12 Of The Greatest And Most Famous Black Opera Singers

Written by Laura Macmillan
Last updated

While black singers tend to be known for more modern styles of music like jazz and R & B, they’ve also been gracing the stages of opera halls around the world.

From Marian Anderson to Jessye Norman to Leontyne Price, there have been a number of black singers who have made their mark on one of the oldest and most prestigious forms of vocal music.

In this post, we’re going to take a look at the lives and careers of 12 of the greatest and most famous black opera singers of all time. Let’s get started.

Related: To read about other famous African American singers click here.

1. Marian Anderson

Considered one of the finest classical singers of her generation, Marian Anderson was a trailblazer who broke down racial barriers in the world of opera.

Born in Philadelphia in 1897, Anderson began singing in her local church choir as a child. However, her career began to take off in the mid-1920s, when she won a singing contest with the New York Philharmonic, which resulted in her performing with them.

Throughout her career, Anderson continuously broke barriers for African American performers. She went on to great success, even in the light of racial prejudice, performing for presidents, and in 1955, she made history as the first African American singer to perform with the Metropolitan Opera.

With her graceful demeanor and powerful voice, Anderson left a lasting legacy as one of the greatest and her legacy continues to inspire new generations of opera singers to this day.

2. Leontyne Price

Soprano Leontyne Price was born in Laurel, Mississippi, in 1927. She attended Central State University and then Juilliard. 

In 1961, Price made her first performance at the Metropolitan Opera, becoming the first African American to take on leading roles. Her fame began to grow when she sang the title role of Puccini’s Tosca in a televised opera.

Her rise to stardom took her to La Scala, the Royal Opera House, and San Francisco Opera House, among many legendary venues.

Price was the first African American opera soprano to achieve international success. She later toured with her husband, William Warfield, in Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess.

3. George Shirley

Indiana native George Shirley attended Wayne State University and earned his bachelor’s degree in music education.

Upon graduation, Shirley was drafted into the army, where he became the first black member of the United States Army Chorus.

Subsequently, Shirley went on to be the first African American to teach music at Detroit high schools. His professional career started with a small opera group in Woodstock in 1959. Then, in 1961, Shirley won a scholarship to the Metropolitan Opera in New York City.

He became the first African American operatic tenor to perform a leading role at the opera house and the second black male to have leading roles there.

Related: For more male tenors, see our post here.

4. Simon Estes

Talented baritone opera singer Simon Estes was born in Centerville, Iowa, in 1938. He began his singing career in the church choir when he was young.

Estes actually started studying to be a doctor. However, Charles Kellis, a respected voice teacher, heard him sing and introduced him to several classical recordings, motivating Estes to change his field of study to singing. He went on to attend the Juilliard School in 1964.

In 1965, Estes debuted at the Deutsche Opera in Berlin and has since continued his successful career performing at many opera houses worldwide with several famed opera singers.

Related: Next, check out our list of the best baritones here.

5. Morris Robinson

American bass opera singer Morris Robinson was born in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1969. When he was older, he attended the Northside School for the Performing Arts, where he excelled in sports and music. He followed his dream to play college football and graduated from the Citadel with a bachelor’s degree in English.

However, despite his talent at playing football, it was music that would end up being his life, and he was the first African American to sign with a major classical record label.

In 1999, he went to Boston University to pursue his vocal studies. He began his opera career the same year at the Boston Lyric Opera as the King of Egypt in Aida.

Besides his many classical roles, Robinson has branched into musicals, such as playing Joe in Show Boat.

6. Lawrence Brownlee

Born in Youngstown, Ohio, in 1972, Laurence Brownlee is known for his talent with the bel canto repertoire and is often praised for his exceptionally high notes.

Brownlee grew up singing gospel music in church and tried his hand at pop and show tunes. He went to Anderson University and Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, studying with other great sopranos like David Starkey, Constanza Cuccaro, and Fritz Robertson.

The role of Almaviva in Rossini’s The Barber of Seville was Brownlee’s professional stage debut in 2002, and in 2007, he made his first appearance at the Metropolitan Opera, performing in Il Barbiere di Siviglia.

