The Gospel Truth About Opera

Email a Friend

Although I love almost every kind of music, it should not surprise you that opera comes first. But it might be a revelation that gospel music comes second. One does not have to be a religious person to recognize its magic. Here are music and words which, when sung simply and directly, convey the truthfulness, depth of feeling, the belief I hear in the best opera and Lieder singers. No matter how extravagant the vocal acrobatics might be, if singing—whether opera, gospel or just about anything else—is not anchored in genuine sentiment, it will ring as heartless and false.

I have been immersed in gospel nearly as long as I have in opera, classical music and the Great American Songbook. In thinking about this article, I went back to a photograph from 1967, when I was a ten-year old in sixth grade. What a gorgeous mosaic we were—the dream articulated by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King on Aug. 28, 1963 of little black and white boys and girls living happily together.

There was something very particular about New York City in the 1960s. As the nation convulsed with riots and struggle, it was quite normal in New York to have fully integrated elementary school classes with no majority or minority. Children of different races in my Brooklyn neighborhood really did live and play together, their parents knew one another and often worked together. 

When my African-American classmates, usually girls and especially Bernadette, my favorite, came to my house, they heard opera and classical music on WQXR. When I went to their homes, there might be classical or jazz or other forms. But there was always a special place for gospel music, even in families that were not religious. Gospel was the music of the civil rights movement. It was uniquely part of the heritage of black people and spoke to them powerfully about patience, faith and tenacity. I heard those messages too and did my best to answer them. I did not have a religious conversion but recognized in the words and music an irresistible call to embrace what Abraham Lincoln termed “the better angels of our nature."

When I was a kid, my father—a devout WQXR listener—would switch stations on Sundays and we listened to singing and sermons broadcast live each hour from churches around the city. My favorite was the idyllic-sounding Garden of Prayer church. The music was fabulous and the messages of patient endurance were inspiring. This period coincided with the time when African-Americans, though technically protected by laws granting them the rights of other citizens, were subjected to some of the most loathsome prejudice ever inflicted on human beings.

The words Spirituals and Gospel are imprecise in their description of the music that spoke of faith and freedom to African-Americans. Spirituals likely came first and, as a form, were not unique to black people. But so-called Negro Spirituals drew on musical elements with roots in Africa (such as call and response between singer and chorus). Songs such as “Wading in the Water” and “Follow the Drinking Gourd” were probably coded messages to slaves who tried to escape to freedom in northern states.

If spirituals spoke to a flight from slavery, gospel is about “getting over,” a phenomenon that brought a religious sense to being patient and resolute in the face of oppression and trouble. It came to embody the very specific challenges African-Americans faced (and still face) in their slow, steady march to the freedom that will come when full equality in every form is finally realized. The values embedded in gospel music are not exclusive to religious people, and that is part of this music’s power.

Thomas Dorsey (1899-1993) is often called the founder of gospel music, if that designation could be assigned to one person. However, the term dates back to at least the 1870s. His most famous song is “Precious Lord, Take My Hand," a favorite of Dr. King. 

Dorsey is featured in a wonderful documentary from the 1980s called Say Amen, Somebody which makes very clear that, without women, gospel music would not be what it is. Even though there have been very fine male soloists and groups (the Rev. James Cleveland, the Soul Stirrers, the Five Blind Boys of Alabama, the Dixie Hummingbirds among them), I think it is fair to say that the women of gospel, with their amazing voices and deep reserves of feeling and inspiration, are the figures who make this music truly divine. The greatest of them are as rare and magical as opera divas.

Mahalia Jackson was often at the side of Dr. King, providing him with wise counsel as well as consolation. Her music was part of the unshakable rock that was his faith. If you really love music, as I know you do, you understand the amazing lift it can provide in ways that words, no matter how resonant in meaning and delivery, cannot achieve.  Listen to Mahalia sing, with no ostentation, “In the Upper Room."

Marion Williams (1927-1994) had gifts that gave a special energy to everything she sang. Always attuned to, and working within, the music, she conveyed a vocal excitement akin to that of the best bel canto divas, even if her singing was not what we would think of as coloratura.

Another early icon was Clara Ward, whose signature song was “How I got over." She appeared with the Clara Ward Singers. I also commend to you the Clark Sisters. Another indispensable group was the Caravans, founded in Chicago in 1947, which produced numerous great stars, including Albertina Walker, Dorothy Norwood and Shirley Caesar.

Walker (1929-2010), one of my very favorites, was known as the Queen of Gospel Music. She was vocally secure and less histrionic than some of the other women, but unshakeable in her joyous belief. It is hard to keep your hands from shooting in the air when she sings of blessed assurance in “I Can Go to God in Prayer." Dorothy Norwood (1935- ) is one of the last “residents” of what she calls Old School Boulevard, such as in “No Request."

The amazing Shirley Caesar (1938- ) has no rivals today. Her singing is passionate, secure, and deeply felt, as we would expect from great opera stars. Caesar’s particular style is a sort of sermon in song in which she tells a complex story with moral implications that traverses through moments of despair and then glorious deliverance through lessons learned. She is the most Verdian of gospel singers. Watch her in “Don’t Drive Your Momma Away."

Aretha Franklin (1942- ) is a category unto herself, a musician of genius, including gospel. Her performance of  “Oh Mary Don’t You Weep" is music drama every bit as much as Tristan und Isolde or Lucia di Lammermoor.

Like the great choruses that provide the ballast in many operas, the mass choirs of gospel are as essential as the preachers and the soloists. The Mississippi Mass Choir is one of the best.

Transcending Boundaries?

I thought to write of gospel and, by extension, opera the other night. The Irish singer Sinéad O’Connor performed at the Lincoln Center Festival in a program called the Gospel Sessions, with superb American instrumentalists and the Inspirational Voices of the Abyssinian Baptist Church. Though famously against the hierarchy of the Catholic Church (“Where I come from,” she said, “the worst thing to happen to Jesus was religion"), O'Connor does identify with the teachings and example of Jesus Christ. In gospel music, she found hopefulness and joy. Though her singing was heartfelt, it often was too dramatic for the style. Her best moments, as in much of her repertory, came in the hushed intimacy where one felt closer to her heart. And yet, O’Connor’s singing was all about truth, feeling and, yes, belief. In the parlance of the black church, she got a praise on.

Gospel music is, of course, one of the many cultural flowerings of African-Americans that have so enriched our nation. It is glorious in musical terms but also carries deep meanings beyond the sphere of pure music. Does this mean that only African-Americans can and should perform it? This is a delicate question, one that some people might find divisive.

Part of my answer is to raise another question. Opera is, without question, Italian in its origin. For its first 150 years, despite some growth as an art form in French, the essence and the aesthetic of opera were largely Italian. Its terminology is mostly Italian, as is the point of reference for how it is to be sung. Italian composers and singers traveled to Vienna, Paris, London and elsewhere and took opera with them.

Does this mean that only Italians can and should sing Italian opera? Do they sing it better or more profoundly? I think of how much poorer opera was when African-Americans were excluded from it. I invite your thoughts.