African Americans appeared on stage at the Metropolitan Opera House long before the widely known debuts of ballerina Janet Collins (1951) and contralto Marian Anderson (1955)—and even before dancer Hemsley Winfield performed there in 1933.
"African Americans took part in a ballet written by Henry F. Gilbert called The Dance in Place Congo,” said Carolyn Guzski, assistant professor of music. Guzski, a musicologist, is especially interested in American composers of the early twentieth century. The Dance in Place Congo, set in New Orleans, was produced by the Met in 1918.
While conducting research at the Met’s archives, Guzski came across a publicity photo of the cast. But she didn’t examine it carefully until she was reviewing microfilm looking for more information about the premiere performance in all of New York City’s 17 daily newspapers. In the New York Globe, a critic reported that it was a fine show. Most of the white performers in the Dance in Place Congo number wore blackface, customary at the time. However, the critic noted that the few African Americans dancers were “worth many times all the host of disguised whites.”
By enlarging the photo, Guzski was able to see what she’d missed at first: African Americans were indeed performing with white actors, dancers, and singers. “With that information,” she said, “I started to look for more evidence that African Americans had appeared at the Met in the early twentieth century.”
In 1926, the Met produced the ballet Skyscrapers by John Alden Carpenter, known to have included a chorus of African Americans. To Guzski’s delight, she found a letter from one Giulio Gatti-Casazza, general manager of the Metropolitan Opera Company, dated December 24, 1925. The letter was to Frank H. Wilson, an African American actor who created the role of Porgy in the play of the same name, later developed into the opera Porgy and Bess.
In his letter, Gatti-Casazza stipulated “…you agree to furnish us Twelve (12) Colored Singers to sing the music allotted to them in Mr. John Alden Carpenter’s Ballet 'Skyscrapers' …” The singers performed in the “Negro scene” in Skyscrapers, singing “vocables”—melodic syllables, which in this case represented traditional spirituals.
In one African American newspaper, Guzski found the names of all 12 African American singers that performed in Skyscrapers. Two vocalists—Ralph Waldo Northern and Flora Sutton—performed brief solos, making them the first African American soloists at the Met.
“Histories of minorities so often get muddied,” said Guzski. “Stories don’t get told clearly or completely.”
So she sought out more of the story. She learned that a Ralph Northern was married at Harlem’s famous Abyssinian Baptist Church by Adam Clayton Powell in 1926. His bride’s name was Madie Truex Bell, and her father’s name was Gilbert Bell.
“I searched online,” said Guzski, “and I found a man named Gilbert Northern living in New York City.” Sure enough, he was Ralph Northern’s son; he and his brother Robert are the only surviving children. The latter, a noted French horn player, hosts “The Jazz Collectors,” a radio show on WPFW in Washington, D.C. on which he interviewed Guzski in August 2013.
“It was such a pleasure to meet him,” said Guzski, “and to share information about the influence African Americans and their musical traditions had on the earliest efforts to create truly American opera and ballet.”