Eric Owens, Golda Schultz, Latonia Moore, Ryan Speedo Green, Alfred Walker, Shirley Verrett, George Shirley, Kathleen Battle, and Jessye Norman.
Of that list of 19 Black stars confirmed at the exhibit, according to the Met's database, only a third of them made it to 100 performances: Grace Bumbry, Leontyne Price, Alfred Walker, Shirley Verrett, Martina Arroyo, George Shirley, and Kathleen Battle. Several of these singers are still actively performing and may eventually make it to the 100-performance threshold, including Eric Owens, Angel Blue, Golda Schultz, Latonia Moore, Ryan Speedo Green, and Alfred Walker.
On the list of Met Regulars, only 3% (21/761) are Black. Middleclass Artist recorded only twenty-one Black singers asked back season after season to become Regulars:
On the number of performances, Isola Jones, the dominant performer on the Black Regulars list with 505 shows, comes in at 108th overall.
The top 10 Regulars, all non-Black men, each performed over 1,600 times at the Met:
Among Regulars, a non-Black singer performs 115 more times in their career at the Met, about 58% more often, than a Black singer:
When it comes to total performances, careers at the Met have a much lower ceiling for Black singers than non-Black regular singers. Black Regulars are much more likely than their counterparts to stay in the 100-200 performance range.
Almost 6-in-10 (57%) Black Regular careers show between 100 and 200 performances, compared to just 48% of Non-Black Regulars.
Among Regulars, more than 2-in-10 (22%) Non-Black singers perform at least 400 times, compared to only 5% of Black singers.
In that 400+ category, the top non-Black Regular (n=2,928) sang six times as many lifetime performances as the most frequent Black Regular (n=505).
Longer Tenure, Fewer Early Opportunities
Black Regular careers at the Met are, on average, five years longer than their counterparts. Yet they perform far less frequently.
Among Regulars at the Met, Black singer careers are a slow-burn, with Black singers less likely than their non-Black colleagues to have frequent opportunities to perform early on in their tenure.
13% of Non-Black Regular singers have reached 100 performances in five years or less. Not a single Black Regular can say the same.
Even 6 to 15 years into a career at the Met, Black singers (24%) are represented far less in the 100+ performances range than non-Black singers (38%).
Among Regulars, a Black performer sings, on average, less than half as many performances a year as a non-Black singer.
Black Regulars are far more likely to sing, on average, only between 3 and 10 performances a year, and far less likely to sing more than 30 a year.
Two-thirds (67%) of Black Regulars sing ten performances a year or less, compared with just 27% of non-Black Regulars.
A quarter (26%) of non-Black singers perform, on average, 30 times or more a year at the Met. Just 5% of Black Regular singers say the same. (This may be due, in part, to secondary roles drawn from a mostly non-Black chorus.)
Because artist contracts are structured as pay upon performance, with rehearsals and time spent preparing roles unpaid, performances per year are effectively a proxy for opera singer's gross income from the Met.
Even if we assume pay is equal between Black and Non-Black Regulars -a generous assumption considering the historical accounts of Black performers filling mostly secondary roles- this would likely result in a sizeable difference in income per year for Black Regulars.
For example, a Black singer at the Met in our first category, performing eight times a year at $6,000 a performance would gross $48,000; one of the hundreds of non-Black singers performing at least 30 times a year at the same rate would earn nearly four times that, at least $180,000.
Subs, not Stars
Our last section of analysis combines two variables we discussed, performances per year and years performed to describe the five types of Met Regular careers.
The first category is what we call a Long-term Sub: a Regular in the organization's back-pocket they might bring out once or twice a year for a run of a show (for example, Porgy and Bess), or as a jump-in for a more prominent star. In the logic of our analysis, a Long-term Sub is a regular who performs less than ten times a year, or someone who sings 11-20 times a year for an exceptionally long time (21+ years.)
The second category is an emerging artist: a Regular in the middle of their career who hasn't caught fire but is working steadily at the Met. (Logic: 6-15 years into a Met career, 11-30 performances per year.)
Our third category, Wunderkind, you might have seen at the finals of Operalia or the Met Competition. These Regulars are catapulted forward to fame and fortune. They are given many early opportunities at the Met to shine. (Logic: A career of five years or less with 100 performances at the Met.)
Next, the Steady Mid-Career Star is like the emerging artist but engaged roughly twice as often. (Logic: 6-15, 21+ performances/year).
Our final category, Tenured Star, is the dream of every young opera singer. They are beloved icons of the Met with their faces plastered on billboards across Manhattan. Tenured Stars are engaged the entire season, for decades. (Logic: an average of 21+ performances per year for 21+ years.)
Now, where do the Black Regular singers at the Met fall in these five categories?
There are no Black Wunderkinds hired at the Met.
There are no Black Tenured Superstars hired at the Met.
7-in-10 Black Regulars at the Met (71%) are Long-term Subs, with a low number of performances over a long period. That is twice as many (36%) as their non-Black counterparts.
Understanding this discrepancy, perhaps we should rename our 'Long-term Sub' category to what it really is: Token.
The Way Forward
Our analysis of Regulars at the Met, those who have performed at least 100 times, strongly supports the claims of institutional racism towards the hiring of Black singers at the Met:
Black singers are far less represented on stage -just 3% among the Regular singers.
The Met's database corroborates what scholars like Wallace McClain Cheatham claim: that there is an unspoken cap on the number of Black leads at the Met at a given time. There appears to be a ceiling on opportunity, in terms of frequency of performances, for Black singers.
Black Regular singers at the Met are Long-term Subs, not Stars. Black Regular singers are kept around longer and given less opportunity to perform. At the same time, the Met provides non-Black Wunderkinds with dozens of opportunities to sing in their first few years, and non-Black Tenured Stars are given limitless opportunity to sing for decades.
In the past year under the artistic direction of Yannick Nézet-Séguin and management of Peter Gelb, the Met has shown signs of commitment to increased representation, for example, with an announcement of the first opera by a Black composer, "Fire Shut Up in My Bones" by Terence Blanchard in production, and the hire of Black conductor Roderick Cox for next season's “Il Barbiere di Siviglia.”
It is a start.
Still, we chose to focus this article on frequently hired Black singers and not Black conductors for a reason: there were almost none.
Of the 71 conductors with 100 or more performances at the Met, 70 were non-Black men. Only Henry Lewis made it to 100 performances. More than 22,000 performances conducted and at least $10s of millions of dollars in conducting fees paid to those 70 men.
Roderick Cox, if hired for the whole run of ‘Il Barbiere di Siviglia’ next season, might conduct ten performances.
If the Met truly stands with those who support justice and equality, it has a long, long way to go to make amends for more than a century of excluding Black singers from economic opportunity. With singer fees plummeting in the wake of COVID-19 budget cuts, the Met’s recent efforts may be too little, too late.
-ZF & JL