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Opera Ebony broke boundaries in classical music for 50 years — but what comes next?

Benjamin Matthews, one of the founders of Opera Ebony.
Opera Ebony
Benjamin Matthews, one of the founders of Opera Ebony.

For half a century, Opera Ebony has been one of the guiding lights for Black performers looking to make their mark on the opera world. Born out of a necessity to develop talent often overlooked, the company gave many of its singers a much-needed break in the industry.

"Opera Ebony started in this living room, literally," the company's 81-year-old co-founder, Wayne Sanders, told NPR as he settled back into a vintage loveseat.

Opera Ebony co-founder Wayne Sanders
/ Wayne Sanders
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Wayne Sanders
Opera Ebony co-founder Wayne Sanders

His Upper West Side apartment, filled with heavy antiques, was where he started the company in 1973, along with a white nun named Sister Mary Elise Sisson and his long-term roommate, friend and fellow musician Benjamin Mathews.

The trio was concerned about the lack of opportunities for Black performers and helping young musicians to experience opera early.

"You needed to be singing all this music and you need to have that experience with it and the world needs to hear you," Sanders said.

The world heard Opera Ebony. For decades, the company toured internationally, in venues large and small, centering Black voices. Black people participated in opera, wholly, receiving opportunities to direct, design sets and costumes and play in the orchestra.

Opera Ebony's endurance is remarkable, said Professor Naomi Andre, who works on opera and issues surrounding gender, voice, and race at UNC-Chapel Hill."I mean 50 years! That's huge for American opera companies. I don't know any other Black opera company that has continued that long," she explained to NPR.

Andre pointed out that when Opera Ebony started in 1973, some Black women opera singers, such as Marian Anderson and Leontyne Price, had become household names. But it was harder at that time, she said, for Black male performers to be cast in operas with white female singers on stage.

"We just had Loving vs. the State of Virginia, which allowed interracial couples to be legal in the United States in 1967," she observed." So, at that time, when Opera Ebony opened in the early '70s, it was still a big thing to have close interracial relationships and acting them out on the opera stage still ... gave some people pause."

Opera Ebony's 1980 production of<em> Carmen </em>in Philadelphia.
/ Opera Ebony
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Opera Ebony
Opera Ebony's 1980 production of Carmen in Philadelphia.

This was also the moment of the Black Arts Movement. Artists like Benjamin Matthews and Wayne Sanders were not just exploring traditional classical pieces but also music reflecting African American experiences. Spirituals, work songs, jazz and gospel, all were included in Opera Ebony's repertoire, highlighting often neglected Black composers. The company commissioned several original works, including Frederick Douglass by Dorothy Rudd Moore in 1985, Sojourner Truth by Valerie Capers the following year, and The Outcast by Noa Ain in 1990.

"We had to make sure that we continued to do a lot of our own music because then it wasn't commonplace," Sanders said.

Opera Ebony helped change the classical music landscape but now, the company is having a tough time. The organization, which once averaged three performances a year, is down to one, and 81-year-old co-founder Wayne Sanders is frail and ailing. But he believes Opera Ebony will outlast him.

"We Black folks have shown we can make our mark any place we go," Sanders said.

The story of Sanders' life is like an opera itself. He and his friends took risks, centered Black art and artists and insisted on making the music that they loved.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Brandon Gates