Academic journal article Notes

An Unlikely Champion: Rudolf Bing and the Demise of Jim Crow at the Metropolitan Opera

Academic journal article Notes

An Unlikely Champion: Rudolf Bing and the Demise of Jim Crow at the Metropolitan Opera

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT

Rudolf Bing achieved great success during twenty-two years of leadership as general manager of the Metropolitan Opera. One accomplishment remains noteworthy for its historical and social significance, and continues to afford him accolades a half-century later: the official elimination of racial restrictions against African American singers at the Met in 1955. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) awarded Bing its Scroll of Honor in 1958 in recognition of the historical importance and impact of his unwavering determination to integrate the Met. This article traces the events leading to Bing's revolutionary transformation of the Met, and to the NAACP's selection of him as an awardee. It captures the social and political climate of America immediately preceding and during the 1950s, and places the Met and its activities within the dynamic context of the era. Using primary source material from the Met archives, the history and chronology of the early integration of the Met is reconstructed and viewed in tandem with the history and chronology of the early-twentieth-century quest for civil rights in America.

INTRODUCTION

When Rudolf Bing was appointed general manager of New York's Metropolitan Opera (the Met), no one could have predicted the tremendous artistic and cultural impact his tenure would have on the Met and on opera worldwide. Fully aware of the daunting challenges he would face, Bing was pragmatic and deliberative in his planning. His twenty-two-year span of leadership yielded many great accomplishments, as well as his share of failures. Rising high above all other achievements are the two greatest and most visible: the official elimination of racial restrictions at the Met in 1955, and the company's move to Lincoln Center in 1966.

The limited release of Susan Froemke's documentary film, The Opera House: How the New Met was Born, has renewed and revived interest in the history of the Met and in the career of Leontyne Price. (1) Of the two accomplishments highlighted by the film, Bing's hiring of African Americans, is the focus of this article. Featured heavily in the film is the legendary soprano Leontyne Price, who helped to make history by singing the role of Cleopatra in the new theater's inaugural production and world premiere of Samuel Barber's Anthony and Cleopatra. The establishment of Lincoln Center signaled the dawn of a new era for the performing arts in New York City, and placed the Metropolitan Opera at the apex of that movement in a state-of-the-art new house.

The choice of Price, an African American, to sing the lead role on this most auspicious of occasions was symbolic in many ways. Chief among them was Rudolf Bing's decision to showcase the talent and artistry of Leontyne Price during the height of the civil rights movement in America, which highlighted the Met's continued leadership in addressing issues of access and racial disparities in music, opera, and other performing arts in America.

Bing unofficially began his tenure as general manager in 1949 (one year before his contract start date) and almost immediately began laying the foundation for his vision of a new Met. His early pronouncement of intent to hire African Americans as members of the Met roster of singers was exciting news for many opera fans (and African American singers, in particular), which lifted a great cloud of shame and spoiled opportunities. Yet, for others the news landed heavily as an utter and absolute travesty. Segregation of the races was still the legal requirement and practice for much of American society, particularly in the South. The many drastic social and political changes that were slowly developing had not yet occurred when Bing arrived in 1949. The 1946 Morgan v. Virginia US Supreme Court decision that outlawed segregation in interstate travel was not being enforced, (2) and the court's ruling on segregation in public education was many years away, as were future statutory laws prohibiting discrimination in employment and housing. …

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