Robert McFerrin Sr.; Was First Black Man to Sing With the Met

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Robert McFerrin Sr., 85, a baritone who became the first black man to sing as a member of the New York Metropolitan Opera and later dubbed Sidney Poitier's singing voice as Porgy in the 1959 film version of "Porgy and Bess," died Nov. 24 at Barnes-Jewish West County Hospital in St. Louis after a heart attack. He had Alzheimer's disease.

Mr. McFerrin was the father of Bobby McFerrin, the Grammy Award-winning singer-turned-conductor who dueted with his father in later years.

A protege of composer and choir director Hall Johnson's, Robert McFerrin went on to perform with the New York City Opera, the National Negro Opera Co. and the New England Opera Co. before winning the Metropolitan Opera "Auditions of the Air" radio contest in 1953.

He initially was skeptical of entering the competition, saying, "I might win the damn thing, and I would not know what to do" because of limited career prospects for black opera aspirants.

The Met's general manager, Rudolf Bing, had made a push to desegregate its stages, and in January 1955 both Mr. McFerrin and contralto Marian Anderson made their Met debuts -- Anderson as Ulrica in Giuseppe Verdi's "A Masked Ball" and Mr. McFerrin as Amonasro, the Ethiopian king who is the father of the title character in Verdi's "Aida."

He played a handful of other parts and took the title role from Verdi's "Rigoletto" into the city's public schools. He toured Europe with Johnson, whose spirituals were translated into German, and in 1956 played the Teatro di San Carlo in Naples, again in "Aida."

Given his pedigree, he was a top choice to dub Poitier's voice for "Porgy and Bess," the George and Ira Gershwin-DuBose Heyward opera. The opportunity came at the right time.

"I had been [at the Met] for three years and had done only three roles, which averaged out to a role a year," he told music scholar Naymond Thomas in the mid-1980s.

"I did not want to continue the uncertainty of my future of whether or not I would progress beyond the status of singing the role of a brother or father," he added. "I wanted to sing Wotan or Count di Luna or a romantic lead. I guess this would have created too much controversy. Therefore, I simply chose to resign my position on the Met roster and take my chances in Hollywood."

The son of an itinerant Baptist preacher, Robert Keith McFerrin Sr. was born March 19, 1921, in Marianna, Ark., and raised in Memphis and St. Louis. He sang spirituals in his father's congregation and traveled with two of his eight siblings on the church singing circuit.

In St. Louis, he began classical voice training at the urging of a high school choir director and received a scholarship to attend Chicago Musical College. After Army service during World War II, he completed the degree and settled in New York.

Amid his operatic engagements, he had minor Broadway parts in "Lost in the Stars," a Kurt Weill-Maxwell Anderson operetta starring Todd Duncan, and "The Green Pastures," a 1951 revival of Marc Connelly's drama in which Johnson was choral director.

He also toured extensively, showcasing his proficiency with Negro spirituals and German lieder, or art songs. Critic Albert Goldberg wrote in the Los Angeles Times that the "McFerrin voice is a baritone of beautiful quality, even in all registers, and with a top that partakes of something of a tenor's ringing brilliance."

In California, and later in St. Louis, Mr. McFerrin continued to perform and also did some teaching. He recorded "Deep River, and Other Classic Negro Spirituals" (1959), a release now all but impossible to find.

Despite a stroke in 1989, he appeared on his son's 1990 album, "Medicine Music," and was a soloist with the St. Louis Symphony in 1993 with his son as guest conductor.

Bobby McFerrin told the Associated Press in 2003: "His work influenced everything I do musically. When I direct a choir, I go for his sound. . . . I cannot do anything without me hearing his voice."

His marriage to Sara Copper McFerrin ended in divorce.

In addition to his son, of Philadelphia, survivors include Mr. McFerrin's wife of 12 years, Athena Bush McFerrin of St. Louis; a second child from his first marriage, Brenda McFerrin of Anaheim, Calif.; a sister; and three grandchildren.

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