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Andrew Frierson, pioneering black opera singer, dies at 94
[NEW YORK] Andrew Frierson, whose bass-baritone reverberated from the stages of theaters and music halls around the world as part of the first generation of black opera singers to make their voices heard, died Dec 6 in Oberlin, Ohio. He was 94.
His daughter, Andrea Frierson, confirmed the death.
Frierson (pronounced FRY-er-son) made his New York debut at Carnegie Recital Hall in 1948 while still a student and went on to perform for six seasons with the New York City Opera. He also sang at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the occasion of the Rev Dr Martin Luther King Jr's "I Have a Dream" speech.
Frierson taught at Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in the early 1950s; directed the Henry Street Settlement Music School in Manhattan in the '60s; and was a professor of voice at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio in the '70s.
In the early 1980s, Frierson and a colleague, James Kennon-Wilson, founded Independent Black Opera Singers, to encourage the careers of black male performers through education and competitions and by calling attention to the scarcity of blacks cast in major roles.
"There has not been a 'real' black male opera superstar because of racist and sexist attitudes in America," he was quoted as saying in "Dialogues on Opera and the African-American Experience" (1997), by Wallace McClain Cheatham.
"Audiences, particularly white audiences, may tolerate a black woman being wooed and pursued by a white male, but to have a black male wooing and pursing a white female is totally unacceptable by the powers that be."
Andrew Bennie Frierson was born on March 29, 1924, in Columbia, Tennessee, the youngest of seven children of Robert Clinton Frierson, a railroad worker, and Lue Vergia (Esters) Frierson, a homemaker. The family moved to Louisville, Kentucky, nine months later.
His daughter said he started playing the piano on his own when he was 3 and took his first lessons when he was 8. He enrolled in Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, as a music major, but before he graduated he was drafted into the Army. He served in the South Pacific during World War II.
When he returned home after the war, Frierson studied with a voice teacher, who encouraged him to apply to the Juilliard School in New York. He was accepted, and befriended two women at the school: future opera star Leontyne Price and a soprano who would become known professionally as Billie Lynn Daniel. He and Daniel married in 1953. She died in 2002.
After graduating from Juilliard with a degree in vocal performance, Frierson earned a master's from the Manhattan School of Music.
Reviewing Frierson's 1949 debut, Ross Parmenter of The New York Times wrote that Frierson, who was still at Juilliard at the time, "gives promise of being a fine concert artist," adding, "He already has the essential attributes — a beautiful voice, good technique, musicianship, sympathy and a fine presence."
Frierson made his professional debut with the New York City Opera in 1958 as Cal in Marc Blitzstein's "Regina". Among his other parts with that company and others were Porgy in "Porgy and Bess", Henry Davis in "Street Scene", the King of Egypt in "Aida" and Caronte in Monteverdi's "Orfeo" under the baton of Leopold Stokowski. He also performed with Harry Belafonte as a member of the Belafonte Folk Singers.
In 1975, he and his wife performed a joint recital at Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center.
In 2000, Frierson received a "Lift Every Voice" Legacy Award from the National Opera Association, which promotes racial and ethnic diversity in the profession.
In addition to his daughter, an actress, singer and writer, Frierson is survived by a grandson, Adam Frierson Goins, a conductor, singer and producer. He had lived in Oberlin since moving from Manhattan in 2013, when he retired from giving voice lessons privately.