7. Camilla Williams

Next, we have the talented soprano Camilla Williams, who broke color barriers and was famous for being the first African American to be cast in theaters and opera shows.

She was born in 1919, in Danville, Virginia. When she was eight, she started performing in the church choir.

Williams attended Virginia State College, where she got a bachelor of arts in music. Afterward, she studied under Madame Marian Szekely-Freschl, a respected voice teacher.

In 1945, Williams became the protegee of Geraldine Farrar, an acclaimed opera singer. She became the first black person to play the role of Madama Butterfly when she was chosen to lead its production at the New York City Opera in 1946.

8. Pretty Yende

This South African soprano was born in Piet Retief, Mpumalanga, in 1983. Pretty Yende began her operatic career after seeing a television advertisement.

Her musical studies took her to the South African College of Music and the Accademia Teatro alla Scala in Milan, Italy. After graduation, she competed in and won several vocal competitions.

Yende launched her operatic career in 2010 at La Scala as part of its academy program. Her debut followed in 2013, performing as Adèle in a production of Rossini’s Le Comte Ory at the Metropolitan Opera.

Just two years later, Yende signed a long-term recording contract with Sony Classical.

9. Janai Brugger

Next we have another American soprano, Janai Brugger, who was born in Chicago, Illinois, in 1983.

In 2005, Brugger earned a bachelor of music from DePaul University in Chicago. She continued her education by studying voice with Shirley Verrett at the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance.

A talented lyric soprano, Brugger made her professional debut in 2006 when she portrayed the First Witch in Dido and Aeneas. A few years later, she performed for the Lyric Opera of Chicago as Adina in The Elixir of Love.

Brugger continued her operatic career, sometimes joining competitions. In 2012, she won the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions. She later won the Zarzuela Prize and the Prize of the Public at the Operalia, the World Opera Competition.

10. Angel Blue

Renowned for her high notes and ability to switch from contemporary to classical, Angel Blue is an American opera soprano who won a Grammy for her performance in the Metropolitan Opera production of Porgy and Bess.

Blue attended the University of Redlands, where she received a bachelor of music. She went on to UCLA, earning a master of music degree in opera performance.

She is one of the most powerful sopranos performing lead roles and solos at opera houses worldwide. Her performances have won her the Richard Tucker Award, the Eva and Marc Stern Artist Award, and the Beverly Sills Award.

11. John Holiday

Next we have American countertenor John Holiday. He is renowned for his focus on baroque and contemporary composers. In addition, he sings gospel and jazz.

Holiday taught himself to play the piano by watching his grandmother and was singing solo by the time he was six years old. 

He attended Southern Methodist University and earned a bachelor of music in vocal performance. He continued his studies at Indiana University’s School of Music and the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music.

His professional debut came at Carnegie Hall in 2012 when he performed Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms. In October 2020, Holiday was featured in The Voice and was coached by John Legend, and came fifth.

12. J’Nai Bridges

Lastly, we have J’Nai Bridges. This talented opera singer has won two Grammy awards and the Marian Anderson Award for her mezzo-soprano voice. 

Bridges was initially interested in basketball but shifted her interest to singing after taking choir as an elective. She began her studies at the Manhattan School of Music and then the Curtis Institute of Music.

She was mentored by Renée Fleming while participating in a young artists program at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.

After winning the prestigious Marian Anderson Award in 2012, Bridges performed at the Kennedy Center for the first time. Her talent has seen her perform at the Los Angeles Opera, the San Francisco Opera, and the Metropolitan Opera.

Summing Up Our List Of Great Black Opera Singers

These remarkable black trailblazers all have unique talents that amaze and delight their audiences.

They have each impacted the opera house stages and left their audiences exhilarated by outstanding performances that will live forever in their memory. 

However, this list barely scratches the surface of amazing black operatic vocalists. Who do you think we missed? Let us know, and we’ll add them in!

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Laura has over 12 years experience teaching both classical and jazz saxophone and clarinet. She now resides in California where she works as a session and live performer.