Baseball fans who recall Jackie Robinson’s heroic role in integrating baseball in 1947 tend to forget other pioneering African-American players in the major leagues like Larry Doby, Hank Thompson, and Sam Jethroe. Likewise, music fans often pay tribute to African-American singers like the contralto Marian Anderson (1897 –1993), and soprano Leontyne Price (b. 1927) for their triumphant Met Opera debuts, in 1955 and 1961 respectively. Yet other mightily talented singers who also battled early opposition have often been overlooked, which makes a new CD reissue from Bridge Records of a live 1940 concert at the Library of Congress by soprano Dorothy Maynor especially welcome.
Virginia-born Maynor (1910-1996) is accompanied in 1940 by the expert Hungarian pianist Arpád Sándor (1896-1972), a student of Bartók and frequent recital partner of Jascha Heifetz, who knew when to be reticent and when to make passionate keyboard points. Maynor’s flexible lyric soprano has a rapid beat, akin to the voice of the endearing Brazilian diva Bidu Sayão. Maynor’s singing of French in works by Bizet and Charpentier is particularly impressive. She fully deserves this commemoration from Bridge, a doughty, small label run by two New Yorkers, Becky and David Starobin.
The same is true of another neglected African-American singer, Georgia-born Mattiwilda Dobbs (b. 1925). A silvery lyric soprano capable of emotional warmth in Schubert lieder and coloratura flash in arias by Rimsky-Korsakov, Dobbs made precious few recordings, one of which is happily available from Testament. Her Met Opera debut was as Gilda in Verdi’s Rigoletto in 1956, and she sang 29 performances there of six roles during eight seasons. Yet Dobbs’s career mostly flourished in Europe, where her recordings were made, including a scintillating 1950’s performance of Bizet’s Pearl Fishers, reprinted on Preiser Records.
By contrast, there are apparently no CD’s available of early recordings by the tenor Roland Hayes (1887-1977), who was an international celebrity starting in the 1920′s. Perhaps because Hayes was a concert artist rather than an opera performer, with a sometimes eerie (although compelling) vocal tone, he has been relatively neglected. The same is true of soprano Camilla Williams (b. 1919), who sang the title role of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly in 1946, yet can only be heard today on a 1950’s Sony recording of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, and as one of a multitude of soloists in Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 conducted in 1950 by Leopold Stokowski.
Still, fans of the resonant, characterful contralto Carol Brice (1918-1985) can delight in the recent reissue of two of her long-unavailable recordings from 1946: of Falla’s El Amor brujo and Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, both conducted by Fritz Reiner. Before these reissues, Brice was only represented in the catalogue by brief performances in Broadway musicals for which she was clearly overqualified, like 1959’s Saratoga and 1960’s Finian’s Rainbow. Kudos to the CD companies helping us remember these vocal pioneers.