Episode 23. Lawrence Winters and Robert McFerrin (Black History Month IV)

Episode 23. Lawrence Winters and Robert McFerrin: A Tale of Two Baritones (Black History Month IV)



Today’s episode, the fourth in a sequence honoring African American singers, this one pays tribute to two great baritones, Lawrence Winters (1915-1965) and Robert McFerrin (1921-2006). Winters was a trailblazer on records and on stage at the New York City Opera and in major German opera houses; while McFerrin, the first African American male to sing a major role at the Metropolitan Opera, made his debut in 1955 as Amonasro in Aida three weeks after Marian Anderson made history on the same stage as the first black solo singer to perform there. This episode examines the early life and rise to prominence of each singer; the role that Porgy played in the careers of both singers; and each one’s credentials as a Verdi baritone par excellence. Highlights include an excerpt from William Grant Still’s opera Troubled Island, which premiered at NYCO in 1949, and a memorable cache of spirituals recordings from both singers. Guest aritsts heard on this episode include Todd Duncan, Camilla Williams, Marie Powers, Maria Stader, Adele Addison, Laurel Hurley, and Grace de la Cruz.


Lawrence Winters

Spiritual, arr. unknown: I Couldn’t Hear Nobody Pray. Lawrence Winters, baritone; Hermann Spitz conducting the Hamburger Rundfunkorchester & NDR-Chor (recorded June 1951, Hamburg).

Robert McFerrin photographed by Carl Van Vechten

Spiritual, arr. Hall Johnson: Swing Low, Sweet Chariot. Robert McFerrin, baritone; Norman Johnson, piano. From Deep River and other classic Negro Spirituals (Riverside Records ‎RLP 12-812, rec. 1957).

Todd Duncan

Kurt Weill, Maxwell Anderson: Lost in the Stars (Lost in the Stars). Todd Duncan, baritone; Maurice Levine conducting the orchestra and chorus (including Robert McFerrin). From Lost in the Stars Original Cast Recording (Decca Records DL 8028, 1949).

Lawrence Winters in Call Me Mister.

Harold Rome: The Red Ball Express (Call Me Mister). Lawrence Winters; Orchester Harry Hermann (recorded May 1959, Hamburg).

Pernell Roberts, Michael Landon, Lorne Green, and Dan Blocker in Bonanza

Jay Livingston, Ray Evans: Theme Song from Bonanza. Lawrence Winters; Willy Hoffmann conducting the FFB Orchester. (Recorded 1965, Berlin).

William Grant Still, Langston Hughes: Night in the slave huts, woman of mine (Troubled Island) Lawrence Winters (Jean Jacques Dessalines), Marie Powers (Azelia Defilee), Julius Rudel conducting the New York City Opera Orchestra (live performance 01 May 1949).

George Gershwin: Porgy and Bess Introduction. Lehman Engel conducting. Columbia Records OSL-162 (1951). Cast includes Camilla Williams (Bess); Lawrence Winters (Porgy); Avon Long (Sportin’ Life); Inez Matthews (Serena); June McMechen (Clara); Warren Coleman (Crown).

Lawrence Winters as Amonasro showing a little skin!

Giuseppe Verdi: Aida-Amonasro Duet (from “No, no, giammai”) (Aida) Camilla Williams (Aida); Lawrence Winters (Amonasro); Laszlo Halasz conducting the New York City Opera Orchestra. From Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida (highlights), MGM Records E-554 (1951). Cast includes Giulio Gari (Radames); Lydia Ibarrondo (Amneris).

Laszlo Halasz pictured with (from left) Halasz with Ann Ayars, Dorothy MacNeil, Frances Bible, Virginia Haskins, Wilma Spencer, Marguerite Piazza, and Brenda Lewis (as Salome)

From La Traviata (Kurzoper). Maria Stader (Violetta); Lawrence Winters (Germont); Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt conducting the Sinfonie-Orchester des NDR (Deutsche Grammophon 19 139/136 005, 1958). Cast includes Ernst Haefliger (Alfredo): Wenn einst die Zeit [Un dì, quando le venere]. Lawrence Winters (Germont); Maria Stader (Violetta); Hat dein heimatliches Land [Di Provenza il mar]. Lawrence Winters (Germont).

