Naomi André, Associate Professor of Afroamerican and African Studies, Women’s studies, and the Residential College, Featured in CNN
On April 9, 1939 the African-American opera singer Marian Anderson made history when she performed outdoors on the National Mall in Washington.
The 42-year-old contralto sang to a crowd of 75,000 people. She performed outside because she had been barred from singing inside one of the more appropriate, and large-enough, venues in the city: Constitution Hall, a segregated building at the time.
Her powerful performance was written into civil rights history. She broke another barrier 16 years later when she became the first black opera singer to sing a role at the Metropolitan Opera in New York (Ulrica in Verdi's "Un Ballo in Maschera"). Anderson helped open a new landscape for black people in the genre -- as well as more generally in arts and culture -- across the world.
Almost 80 years after Anderson's performance in Washington, on April 14, 2018, Beyoncé performed at Coachella music festival in California -- on a stage, outside, to an estimated audience of more than 100,000 people, making history as the first black woman to headline the event.
Her set, lasting more than an hour and half, was long and sprawling; and, while of course, not an opera performance, it was operatic in scope and power. She reinvented the space to create a new world, representing black history through historically black colleges and universities, drum lines, a black orchestra and a tightly choreographed group of black bodies signifyin' in formation.
Since its inception at the end of the 16th century, opera has always been about spectacle, pageantry, and exploding boundaries. Opera is all about soaring and frequently high treble voices. While Beyoncé's voice doesn't do operatic things, there's an incredible virtuosity and an element of acrobatics in her singing.
As a scholar of opera, particularly black opera and blackness in opera, I can see that Beyoncé is doing something interesting and important as it resonates in an unlikely arena. Beyoncé's "Homecoming" live album and documentary reveal a number of parallels to my field of study. She's even doing things the opera world might be able to learn from.