History's Unsung Opera Star

Sissieretta Jones is one of America's greatest opera singers, but her 19th century career has been left out of many modern history books. Rosalyn Story, author of And So I Sing: African American Divas Of Opera and Concert, talks with Farai Chideya.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

And now, for the story of a woman who owned a microphone half a century before the birth of hip-hop. Sissieretta Jones is one of America's greatest opera singers that you may never have heard off. Her star shined on concert stages during the late 19th century. She and singer Harry Burleigh became the first blacks ever to sing in what was eventually named Carnegie Music Hall.

Although Jones wasn't allowed to perform in operas at many of the best-known halls, her strong and well-trained voice earned her international fame. She was often compared to some of the greatest opera singers of her time. Despite her talent and fame, she died in 1933 broke and obscure.

Here to shed some light on Sissieretta Jones is Rosalyn Story. She writes about Jones in her book "And So I Sing: African American Divas of Opera and Concert." Story is a professional violinist with the Forth Worth Symphony Orchestra. Rosalyn, welcome.

Ms. ROSALYN STORY (Violinist, Forth Worth Symphony Orchestra; Author, "And So I Sing: African American Divas of Opera and Concert"): Hi. How are you?

CHIDEYA: Doing great. So this is - how did you even find out about Sissieretta?

Ms. STORY: Well, the interesting story I will tell you real quickly that I'm a violinist and had played in a Tulsa symphony in the '80s. And at this time, I was also writing for a paper called The Oklahoma Eagle, a black newspaper, and I was writing a piece on Leona Mitchell, who was a great concert artist at the time and she had performed in the (unintelligible) opera.

And from that I wrote an article on her and that led to writing an article for Essence magazine and on black opera singers. And at that time, there was very little written about black opera singers so I decided to do some research and find out if there were any books on the subject and there were no books. So I decided to write a book. And that is how "And So I Sing" came about.

At the time I had written an article about Doctor John Hope Franklin, interviewed him and learned that he was a great opera singer. And then I asked him, I said, I wanted to write a book about black opera singers - excuse me, I'm just getting over a cold. And so he said, well, I'm a great opera fan. I'm glad you're doing that. And I know you're going to write about Marian Anderson, you're going to write about the great opera singers of the 19th century and, of course, you'll do Sissieretta Jones. And I said, well, of course.

So right after that interview, I went to a library.

CHIDEYA: Started researching.

Ms. STORY: …to find out who she was to find out a clue.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHIDEYA: I love that.

Ms. STORY: So I - that day, I think, I went to the library and I learned -there was a footnote here and there about her and - but very little materials. So then I came across this interesting dissertation by a woman named Willa Daughtry, who had written for her, I think, her doctor's dissertation for Syracuse University. It was on Sissierietta Jones, so I got a copy of that and read that. But I wanted to get - and it was very helpful, but I wanted to get firsthand information. So I poked around some more and I learned that she had attributed the - I would think of it more Moorland-Spingarn Collection at Howard University.

So I went to Howard and I went to the basement of Howard where the collection was and there was a woman - I'll never forget this day - there was a woman sitting there. Her name - her name was Ezmie(ph) and I said, you know, I would like to find information - I understand you have information about Sissierietta Jones, the black opera singer - opera singer of the 19th century. And she said, hold on, maybe I can help you.

So she disappeared for a minute. She came back and she brought this box out, box 41-1. I'll never forget it. She opened the box, and there was this straight-edged very, very old, very fragile scrapbook of some 300 press clippings that Sissierietta Jones herself kept for her - her career from 18…

CHIDEYA: Let me just…

Ms. STORY: I'm sorry?

CHIDEYA: No, I mean, it just seems like this was a detective story for you. What you've been really…

Ms. STORY: Exactly and I…

CHIDEYA: (Unintelligible) about as a detective story as much as it is a (unintelligible) story.

Ms. STORY: Yes, I had to do a lot of sleuthing around. And her scrapbook was - had clippings from 1888 to 1916. And so through reading these clippings and she kept everything, I mean, everything was in that book about - even her divorce was in there, notes of that one. Somebody has found it with her - with her money, that was in there and all of the press clippings about her, of reviews of her concerts. So they were - pieced together her life by looking at these press clippings and she had the presence of mind to save it and also photographs. She was a very beautiful elegant lady.

CHIDEYA: Let me bring you back into this.

Ms. STORY: Okay.

CHIDEYA: When you got to know her better through these press clippings and other materials you found.

Ms. STORY: Right.

CHIDEYA: Did you feel there was any kinship between you and she, both as black women in a world of classical music where there aren't always a lot of black women?

