African American culture is rich with R&B, jazz music, gospel singing, and more–opera falls right in line with the legacy of black men using their voices to make beautiful sounds.
Black male opera singers represent a small but important slice of the world’s most well-known genre. It’s time to introduce you to some of the best black male opera singers around.
The first African-American male to perform at the Met Opera in New York City. He was also the first black male opera singer to sing at both the Met Opera and the New York City Opera.
He was already known for his vocal abilities when he won the Metropolitan Opera’s “Auditions of the Air” in 1953, becoming the first African-American to do so.
In his debut performance at the Met, he played Amonasro, the Ethiopian king, in Aida. During his three years singing at the Metropolitan Opera he sang as Amonasro, Valentin in Faust, and the title role in Rigoletto (see video).
Today McFerrin is considered one of America’s finest operatic singers for his role as a black pioneer in the world of opera.
The first black tenor to sign a contract with an American opera company. He was also the first African-American tenor to star with a leading role at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City.
His first debut was in 1959 with a small opera group in Woodstock. He played Eisenstein in Die Fledermaus. His European debut was as Rodolfo in La bohème.
He has performed in multiple worldwide Opera houses and with many orchestras in the US and Europe, having sung more than 80 roles during his opera career.
George Shirley is also the recipient of numerous awards, including one Grammy Award in 1968 for his portrayal of Ferrando in Così fan Tutte (see video).
Legendary bass-baritone is known for his portrayals of Porgy in Porgy and Bess and Joe in the 1951 movie musical Show Boat.
Having served in the Army in the military intelligence unit during World War II, he began his career when black singers were not allowed to perform at many venues.
His first professional engagement was in Marc Blitzstein’s Broadway opera, Regina, which premiered in 1950. His ascension to stardom came when he made his recital debut at the Town Hall in New York in March 1950.
He later created a highly successful album of selections from “Porgy and Bess” in 1963 with his wife, Leontyne Price (see video).
Warfield became known as one of the world’s most distinguished black classical opera singers. In 2015, he was inducted into the Rochester Music Hall of Fame.
Robert Todd Duncan (Todd Duncan)
He was an African-American baritone opera singer and actor, who in 1945 became one of the first black men to perform with major opera companies.
When he sang Tonio in Pagliacci with New York City Opera, he became the first black artist to play a major part in an opera with a mostly white cast.
He is best known for originating the role of Porgy in George Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess in 1935 (see video).
Duncan was a successful concert singer with over 2,000 performances and two film parts.
Julius Lorenzo Cobb Bledsoe (Jules Bledsoe)
He was an African-American baritone who became one of the first black artists to work regularly on Broadway.
He gained fame for his work in the black musical theater, including appearances in Show Boat (see video) and Porgy and Bess.
Bledsoe performed in a variety of major operas and was highly sought after for his ability to sing in many languages as well as his wide vocal range.
One of the most highly acclaimed black male opera singers in the world, baritone Simon Estes has a voice that is both rich and powerful.
He has sung leading roles with some of the world’s greatest opera companies, including the Metropolitan Opera, San Francisco Opera, Vienna State Opera, La Scala, Covent Garden, and many others throughout the world.
In 1978, Estes made history as the first black male to sing a main role at the prestigious Bayreuth Festival, performing in Der fliegende Holländer.
Some of his most famous roles include Ramfis, Don Pedro, Raimondo, the Dutchman, Marke, Amonasro (see video), and Escamillo.
He has been praised for his “outstanding vocal beauty” as an operatic tenor.
He has regularly performed on the stages with some of the world’s most prestigious opera companies, including the Royal Opera House in London and La Scala in Milan.
He has collaborated with nearly every important orchestra in the world, including the Houston Symphony and San Francisco Symphony.
Brownlee has performed at some of the world’s most famous international opera houses, including the Vienna State Opera, as well as the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, and the Royal Opera House in London.
Brownlee made his professional stage debut in 2002 as Almaviva in The Barber of Seville with Virginia Opera.
Brownlee made his Metropolitan Opera debut in 2007 in Il Barbiere di Siviglia (see video). Since then, the part has become one of his most famous characters.
He is the first black male opera singer that signed with a major classical record label.
Robinson is a bass opera singer from the United States who has sung with the Metropolitan Opera. They’ve also sung in many other opera houses throughout North America and abroad.
He made his operatic debut with the Boston Lyric Opera in 1999 as the King of Egypt in Aida.
He has had numerous roles with some of the most popular appearances in The Marriage of Figaro, Madama Butterfly, Don Giovanni (see video), Il Trovatore, and Salome.
Additionally, he’s performed with the National Symphony Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, and other symphony orchestras around the world.
A bass-baritone opera singer, Lawrence Winters was one of the few black male opera singers to have performed at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City.
He has also sung at the San Francisco Opera and Vienna State Opera.
Winters made his professional opera debut with the New York City Opera as Amonasro in Aida.
Among his most notable performances were as Dessalines in Troubled Island, Escamillo in Carmen, Tchelio in The Love for Three Oranges, Alfio in Cavalleria Rusticana, the title role in Rigoletto, King Balthazar in Amahl and the Night Visitors, Joe in Show Boat, and Diomede in the New York premiere of Troilus and Cressida among many other roles (see video).
Winters has performed in operas and musicals all over the world, including Berlin, Central America, and US Virgin Islands.
He was a bass-baritone opera singer who made his debut at Tanglewood in 1953.
He was a two-time recipient of the Marian Anderson Award.
Boatwright sang at the White House for several Presidents, including Jimmy Carter’s 1977 inauguration.
In Boston, he sang with the New England Opera Theater, where he was discovered and later invited to join the New York Philharmonic.
Some of his most famous roles include the title role in Ouanga, the lead role in The Visitation, and the premiere performance of The Gates of Justice (see video).
Ronald E. Richardson (Ron Richardson)
He was heavily influenced by the music at his family’s church, where he began performing at age four. He studied singing seriously in high school and performed in choirs and dinner theater musicals.
After high school, he attended the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, where he studied music composition. Richardson concentrated on voice training and performed roles in classic musicals Show Boat, Camelot, and Man of La Mancha.
Richardson’s most notable performances include Sportin’ Life in the Houston Grand Opera’s production of Porgy and Bess.
In 1978, he made his Broadway debut as the Chief of Police in Timbuktu!
But it was not until he played Jim in the Broadway musical Big River in 1985 that Ron Richardson became well known (see video).
Russell Thomas is an American operatic tenor who has achieved success both in the United States and Europe. He is a young artist with a singing voice talent not discovered until he was 18.
He regularly performs with some of the world’s most prestigious opera companies, including Covent Garden, the Metropolitan Opera, Royal Opera House, and Lyric Opera of Chicago (see video).
He is currently the Artist in Residence for the Los Angeles Opera until 2024.
John Holiday is an American operatic countertenor.
He has achieved success in the United States, Europe, and Shanghai performing with some of the world’s most prestigious opera companies since 2013.
In October 2012, Holiday made his Carnegie Hall debut, performing Chichester Psalms with the Atlanta Symphony.
He originally debuted at Portland Opera in the 2012 production of Galileo Galilei, when he performed as 1st Oracle and 1st Cardinal.
He was named the Marian Anderson Voice winner in January 2017 (see video).
Best Black Male Opera Singers, Final Thoughts
Black male opera singers are a rarity, but some of the best opera singers in the world. These 13 men have all sung leading roles with some of the world’s greatest opera companies.
They are trailblazers and pioneers who have helped to break down barriers and open doors for black male opera singers everywhere.