By Jason Victor Serinus
For those of us who mistakenly believe the history of African-American singers of opera and art song began with Marian Anderson and Paul Robeson, Christopher A. Brooks and Robert Sims’ Roland Hayes: The Legacy of an American Tenor is a revelation. Long before Anderson and Robeson came on the scene, the virtually indefatigable Hayes (1887-1977) was standing before audiences of European royalty and American cognoscenti, astounding one and all with the beauty of his voice and his command of nuance.
It was not before just any audience that Hayes sang. A series of triumphs in London’s Wigmore Hall, Boston’s Symphony Hall under Pierre Monteux in 1923, in front of 4,000 people with the New York Symphony Orchestra under Otto Klemperer in 1926, and in Carnegie Hall and other venues with some of the great conductors and orchestras of the day began to convince the world that a “Negro” was actually capable of singing arias, art songs, and spirituals with the same understanding, grace, and depth of soul as the finest white musician. Recordings and recitals financed by Hayes himself further spread word of his artistry.
As Brooks and Sims’ narrative unfolds, we are afforded a picture of both Hayes’s outer life as an artist whose performances at home and abroad were consistently lauded in glowing reviews, and his inner life as an exceptionally single-minded individual whose personal choices led to disturbing bifurcations and contradictions. It is, of course, not unusual to discover in people of genius levels of personal denial, subterfuge, and singleness of purpose that lead to public triumph at considerable personal cost.
But in Hayes’ case, the manner in which the authors reveal how he chose to hide from public view a life that included children with a devoted, naively evangelistic white European countess leads to enormous insights into the pressures that “Negro” artists experienced at a time when they were widely considered members of an inferior race.
On June 26, 2015, Roland Hayes: The Legacy of an American Tenor received the Gold Medal for Performing Arts & Music in the Foreword Reviews‘ 2014 INDIEFAB Book of the Year Awards. Despite its award, the book has received relatively little attention from mainstream press.
To spread the word and help educate people about Hayes’ remarkable achievements, Sims has arranged an Oct. 4 concert in the Bruno Walter Auditorium of the Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center. Tenor George Shirley will narrate, and Sims, a professor of voice in the School of Music at Northern Illinois University, will sing spirituals from Hayes’ repertoire. The post-concert panel discussion, which will include Hayes’ co-biographer Brooks and PBS documentary producer and actress Debra Mims, should help raise consciousness about Hayes’ remarkable achievements.
I expect one reason the book is being honored is that it artfully balances clearly meticulous research with a dispassionate tone that avoids polemic. Rather than hit us over the head with the enormous pressures of racial oppression Hayes faced at every step of his career, the authors allow the narrative to tell the tale.
Several incidents stand out. The first, which the authors present in the prologue, took place in November 1926. After a major engagement in Atlanta, Hayes traveled 75 miles by train and met with Joseph Mann, “an impoverished, elderly white man who had enslaved Hayes’s forebears.” The contrast in appearance between the prosperous, meticulously groomed and dressed African-American and the frail white former plantation owner could not be more poignant.
While Hayes seems to have treated Mann with great respect – there was, after all, a photographer present and a story in mind – Mann continued to address Hayes as if he were a servant. At meeting’s end, Mann learned that Hayes had bought the land on which Mann now lived. Thus, the former slave master ended his days a welcome squatter on land owned by the ancestor of one of his slaves.
By the time the men parted, Hayes had learned that his great-grandfather, Abá ‘Ougi, had been captured near the interior of West Africa in what is now known as the Ivory Coast. Shipped to Savannah, Georgia, he was sold as a slave and renamed Charles Weaver.
Abá ‘Ougi/Weaver became a Christian and overseer who often sang spirituals, such as “He Never Said a Mumberlin’ Word” and “Steal Away,” not just for religious purposes, but also as encoded messages to signal clandestine meetings among slaves. As Hayes evolved as an artist, his renditions of these and other spirituals frequently moved audience members to tears.
Other stories with deep resonance concern Hayes’ rejection of Maya (Marian Dolores Franzyska), his daughter with Countess Bertha Katharina Nadine Colloredo-Mansfield, and the toll that took on her. The scene in which an octogenarian Hayes discovers the countess’ nephew on his doorstep and briefly drops his impeccably poised façade before exchanging some words and shutting the door speaks volumes.
One of the great frustrations in reading about Hayes is balancing the oft-ecstatic reception of his artistry with what we can hear. Because he looked down on recordings, Hayes recorded little in his prime. Current offerings include a single CD from the Smithsonian that begins with “It was a Lover and His Lass,” recorded when Hayes was 52, and ends with sides made when he was 70.
The other Hayes recording now available, The Art of Roland Hayes, on 2 Preiser CDs (not to be confused with the identically-titled Smithsonian release), is derived from LPs released in 1953 and 1954. Neither allows a fair assessment of what he could do.
As an audiophile, I prefer to ascribe the lack of ping on high notes heard in the YouTube transfer of the “Black Caruso’s” early acoustic recording of “Vesti la giubba” to the transfer and recording process, rather than to the voice itself.
Nonetheless, the short and slightly pinched manner in which Hayes hits climactic high notes in both this clip and another, far better transfer of “Una furtiva lagrima” supplied by co-author Sims suggests that, even early on, Hayes must have known that his best chance of success lay in the lighter realm of art song.
If only we could hear how he truly sounded, how his voice carried when he sang in Carnegie Hall or when he serenaded King George V and Queen Mary of England or Queen Mother Maria Christina of Spain – or when he studied with Maurice Ravel. If only we could cry and cheer along with those who heard him!
For more on the book, please refer to its Indiana University Press page. It links to a podcast with the authors that begins with a recorded snippet of Hayes and Sims singing “Keep me from sinkin’ down” together.
Jason Victor Serinus writes and reviews for Seattle Times, San Francisco Classical Voice, CVNA, Stereophile, American Record Guide, Opera Now, Listen, Bay Area Reporter, and many other publications. He whistled Puccini’s “O mio babbino caro” as “The Voice of Woodstock” in an Emmy-nominated Peanuts cartoon. He resides in Port Townsend, WA.