Ms. STORY: That's a great question. It's very true that I've always felt a kinship to singers because of playing the violin, it's the closest thing people say(ph) to the human voice. For - at my - and when I came over, you know, in school, learning violin, there were no black violinist female that I could look up to and, kind of, model myself after. But there were singers: Leontyne Price, Marian Anderson, Grace Bumbry. So those became, those women became my role models.

And so I've always had an affinity for the human voice, the black voice in particular. And so yes, Sissierietta Jones was someone that I could identify with because of her singing voice, and even though we don't know exactly how she sounded, we can tell by her press clippings that was an extraordinary voice.

CHIDEYA: Do you sing?

Ms. STORY: No, I don't. I sing in the car and in the shower. I couldn't carry - I (unintelligible) the church choir.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHIDEYA: I was just wondering if you - I wonder if you'd ever tried to sing any of her - her songs.

Ms. STORY: No, I - you know, whenever I do sing, I'll sing in the car. I may sing - I love jazz so I'll sing something like that, but I never aspired to sing her kind of music, which was - you really have to have the training. And she's saying she had training, she was - she went to New England Conservatory and even though - and that's not really documented, she probably did go there because at that time, white pedagogues did not really teach blacks unless it was on the (unintelligible).

Well, she may have gone on after school hours to learn how to sing there. But it takes a high level of training to sing the things that she did. So now, I don't go around singing songs from (unintelligible).

CHIDEYA: So, from her repertoire - repertoire, excuse me, I can't even pronounce that - what - what does she do? Did she do bombastic roles? Did she do girlish roles? What kind of person are we talking about here?

Ms. STORY: Well, first let me tell you this thing. She did not sing in opera companies. At that time, blacks were not allowed to sing in opera companies. She sang excerpts from operas on the stage. She had - at the end of her career, a group called Black Patti's Troubadours, and I'll explain where Black Patty come from. She was called the Black Patti, named after the reigning white soprano at that time, Adelina Patti. So at that time, whenever someone black did something that white people had done, they called them the black so and so.

So she was called the Black Patti and she put together Black Patti's Troubadours, which toured the country as kind of a minstrel show, for primarily a format for her to sing operas, which wasn't allowed to do. So there was staging and scenery and so forth in a chorus and be preceded by singers and dancers and jugglers as minstrel shows had. At the end of it would be (unintelligible).

CHIDEYA: Wow. Do you think that that broke her heart? Do you think it broke her heart?

Ms. STORY: Absolutely. I know for a fact that it did. I think she really was frustrated. There was a rumor going around that the Metropolitan Opera offered her a role, but I don't know if that's true. The house burned down at that time and, you know, maybe it happened and someone, you know, I don't know. I don't know if that happened or not. It's very apocryphal to me. But I know that she always wanted to sing opera and was never allowed to do so and found a way through her own ingenuity to do it.

CHIDEYA: There were more than one black artist who had to use minstrelsy as a way of keeping alive the culture that they wanted to preserve. Does it make you feel fortunate to be where you are at this point in our history that you don't have to go through those same machinations just to do what you love?

Ms. STORY: Oh my God, yes, I feel tremendously fortunate. I'm - and fortunate to have had these role models. I think about Sissierietta Jones. I think of her as a precursor to the modern black diva that we know of today, everybody from Marian Anderson to Leontyne Price to Grace Bumbry to Shirley Verrett, Jessie Norman, Kathleen Battle, Denyce Graves.

Those women are here and we had enjoyed them because of the stage set before them by someone like Sissierietta Jones. And there were others in the 19th century too. In the 19th century, there was a kind of peculiar phenomenon. There was a very great interest I think because, especially the (unintelligible) who sang in the 1850s. She actually had been a slave.

CHIDEYA: Well, we…

Ms. STORY: And not as elegant… Pardon me?

CHIDEYA: We're going to have to stop right here. It sounds like there's a lot more of this history rustle and story. Thank you so much.

Ms. STORY: Thank you very much.

CHIDEYA: Ms. Story is a novelist, an author of "And So I Sing: African American Divas of Opera and Concert," also, a violinist with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra.

That's our show for today, and thank you for sharing your time with us. To listen to the show or subscribe to our podcast, visit npr.org/newsandnotes. To join the conversation, visit our blog News And Views. Just check out the link at the top of our Web page.

NEWS & NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium. Tomorrow, tenure trouble at one of America's best colleges.

(Soundbite of music)

CHIDEYA: I'm Farai Chideya. This is NEWS & NOTES.

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