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Betty Allen & Marian Anderson

In today's paper we have an obituary for Betty Allen, 82, one of the first African American opera singers to make it big on the international stage. She died Monday in Valhalla, N.Y., of complications from kidney disease. You can read more about Miss Allen's life here.

As Emily Langer wrote in the obituary, Miss Allen grew up at a time when there were few African Americans in classical music and opera, in particular. She was 12 years old when the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to allow contralto Marian Anderson to sing at Constitution Hall because of the color of her skin. That decision prompted first lady Eleanor Roosevelt to resign from the DAR and help arrange Anderson's concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Seventy-five thousand people turned out for the event on Easter Sunday, 1939. You can watch the most famous moment of the concert--Anderson's powerful rendition of "America"--here.


Miss Allen's son, Anthony Lee, said that Anderson's performance was a turning point in his mother's life and that it helped inspire her to pursue her love for music.

This year marked the 70th anniversary of the event, and Washington celebrated it with a concert at the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday. African American mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves, one of today's finest opera singers, wore a dress given to her by Anderson and sang the first three numbers of Anderson's performance. You can listen to her performance of "America" here.

On the occasion of that anniversary, New Yorker music critic Alex Ross wrote a fascinating and moving piece about Anderson and classical music today.

"... Anderson's legacy seems in some way incomplete," he wrote. "The Lincoln Memorial concert has lost much of its iconic status; many younger people don't know the singer's name. Within classical music, meanwhile, black faces remain scarce. No African-American singers were featured at the Metropolitan Opera's recent hundred-and-twenty-fifth-anniversary gala. A color line persists, more often politely ignored than confronted directly."

You can read the whole piece here.

Ross never mentions Miss Allen by name, but he tells an important part of her story.
-- Emily Langer

By Matt Schudel  |  June 27, 2009; 2:06 PM ET
Categories:  Musicians  
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