Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Theodore Drury and the Dilemmas of Race, Class, and Music at the Opera House

by Kristen Turner

picture of Drury as Faust taken from a program for the May 5, 1902 performance of Faust by the Theodore Drury Grand Opera Company, Harvard Theatre Collection 

Few African-American operatic singers had the opportunity to perform in a full opera production in early twentieth-century America. Instead, they sang arias, opera scenes, or abbreviated adaptations as part of vaudeville shows or in recitals with concert companies—traveling groups that generally included several vocalists, an elocutionist, a pianist, and perhaps other instrumentalists. As no white opera company would hire black singers in this period, African-American performers had limited options if they harbored operatic aspirations.

Theodore Drury (1867–c.1943), however, chose to work around the institutions that refused to open their doors to him. Born in Kentucky, the African-American baritone, entrepreneur, and teacher moved to New York City in the mid-1880s and later to Boston (in 1907), then Philadelphia. He began his career touring with all-black concert companies, often appearing in African-American churches. Along with performing, he cobbled together an income by teaching voice, elocution, piano, and German. During the summer of 1894, he even passed as a “Hindoo barytone” in a vaudeville show at a New York City roof garden. But he soon announced the deception in the press and vowed to start his own opera company in the future (“Woes of Koh-I-Baba: the ‘Hindoo Barytone’ Acknowledges Himself a Kentucky Negro,” Courier-Journal, Feb. 23, 1895).

By 1900, he fulfilled that promise by organizing the Theodore Drury Grand Opera Company. The company’s first production was a full staging of Carmen conducted by Harry T. Burleigh, starring Drury and Desseria Plato. It was the first all-black performance of a serious opera in the United States. The high point of Drury’s operatic career came in 1906 when his company presented three operas (Aida, Carmen, and Faust) during one week in May at the Lexington Avenue Theater in New York City. After 1909 until at least 1941, his productions (previously yearly) became more infrequent and the casts more likely to be his students or amateurs. It is unclear how he financed these performances, although it must have been difficult, as he told an interviewer towards the end of his life that funding his opera productions was the most challenging aspect of his career.

Performances by the Drury Opera Company between 1900 and 1906 were the social event of the season for the upper crust of black society, not just in New York, but along the entire East Coast. Wearing expensive clothing and their finest jewelry, the audience (some of whom came from as far away as Washington D. C. and Cleveland) reportedly filled the house “to suffocation” (“Carmen sung by Negroes,” New York Dramatic Mirror, May 26, 1900). Although segregated seating was the norm in New York, Drury’s performances welcomed a fully integrated audience. African-American critics such as Robert W. Carter praised the company for the singers’ skill and as a site of uplift—proof that black musicians could excel in a difficult European genre such as opera, and black audiences possessed the sophistication to enjoy the productions. White critics were complimentary but less fulsome in their praise of the performers. They framed the company as a chance for cultural “elevation,” evoking the rhetoric of the civilizing mission that positioned opera and art music as both a signal of respectability and a path to moral improvement.

Theodore Drury as Escamillo – c. 1905, Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin


Drury is an elusive figure. He left no personal documentation: no letters, diaries, or financial records. All that remains are his press coverage and several essays he wrote about pedagogy and the importance of opera to racial and musical progress. Drury’s writing shows that he understood classical musicians as part of W. E. B. Du Bois’s “talented tenth,” who could lead the way into a future in which racial prejudice had been conquered. Through his work he connected African Americans with the institutions and pedigree of classical music. For example, he used pictures of his own hands to demonstrate proper piano technique in his self-published Method of Piano Playing (1904), and explicitly positioned his advice within the lineage of European pianists and pedagogues such as Louis Plaidy and Ignaz Moscheles.

Other African-American classical musicians shared Drury’s faith that excellence in art music could promote racial progress. In the pages of the Negro Music Journal, writers condemned popular music such as ragtime and “coon” songs as racist entertainment that perpetuated white America’s worst stereotypes. They pointed to the hard work and accomplishments of classical musicians as the proper model for young black artists to follow, and celebrated the potential of art music to uplift the race. Unlike many other musicians, however, Drury never publically criticized popular music, perhaps because he was part of the Marshall Group (also known as Black Bohemia). This vibrant network of black entertainers, musicians, and writers lived and worked in New York City at the turn of the twentieth century in the area around 53rd Street between 7th and 9th Avenues. James Weldon Johnson (at that time a songwriter working with his brother Rosamond and Bob Cole, but later the Secretary of the NAACP) held court in the dining room of the Marshall Hotel. Impresarios visited to hire the best ragtime musicians, such as James Reece Europe and his band, and African-American actors and comedians such as Bert Williams and his partner George Walker. Drury was part of the debate within the Marshall Group over the role of the arts in general, and popular entertainment in particular, in achieving political and social equality at a time when Jim Crow legislation was being passed and the races were becoming more separated than ever. While Johnson and others sometimes critiqued the snobbishness of the black upper class in their work, Drury embraced this audience and provided them with an opportunity to publically proclaim their sophistication by attending his opera productions.

Drury stands at the intersection of race, class, and music in the early twentieth century. His opera company’s appeal to the top of the African-American social and political hierarchy perpetuated a vision of respectability and uplift that sought to demand an equal place in American society through a demonstration of education and refinement. His persistent creation of performing opportunities for himself, his students, and other African-American musicians helped to nurture a generation of performers that later populated organizations such as the Harlem Opera Society (founded by his nephew) and the National Negro Opera Company.

Even today, black opera singers are all too often limited to roles for which they “look” the part. In a 2012 essay, African-American tenor George Shirley condemns the smallness of operatic vision that insists on casting based upon physical characteristics and hide-bound tradition, writing that “We cannot afford to waste the riches that constitute the allness of this nation” (George Shirley, “Il Rodolfo Nero, or the Masque of Blackness,” in Blackness in Opera, ed. by Naomi André, Karen M. Bryan, Eric Saylor, 272). Although Drury’s conception of opera as a site of racial uplift is dated, his fundamental dream—that opera should be open to everyone—has yet to be realized.


Kristen M. Turner received her doctorate in musicology in 2015 from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where her dissertation, “Opera in English: Class and Culture in America, 1880–1910,” received the Glen Haydon Award for an Outstanding Dissertation in Musicology. Her work on opera and American musical culture at the turn of the twentieth century has been published in the Journal of the Society for American Music and the collected edition, Gender and the Representation of Evil forthcoming in 2017. This essay is based upon a longer article published in the Journal of Musicological Research.

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