TOPICS > Nation

Remembering Marian Anderson: A Voice of Hope

February 26, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Now, memories of Marian Anderson from two who knew her well. James DePriest is her nephew and the music director and conductor of the Oregon Symphony Orchestra. Renowned opera singer Roberta Peters was a friend of Anderson’s and appeared with her in her Metropolitan Opera debut. And thank you both for joining us.

Toscanini described the voice that we just heard as one heard once in a hundred years. James DePriest, how would you describe it?

JAMES DePRIEST, Orchestra Conductor: (Portland) Well, once you remove the necessary familial bias, I think that it’s safe to say it was a voice that was capable of moving you profoundly. There are not that many artists who had or who have that ability to convince you that the center of what they’re singing is your emotional center as well, and that’s why the impact on those people who happened to have the opportunity to hear my aunt sing, or even those people who hear her recordings, that impact was so profound.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Roberta Peters, I’ve heard the voice described as a three octave instrument. What does that mean exactly?

ROBERTA PETERS, Opera Singer: (Miami) Well, it’s a very long and large range, but I also feel that Marian Anderson’s voice was so rich, so dark, so beautiful, as Jim DePriest just said about her being–you could be moved because every word that she sang had meaning. And it just got to you. You got goose pimples when you heard her voice.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: What was it about it? I mean, how rare was this kind of voice?

ROBERTA PETERS: Well, contraltos, in general, I think are rare, and hers was big, luscious, warm, inviting. She had a voice that it’s really hard to describe in many ways because it just moved you tremendously. She had fantastic repertoire. She was able to do arias, operatic arias. She did Leder, beautiful Schubert Leder. Of course, her spirituals were unbelievable.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And she insisted on always, Jim DePriest, doing spirituals, right?

JAMES DePRIEST: Yes. I think that she regarded spirituals clearly as important music, and she gave to them the same degree of commitment in terms of her communicative skills that she gave to Schubert or to Bach.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Well, she called her voice also a gift from God. She was very spiritual.

JAMES DePRIEST: And that came from my grandmother. There was within the home a firm belief not only in God but in the power of prayer, and Aunt Marian felt that she did have a gift, and that imposed upon her responsibilities both as an artist and as a human being. What was so remarkable is that many people around the world never had the opportunity to hear her live. And I remember after she had died and I was making my debut in Vienna, and I spoke to someone who was Czech who just remembered very, very scratchy 78s, and even through the imperfections of that kind of early technology, one was able to sense something that was quite remarkable.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Roberta Peters, I–she also when she sang apparently kept her eyes closed, wasn’t given to a lot of movement. Do you remember the image of her singing and what that was like?

ROBERTA PETERS: Oh, indeed, I do. I went to many of her concerts in New York, because we had the same manager. Sol Jurak was our manager. And she would close her eyes, yes, but because the words called for it, because she was so intensely into the song.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: James DePriest, the DAR Constitution Hall incident in which she was denied permission to sing there catapulted her into prominence beyond being a singer, as a civil rights leader, and yet, she was kind of a reluctant civil rights hero, wasn’t she?

JAMES DePRIEST: Yes. Aunt Marian had said in an interview that she was not cut out for hand-to-hand combat. I think we all fight the battles that need to be fought in different ways, and she had hoped the dignity of her personhood would be an example that would break many barriers and, indeed, was the case. She was not one to, as she said, beat a dead horse to death. There could be no greater censure for the stupidity of that discrimination than the resignation of the wife of the President of the United States from the organization which owned the hall and the government of the United States making available to her the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. So that she was not one who would bring up–and she was always reluctant to–to talk about that incident. She said that things have changed; she had returned to Constitution Hall sometime later, and she was ready to put that in the past. But it was such a signal event in the history of this country that it is impossible for that ever to die, and certain aspects of it should not die.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Roberta Peters, you were there when she made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera, where she had also been denied until she was 57 years old.

ROBERTA PETERS: That’s correct.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: What was that night like?

ROBERTA PETERS: Well, it was a historic night, as you can imagine. I stood in the wings, in my costume, as the second act curtain of the “Masked Ball” began to go up, and as soon as the audience spotted her, they rose en masse and gave her the most standing ovation that–I mean, the most thrilling ovation went on and on I think for 10 minutes.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: How did she react?

ROBERTA PETERS: Well, she had to keep her composure, I’m sure, and she was, of course, nervous. We’re all nervous at the beginning, but she took it in her stride, and I tell you, she conquered that audience completely. She was fabulous.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And yet, Jimmy DePriest, 57 years old, her voice was no longer as powerful as it had been during the time that she was touring in Europe. You mean she had no resentments about that?

JAMES DePRIEST: Well, Aunt Marian was not a person that was capable of harboring resentments.


JAMES DePRIEST: There might have been disappointments. Yes, she would have loved to have sung opera earlier. When she was in Russia, Stanislavski had heard her sing and was willing to coach her in operatic stagecraft, but there was no point because there were no opportunities. I think that Aunt Marian said at the time that she was grateful that the opportunity did exist when she could sing, and even though her voice was not as it might have been years earlier, when I listen to that great recording of the highlights from “Masked Ball” which include some spectacular singing from Roberta Peters as well, I think that one is touched by the power that she still had. And, in fact, the very first time that Roberta and I met was at the party that Sol Jurak gave after that event, and she was the very first person that I saw, and it was a wonderful evening. And the tension was heightened by the fact that he was Metropolis in the pit waiting and the curtain seemed to take an inordinately long time to go up as it was caught or something, and that just heightened the tension. But that was a truly magical evening.

ROBERTA PETERS: But realize that she had never sung a complete opera production. She had done arias in her recitals, but she’d never ever sung in any production. I mean, the audience just jumped to their feet and there wasn’t a dry eye in the whole house.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: What kind of impact did she have on the music world in general, Roberta Peters, and how do you think she will be remembered?

ROBERTA PETERS: She had a great impact. Of course, she had this fabulous voice for all time. She sang all over the world. She had, interestingly enough, a certain dignity, a certain quietude about her, a gentleness that came across so beautifully, and, you know, as a matter of fact, I went into her dressing room before, and she said, “I just hope it’s in God’s hand. I hope it goes well, but it’s in God’s hand.&

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Is that where her strength came from, James DePriest?

JAMES DePRIEST: Absolutely.


JAMES DePRIEST: She was a–


JAMES DePRIEST: –God-centered person, and that made her automatically humble in the face of things, and I think there are not that many artists whose humanness and whose non-stage persona is identical to what one perceives when they’re on the stage.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And briefly–I’m sorry.

JAMES DePRIEST: No. She was a genuinely humble person.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And briefly, how do you think–she lived with you until the end of her life, 96 years old, how do you think she would want to be remembered on this 100th–the 100th anniversary of her birth?

JAMES DePRIEST: Well, a big fuss made about my Aunt Marian for any circumstances was sort of antithetical to her self-effacing view of Marian Anderson. And I can just think of one thing that would happen from time to time when she was here in Portland, and we would be out, and someone would say either to my aunt or to my wife, Jeanette, you know, she looks very much like Marian Anderson, and Aunt Marian would look at the person and say, “You know, you’re the second person today that’s told me that.”

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Well, we’ll all just have to imagine what she would be saying about this big celebration Thursday night. Thank you, Roberta Peters and James DePriest.

JAMES DePRIEST: Thank you, Charlayne.

ROBERTA PETERS: A pleasure. Thank you.