Sissieretta Jones: "The Greatest Singer of Her Race," 1868–1933
By Maureen D. Lee
University of South Carolina Press; 304 pp. $39.95
Had she lived in a later era, the African–American soprano Sissieretta Jones, dubbed to her everlasting chagrin "The Black Patti," might well have had a major opera career — and certainly a less demeaning sobriquet. But she was born in 1868, when America's all-pervasive racism barred the way for black performers. While she had remarkable early triumphs performing before large crowds and crowned heads (including U.S. President Benjamin Harrison), she spent the last twenty years of her career headlining an unsavory musical revue and the last seventeen years of her life in poverty. She died, in 1933, penniless and never having sung a complete role on an opera stage.
In this new biography, Maureen D. Lee does yeoman's work to excavate what facts there are about Jones's life and career. Born Matilda Sissieretta Joyner in Portsmouth, Virginia, but raised primarily in Providence, Rhode Island, Jones showed vocal promise from an early age. Aside from some study at the Providence Academy of Music, however, she did not receive formal training. Yet within a few years of beginning her professional career, she had made important appearances alongside the prominent African–American divas Marie Selika and Flora Batson and embarked on several tours of South America.
Soon she became a star attraction at, according to Lee, "festivals and other venues where she would be seen by large, predominantly white audiences and her appearances reported on by the white press." Her repertory stayed relatively fixed throughout her career — a mix of coloratura showpieces, popular songs and spirituals. Journeys to Europe followed, but the curiosity value of African–American opera singers eventually peaked. Despite her earlier réclame, no opera companies would sign a black artist, and she found herself washed up before she had turned thirty.
In 1896, a manager recruited Jones to be the star of what would be called the Black Patti Troubadours, a traveling show that yoked together minstrelsy, musical comedy and opera. For two decades, for seven performances a week and for more than forty weeks a year, the Troubadours barnstormed the country before disbanding in 1916. Unable to compete with the rise of vaudeville and motion pictures, Jones effectively retired.
What of her voice? It is nearly impossible to assess its quality or technical ability. While it was often described as "powerful," reviews of her performances are so tinged by racial prejudice that even the most favorable of them are deeply unreliable. Sadly, she made no recordings.
Still, her story is a moving one. She was acutely aware of what racism had denied her, and she took comfort in small victories (such as when a Southern theater would forgo separate accommodation for a Troubadours show). Lee's work is an important reference, with its wealth of facts and extensive coverage of how Jones's career was chronicled in the black press, but it is hardly a rousing read. Nonetheless, in documenting the struggles and triumphs of a true pioneer, Lee has recaptured the humanity of an important artist.
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