6 Facts You Didn’t Know About Opera


Opera is popular for its dramatism, powerful voices, and ethereal music. When most people think of opera, they think of the high, sweeping voices of men and women playing characters on stage. However, there is much more to opera than this classical representation. Here are some facts you probably don’t know about opera.

1.      “Porgy and Bess” Emphasized Complex Black Characters

Though “Porgy and Bess” was composed by a white man (George Gershwin), it has become one of the cornerstones of Black opera experiences. This opera is all about the portrayal of complex Black characters, something that wasn’t acceptable at the time. It was first performed in 1935, though it became well-known after a performance in 1976.

This groundbreaking opera would inspire many others to pursue representation in operatic theater. The rise of this work opened the door for many popular Black operas today, such as “Margaret Garner” (an opera that lists the powerful Toni Morrison as its librettist)!

2.      Black Opera Singers Debut at Carnegie Hall

In 1892, Sissieretta Jones (1868 – 1933) became the first Black headliner to perform at Carnegie Hall. At this point in her career, Jones was already an accomplished artist. Headlining at Carnegie Hall was another stop on her illustrious career. Though she was often referred to as ‘Black Patti’ (a reductionist take on her musical ability, as it referenced a white opera singer rather than exploring her own merits), most today still remember her by her name.

3.      “Aida” First Portrayed Deep Black Characters

In 1871, most Black representation was caricatured. It wasn’t until “Aida” by Giuseppe Verdi debuted that mainstream opera began to portray Black characters with depth. “Aida” is set in Egypt, and one of the titular characters is a captured Ethiopian princess, Aida. Unfortunately, despite its groundbreaking portrayal of Black characters, “Aida” was rarely performed by Black singers.

Because of the way most productions of “Aida” have been handled – using predominantly non-Black performers – it’s recently sparked discussion about how under-represented Black talent is in opera.

4.      “Troubled Island” Broke Ground in 1949

“Troubled Island”, a grand opera by William Grant Still, first premiered in 1949. This was the first grand opera by a Black composer to be produced by a major opera company in America. NYC Opera produced and funded the production, which was based on the Haitian Revolution.

Langston Hughes was the initial Librettist for the opera and started the poem used within. Verna Arvey eventually finished the piece when Hughes moved on to other projects. Today, the work is still performed and celebrated for its firm roots in Blackness.

5.      “Treemonisha” was Finally Performed in 1972

In 1911, composer Scott Joplin published “Treemonisha”, an opera about Black culture with a female lead. The opera featured musical styles associated with Black Americans at the time and portrayed a deep and storied look at the lives of its characters. However, “Treemonisha” would not be performed until 1972.

This opera is sometimes referred to as ragtime, but Joplin didn’t see it that way. It includes arias, ballet pieces, and other wide-reaching musical influences. Despite the different styles, the music in “Treemonisha” remains undeniably inspired by Black culture. This opera also stressed the importance of education for Black Americans – an idea so ahead of its time that it was only published. Still, “Treemonisha” remains a celebration of Black culture in America.

6.      “Margaret Garner” and the Black Experience

There are few operas about the Black experience, and most of them are on this list. Earlier, we mentioned “Margaret Garner” – this opera uses spirituals and community bonds to retell the story of escaped slave Margaret Garner. Since Toni Morrison already used inspiration from Garner’s life story in a novel called Beloved, it makes sense that she would be the librettist on this work. She translated the original composition by Richard Danielpour to the English-language rendition performed today.

This powerful narrative is loosely based on historical fact, but it is nonetheless a powerful story portraying a part of the Black American experience. It first debuted in 2005 and has been staged a few times since.


Opera suffers from chronic underrepresentation, both in accurate portrayals of Black characters and the casting of Black opera singers. However, new productions (and revivals of historical pieces) seek to remedy this. These examples of representation in past and present works are important and powerful.