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Soprano Who Thrived in Europe Despite Racism Dies at 104

By Sara Schabas on April 15, 2024

Margaret Tynes
Margaret Tynes (Photo (R): Carl Van Vechten)

The African-American soprano Margaret Tynes was little-known for her opera singing in America, where racial prejudice hindered her career. Yet, the soprano thrived in spinto roles in the major houses of Europe.

A bit of history: Born in the American South in 1919, Margaret Tynes attended the Juilliard School. She collaborated with Harry Belafonte, Duke Ellington and on the Ed Sullivan Show, but in American opera, always found herself typecast in roles specified for Black singers. Tynes sang Bess in Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess with New York City Opera for six seasons before she moved to Europe, where directors in Vienna, Milan, Prague and Budapest cast her in roles that showcased her formidable capabilities. She received widespread acclaim as Salome, Aida, Tosca, Norma, and Leonora, and returned to America to sing the title role in Jenufa opposite Jon Vickers at the Metropolitan Opera in 1974. Unfortunately, prejudice still tainted her reviews there and she returned to Europe soon after.

Digging deeper: While prominent Black singers including Marion Anderson, Leontyne Price and Grace Bumbry are widely known for their American careers despite racial adversity, Margaret Tynes belongs to a “lost generation” of African-American opera singers. Those unfamiliar with this soprano’s powerful voice might do themselves a favour and listen to her tragically few recordings. I’d start with this gorgeous recording of her as Bess opposite the African-American spinto tenor Levern Hutcherson, or by learning more through the podcast Counter Melody. Just imagine what these two artists sounded like in even meatier repertoire.

Sara Schabas
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