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12 Il Rodolfo Nero, or The Masque of Blackness george shirley In the fall of 1960, I made my European operatic debut at the Teatro Nuovo in Milan, Italy, singing the role of Rodolfo in Giacomo Puccini’s perennial favorite, La Bohème. One of the headlines in the news the following day proclaimed, “Il Rodolfo nero ha superato l’esame!” In translation: “The black Rodolfo has exceeded (passed) the examination!” I did not take this as an insult, for in Italy fifteen years after the end of World War II Blacks were still considered exotica, evoking a mix of emotions ranging from fascination to derisiveness. At that time, Otello and Haile Selassie were likely the best-known individuals of color in the land! When my wife and I walked down a street, little children would grab their mothers’ skirts and say in utter amazement, “Mamma, guarda il moro!” (Mama, look at the Moor!). On one occasion as we stood on the platform of the train station in the hamlet of Vercelli, I had the feeling we were being watched. I turned to look behind us, and there was a file of natives lined up along the wall, staring in silent wonder at the backs of the aliens who had miraculously appeared in their midst. At no time in these encounters with the public did I feel the unbidden attention to be negative, but, rather, an honest, wonder-struck reaction to the phenomena standing before them; hence my mild response to the reporter’s focus upon my racial heritage. Ironically, his headline, as well as numerous references to “il Rodolfo nero” in practically all the Italian newspaper accounts of our Bohème performances, constituted the first journalistic commentary on my race that I had encountered following my entry into the singing profession. The reviews from my debut season and minitour in America with the Turnau Opera Players in 1959 generated no such racial observations. In truth, I knew of a certainty before I launched my career that my blackness would play a role covertly or overtly wherever and whenever I appeared onstage in an operatic role. I, like every performer, wished to be assessed, accepted, or rejected on my artistic merits alone. Given the fact that I had gained cachet as a desirable racial token due to the groundswell of social change that was beginning to erupt across the Continent when I set out upon my career path, it was subsequently impossible to discern the role my artistic virtues played upon my successes and failures. Were critics being especially kind in writing good reviews of my performances? Were they incapable of subduing their racial biases when their reviews were harsh? Were opera managers on the lookout for black singers george shirley . 261 Figure 1. Rodolfo, Puccini’s La Bohème. Metropolitan Opera, 1964. Photo by Louis Mélancon. because they truly wanted to embrace their artistry or because they wanted to keep the NAACP off their backs by being able to point to a token or two in order to prove they were not racially biased? Was I paranoid to entertain such thoughts? Would I have been naive not to entertain such thoughts? Black American singers of opera have always been relatively few in number for reasons external to the race as well as internal. We remain minorities in the profession numerically and racially, which should certainly come as no surprise in an art form that appeals only to a minority of the majority in America! Opera draws a minority of white and black aficionados to its fold in comparison to, say, musical theater, rock, R&B, country western, and rap. Large numbers of young Whites and an increasing number of youths of color are focusing their studies and dreams of success on musical theater, arguably America’s distinctive form of opera, as well as on other popular musico-dramatic performance media. It appears those craving stardom in native modes of music drama now exceed the numbers matriculating in traditional European opera studies. When I began my career in 1959, there were but a handful of African Americans finding work in opera around the globe, and most of those were women. However, since the very beginning of operatic history in America, black singers have been drawn to the art for reasons that, once explored and understood, are not arcane. Traditional sub-Saharan African tribal life centers upon ritual that embodies music, drama, and dance, the stuff of operatic performance. Making the step...


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