Opera singer who broke racial barriers honored
St. Louis ? Robert McFerrin stares at the television in his living room and listens intently to the deep, rich baritone voice, recorded 30 years ago.
At first, it seems the 82-year-old doesn’t recognize the opera singer on the videotape. Sitting on the couch in long underwear, a sea-blue robe and tennis shoes, McFerrin is lost in the music, his eyes closed, his left hand and head keeping tempo. Then, prompted by his soul’s stirrings, McFerrin joins the singer on the TV screen performing a German aria.
Finally, McFerrin makes the connection. “That man,” he says, pointing to the TV, “that’s me.”
McFerrin, who broke opera’s racial barrier and was recently honored by a national opera group, also is the father of Grammy-winning vocalist Bobby McFerrin, best known for 1988’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.”
Doctors suspect the elder McFerrin has Alzheimer’s disease. He also suffered a stroke in the late ’80s that impaired his verbal ability. His singing voice, however, never left him. Its range, diction and intonation are still masterful.
Now, in old age, singing is McFerrin’s therapy and nourishment, said his wife, Athena.
In 1955, McFerrin became the first black man to be signed to New York’s Metropolitan Opera. He also performed the songs for a lip-synching Sidney Poitier in MGM’s 1959 classic “Porgy and Bess.”
He was honored June 18 in St. Louis with a lifetime achievement award from Opera America, the association of U.S. and international professional opera companies, and Opera Volunteers International.
Opera Theatre of Saint Louis hosted the award presentation. The group’s general director, Charles MacKay, said McFerrin’s baritone voice, included in a recent Metropolitan Opera release of Giuseppe Verdi’s arias, was “beautiful, virile, strong, and sensitive.”
“He sang with such joy and commitment,” MacKay said. “It reminds me of the profound pleasure of a beautifully trained singing voice.”
McFerrin’s son, Bobby, said his father never understood his unique style of a cappella vocals, which he described as “jazz yodeling,” but “he liked it.”
The two performed together on Bobby McFerrin’s “Medicine Music” CD, and for the St. Louis Symphony in 1993. Bobby was guest conductor. Robert was guest soloist.
Bobby McFerrin said he didn’t appreciate what his father had accomplished until he grew older. “When I was little, he was just Dad,” he said. “We grew up with opera; we had singers in the house all the time. It was commonplace.”
“His work influenced everything I do musically,” Bobby McFerrin said. “When I direct a choir, I go for his sound. His musical influence was absolutely profound. I cannot do anything without me hearing his voice.”
Robert McFerrin was born in Marianna, Ark., one of eight children of a strict Baptist minister who forbade his son to sing anything but gospel music. That changed when McFerrin moved to St. Louis in 1936, and a music teacher at Sumner High School, which had prepared many prominent singers, discovered and encouraged McFerrin’s talent.
In the late 1940s and early ’50s, McFerrin sang on Broadway, performed with the National Negro Opera Company and the New York City Opera Company. In 1953, McFerrin won the Metropolitan Opera national auditions. His 1955 debut with the Metropolitan Opera as Amonasro in Aida made him the first black male member of the company. He performed in 10 operas over three seasons.
He appeared just three weeks after contralto Marian Anderson made her historic debut Jan. 7, 1955, as the first black person to sing a principal role at the Met.
“The night of the debut was exciting, thrilling,” said his first wife, 78-year-old Sara McFerrin, who postponed her own singing career to support their family and his endeavors. “His mother was there. He had a lot of supporters.”
Sara and Robert McFerrin, and their children Bobby and Brenda, lived for a time at 730 Riverside Drive in Manhattan in the same building as Anderson.
“We lived on the ninth floor; Miss Anderson was on the 10th floor,” Sara McFerrin said. “I’d see her coming out of the elevator or into the lobby, and my knees would be trembling. I’d say ‘How do you do, Miss Anderson?’ She’d say ‘Good evening’ in that deep, resonant, contralto voice.”
For the last year, McFerrin has had daily music therapy sessions with other musicians to help him focus and trigger memories of his singing career.
“It’s almost like a performance for him,” said pianist Jack Jenkins.