Baritone Andrew Frierson Broke Opera’s Color Barrier

May 29, 2019
Erich Burnett
baritone Andrew Frierson
Photo credit: Courtesy Oberlin College Archives

The outspoken advocate of civil rights taught voice at Oberlin in the 1970s.

Andrew Frierson’s first experience with Oberlin came in 1973, when the acclaimed baritone and his wife, fellow performer Billie Lynn Daniel, stepped away from the New York City stage lights that for so many years had come to define them. He became an associate professor of singing in the conservatory and coordinator of the Oberlin Black Ensemble; she became a homemaker.

But just two years later, the stage beckoned again. The Friersons returned to New York, where decades earlier Andrew had launched a groundbreaking career in opera while still an undergraduate student.

By 2013, he retired from teaching private lessons in Manhattan and returned to Oberlin to live at the Kendal retirement community, where he presented a recital on his 92nd birthday in March 2016.

Frierson died at 94 on December 6, 2018, 16 years after losing his wife to cancer. He is remembered as a man of great integrity and professionalism, and a champion for education and civil rights.

Born the youngest of seven children in Columbia, Tennessee, Frierson relocated with his family to Louisville, Kentucky, just nine months after his birth. He began playing the piano by age 3 and took lessons for the first time at 8. After high school, he began his pursuit of a degree in music at Fisk University, but was drafted into the U.S. Army and found himself bound for the South Pacific during WWII.

Upon earning his honorable discharge, Frierson took up his mother’s advice to “leave the South as soon as you can,” traveling to New York City by bus to take a successful audition at the Juilliard School. As a student there, he befriended a pair of student sopranos: future opera superstar Leontyne Price and Daniel, whom Frierson would marry the same year she graduated in 1953.

While still at Juilliard, Frierson made his New York City debut at Carnegie Hall. In a review of that performance, The New York Times noted that the physically imposing young singer showed “promise of being a fine concert artist.”

“He already has the essential attributes—a beautiful voice, good technique, musicianship, sympathy and a fine presence,” the critic wrote.

After graduating in 1950, Frierson taught briefly at Southern University in Louisiana and went on to perform eight seasons with the New York City Opera, earning praise from conductor Leopold Stokowski for his work in Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, among numerous other accolades.

In a newly desegregated opera world that offered precious few opportunities for black male singers, Frierson came to be synonymous with the roles of Porgy in Porgy and Bess and Joe in Show Boat. He performed solo and with orchestras across the U.S., Canada, and Europe, and recorded for Columbia, RCA Victor, Sony, and Marks. He also sang for a time in Harry Belafonte’s folk ensemble.

Frierson was well aware of his trailblazing career path, and he embraced his role as a civil rights activist. He was asked to sing at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech. He also became the rare black performer to appear on The Ed Sullivan Show, on which he sang “Ol' Man River.”

Andrew and Billie Lynn Frierson
After meeting at Juilliard, Frierson and Daniel performed together for many  years. (Photo credit: Oberlin College Archives)

From 1969 to 1973, Frierson served as director of the Henry Street Music Settlement in Manhattan, where Billie Lynn was a teacher of voice and music theory. In 1970, they both completed master’s degrees at the Manhattan School of Music. Increasingly they started performing as a duo.

After relocating to Oberlin, the couple shared stages across the region, from Warner Concert Hall to nearby Cleveland and beyond.

Among the highlights of his tenure were performances of the song cycle Ice and Fire for baritone and soprano, which had been written for Frierson and Daniel by Oberlin colleague Wendell Logan. A newcomer to the faculty like Frierson in the fall of 1973, Logan was an associate professor of African American music who became the architect of the conservatory’s jazz program. In March 1975, they debuted Ice and Fire to critical acclaim at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall.

Two weeks prior to their New York performance, the Lorain Morning Journal published an article titled “Oberlin’s Friersons: The Concert Stage Lures Them.” It opened with the question “Can Campus Life Replace the Opera World?”

The spring semester of 1975 proved to be their last in Oberlin. After just two years, Frierson and Daniel returned to New York to teach private lessons and resume regular performances together, sometimes billed as the Frierson Ensemble, which Andrew had formed to showcase African and African American music.

Among Frierson’s students at the time were future opera star Ben Holt and actor Denzel Washington. In the early 1980s, he joined forces with colleague James Kennon-Wilson to form Independent Black Opera Singers, an organization intended to foster the careers of black men in music and to advocate for increased casting of blacks in major roles.

“There has not been a ‘real’ black male opera superstar because of racist and sexist attitudes in America,” he told Wallace McClain Cheatham in the 1997 book Dialogues on Opera and the African-American Experience. “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.”

In 2000, the National Opera Association presented Frierson the Lift Every Voice Legacy Award in recognition of his efforts to promote diversity.

He is survived by his daughter, actress, singer, and writer Andrea Frierson, as well as a grandson.

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