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A Documentary Confronts the Color Barrier in Opera

Television Review

February 16, 2000|CHRIS PASLES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"One of the last big areas of discrimination," says famed bass Simon Estes, the first African American male to sing at Bayreuth, "is in the classical operatic field."

He doesn't mean just the infamous incident in Washington in 1939, when the Daughters of the American Revolution banned contralto Marian Anderson from singing in Constitution Hall.

He means today.

"It's an incredible drought," Estes says in "Aida's Brothers and Sisters: Black Voices in Opera," tonight on KCET-TV.

His opinion is shared in the documentary by mezzo-sopranos Shirley Verrett and Grace Bumbry, among other legendary singers.

"We're going backwards," Verrett says.

"There was a consciousness [during the civil rights movement] that's gone today," soprano Barbara Hendricks says.

More resigned and philosophical, tenor George Shirley says, "It goes in waves."

Using archival footage of performances and current interviews with the singers and others, documentary directors Jan Schmidt-Garre and Marieke Schroeder survey the stories of Estes, Verrett, Bumbry, Martina Arroyo, Reri Grist and others, all of whom, despite difficulties, made international careers.

The filmmakers begin with an emotional homage to Anderson. ("She was the mother of us all," says Betty Allen, honorary president of the Harlem School of the Arts.) They examine the meaning of Negro spirituals, delve into the continuing controversy over the portrayal of African Americans in Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess," survey job opportunities and probe many other issues.

The program ends with emphasis on passing the torch, at the Harlem School of the Arts and at Houston-based Opera Ebony.

*

While telling the story entirely through interviews with the singers and others, Schmidt-Garre and Schroeder do allow themselves a personal sardonic comment at the end. They roll the closing credits to the final measures of Strauss' "Der Rosenkavalier." We don't see any specific production of the opera, but this is the music during which the little black page, Mahomet, comically runs back onstage to retrieve Sophie's dropped handkerchief, much to the amusement of most audiences.

It's a parting shot at the fact that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

* "Aida's Brothers and Sisters" will be shown tonight at 9:30 on KCET-TV.

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