Lawrence Winters in The Tales of Hoffmann, Deutsche Oper Berlin, ca. 1960

Giuseppe Verdi: Eri tu (Un ballo in maschera). Lawrence Winters (Renato); Harry Hermann conducting the RSO Hamburg (date unknown).

From Rigoletto (The Metropolitan Opera Record Club MO214). Robert McFerrin (Rigoletto); Laurel Hurley (Gilda); Fausto Cleva conducting the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra (1956). Cast includes Daniele Barioni (Duca); Thelma Votipka (Giovanna); Sandra Warfield (Maddalena); Louis Sgarro (Monterone): Cortigiani, vil razza dannata. Robert McFerrin (Rigoletto); Final Duet (from “Chi è mai, chi è qui”). Robert McFerrin (Rigoletto); Laurel Hurley (Gilda).

George Gershwin, Ira Gershwin, DuBose Heyward: I Loves You Porgy (Porgy and Bess). Robert McFerrin (Porgy); Adele Addison (Bess); Music arranged and conducted by André Previn. Columbia Records OL 5410/OS 2016 (1959).

George Gershwin, Ira Gershwin, DuBose Heyward: Bess, You Is My Woman Now (Porgy and Bess). Lawrence Winters (Porgy); Grace de la Cruz (Bess); Hans Carste conducting the RIAS-Orchester (Berlin). From Das große George Gershwin Album mit Lawrence Winters. (Eurodisc 78 337 XK, recorded November 1962).

Yet another album of Porgy excerpts featuring Lawrence Winters

George Gershwin, Ira Gershwin, DuBose Heyward: Wer weiß, ob das alles so war [It Ain’t Necessarily So] (Porgy and Bess). Lawrence Winters (Sportin’ Life); Richard Müller-Lampertz conducintg the NDR Rundfunkorchester Hannover, recorded 15 December 1963.

Spiritual, arr. unknown: Mein Gott, was für ein Morgen [My Lord, What a Mornin’]. Lawrence Winters; Robert Owens, piano. Recorded 15 June 1962.

From Deep River and other classic Negro Spirituals (Riverside Records ‎RLP 12-812, rec. 1957)

Spiritual, arr. Hall Johnson: Fix Me, Jesus; Spiritual, arr. Hall Johnson: His Name So Sweet; Spiritual, arr. William Grant Still: Here’s One; Spiritual, arr. Hall Johnson: Ain’t Got Time to Die

A few relevant links:

Lawrence Winters in a screenshot from the video linked below.

Jerome Kern, Oscar Hammerstein II: Old Man River. Lawrence Winters in a 1964 video.

George Shirley’s interview with Robert McFerrin, WNYC radio, 5 May 1975. Part of the series Classical Music and the Afro-American which ran from 1973 to 1975. Interviewees included Camilla Williams, Arthur Thompson, Leontyne Price, Grace Bumbry, William Warfield, Martina Arroyo, Ulysses Kay, and James DePriest.

Black Voices Rising: African American Artists at the Met (1955-1985). This superb collection features contributions from artists such as Marian Anderson, Robert McFerrin, Mattiwilda Dobbs, Leontyne Price, Reri Grist, George Shirley, Grace Bumbry, Shirley Verrett, Kathleen Battle, Barbara Hendricks, Martina Arroyo, Jessye Norman, Florence Quivar, and Roberta Alexander. (https://www.metoperashop.org/shop/black-voices-rise-cd-african-american-artists-at-the-met)

A February 1956 profile of Robert McFerrin that appeared in Opera News. (The images below are from Robert McFerrin’s Metropolitan Opera debut as Amonasro in Aida, 27 January 1955.)

Links to a remarkable series of reissues of Lawrence Winters’s recordings.

William Grant Still’s Troubled Island: two very interesting articles, both stemming from a symposium at the University of Colorado on the late composer’s most famous opera, one of nine which he composed, and the scores of all but one of which are available at the composer’s official website.

Catherine Parsons Smith: Troubled Island: A Symposium Introduction

Gayle Murchison: Was Troubled Island Seen by the Critics as a Protest Opera?

Information about the upcoming UK production in September 2020 by Thee Black Swan Theatre and Opera Company.

William Grant Still (1895-1978)

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