Tuesday 21 January 2020

Classical: Paul Robeson - the man who shunned opera for activism

Rich bass: Paul Robeson
Rich bass: Paul Robeson

George Hamilton

Among the great voices of the 20th century, the wonderfully rich bass of Paul Robeson carved a niche of its own. He would maintain that he belonged a step up the register and that he was in fact a baritone. Many would beg to differ.

The Paul Robeson story began on this day, April 9, in 1898. He was born in Princeton, New Jersey, the youngest child of William Robeson, a Presbyterian pastor who'd been born into slavery, and his wife Louisa, who died when Paul was just six after her clothing caught fire in an accident in her kitchen.

Paul's singing talent was evident from early on, but he was also an impressive athlete. At university, he was a star of the American Football team, good enough to be an All-American, more or less equivalent to an All Star closer to home.

He rejected the opportunity to turn professional, going instead to study law at Columbia. But with precious few opportunities for a black attorney, he went into acting.

A watershed moment came in London in 1928, with his appearance in Show Boat. Jerome Kern's production was the first musical to tackle a serious subject, in this case racial prejudice. The role of Joe, the Mississippi bargeman, was specifically written for Robeson.

He was unavailable for the premiere on Broadway in 1927, but was in the cast in the West End a year later, the first time he'd perform what would become his signature song, Ol' Man River.

The progression to the operatic stage never happened. Despite having a voice that could have excelled in that arena, Robeson had no interest in pursuing a career there.

For him, a black American descended from slaves, it made no sense to be singing songs drawing on the emotional experience of white Europeans.

Their history, he said, had nothing in common with the history of his ancestors. So, for the most part, the classical repertoire was off limits for him.

Instead, he specialised in American spirituals, songs of the oppressed, which he sang to great acclaim to audiences worldwide.

His acting credentials were impeccable, too. He won rave reviews when he played the lead in Othello in London in 1930. He was the first black actor to take on the role in over a century. The audience at the Savoy Theatre rewarded him with 20 curtain calls.

Robeson was also politically active, speaking out against racism, and lending his support to labour activists and peace groups.

He campaigned for better conditions for coal miners in South Wales and appeared in a film about them. His outspoken opinions about Africa earned him a visit from British Intelligence.

Somewhat paradoxically, he found a model for how minorities should be treated in the Soviet Union. Unlike in the United States, there was provision for the banning of racial discrimination in Article 123 of the Soviet constitution.

He paid heavily for this as a black suspected of being a communist. The establishment turned against him. Work opportunities dried up. and his US passport was withdrawn.

After a decade of being denied access to his public, Robeson returned, but things were never quite as they'd been.

Years later, he was feted at a 75th birthday tribute concert in Carnegie Hall. Some 3,000 turned up in his honour. Robeson, the man who never sang opera, whose art was in his activism, had had his reputation restored. He died 40 years ago, in January 1976.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm each Saturday and Sunday morning from 10am.

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