The First Lady of Grand Opera


The First Lady of Grand Opera

The First Lady of Grand Opera:
Madame McCleave

"Her voice was pure and high and held appealing expression that was exquisite at times, then full of the sunlight or spring, or again told this gripping tale with pathos and sympathy."
- The Washington Times

Madame Florence Cole Talbert McCleave - a pioneer for singers of color, a world-renowned opera icon, a Memphis music champion, and the inspiration for The McCleave Project at Opera Memphis. Just recently inducted into the Memphis Music Hall of Fame, Madame McCleave continues to receive accolades and recognition for her incomparable singing talents and community initiatives to open doors for musicians and singers of color, but who is the amazing woman bestowed with the title of "The First Lady of Grand Opera" by the National Negro Opera Guild? Learn more about Madame McCleave, The McCleave Project, and The McCleave Fellows below.

Madame McCleave

Florence Cole was born on June 17, 1890 in Detroit, Michigan to Sadie and Thomas Cole. Her mother, a mezzo soprano with the Fisk Jubilee Singers and civil rights activist, and her father, a basso and well known dramatic reader, ensured their daughter had a musical upbringing, and Florence began her musical training at the age of six as a pianist. At age eight, the family moved to Los Angeles, California, and by twelve, Florence was an accompanist at her mother's concerts. 

Florence was the first black student to attend the Los Angeles High School, and there she studied music history and modern languages. Although acclaimed in school for her skills at the piano, Florence decided to become a singer after watching a production of Aïda at the age of fifteen. She immediately joined her school's Glee Club (the first black soloist to do so), and began vocal training under globally renowned singer Gloria Mayne Windsor. By age sixteen, Florence was performing vocal concerts alongside singers such as Madam Emma Azalia Hackley and Eusebio Concialdi. When graduation time rolled around, Florence Cole became the first black student to partake in a high school commencement program in L.A. when she was selected as the soloist for the commencement.

Florence began her college education at the University of Southern California College of Music, but left during her senior year to tour with Hahn's Jubilee Singers across the United States and Canada. She married her first husband, Wendall P. Talbert, a pianist, and later separated from him at the end of 1915, keeping his last name for professional purposes. In 1916, Florence left the Jubilee Singers and moved to Chicago, IL where she attended the Chicago Musical College and became the first black student to appear in the school's programs. After only one year, she completed her music education (which typically takes four years), and at graduation was awarded the highest honor, the Diamond Medal, "for outstanding achievement in vocal studies and for the highest average in her graduating class."

Her soloist career took off, and Florence toured across the United States from 1918 to 1925 appearing in concerts in Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, and New York. Local newspapers and contemporary publications praised her talents and vocal abilities, quickly labeling her "An Idol of the Concert Stage," (Competitor). During this time she began her recording career, first with George Broome's Broome Special Phonograph, then with Black Swan Records, "the earliest major label to be owned and operated by African Amercians," and finally with Paramount Records. She displayed her vast range of vocal talent on these records to include spirituals, modern compositions, and classic operatic arias. In 1922, Florence, as an honorary member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, wrote the lyrics for their National Hymn. She would later join the Memphis Alumnae Chapter in 1935 and serve as one of the founding inspirations for the Arts and Letter Award given yearly by this Chapter to an individual who exemplifies excellence in fine and creative arts.

From 1925 to 1927, Florence left the States to study music in Italy and France, and continued her touring career across Europe. Although already renowned for her exquisite voice, Florence Cole Talbert's arguably biggest breakthrough came in March 1927 when she appeared in the titular role of Giuseppe Verdi's Aïda - the first African American woman in the history of the world to do so alongside an all-white professional company. She received critical acclaim in Paris, London, and Rome, an invitation to join the Facista Group of Lyric Artists, and a five-year contract to sing as Aida in the opera. She turned down the contract, saying she needed to return to the U.S. with her mother, but not before doing a few more concerts in Rome, Southern Italy, and Paris.

1927 saw the continuation of Florence's successful concert tours, but due to the pervading racism in the U.S. she found far fewer opportunities in opera compared to her time in Europe. She did not let this stop her, though, and she began taking on students to mentor. When she was on tour in Tennessee, she met her second husband, Benjamin F. McCleave, and in 1930 the two were married. It was after her marriage that Madame McCleave decided to stop touring and focus on teaching. She became the first black director of music at Bishop College in Marshall, Texas. Then she headed the voice department at the Tuskegee Institute and the Fisk University. She and her husband ultimately settled down in Memphis, Tennessee and Florence opened her own studio to give private lessons to students. 

Madame McCleave's direct impact on future generations of musicians began during her time in Memphis. At her studio, she taught dozens of voice artists who would go on to become renowned musicians, including Vera Little, Marian Anderson (the first black artist to perform at the Metropolitan Opera), and La Julia Rhea (the first black artist to be granted an audition at the Metropolitan Opera). Florence also worked closely with LeMoyne-Owen College and helped bring world-renowned artists like Leontyne Price to the school so young black musicians in Memphis could hear, meet, and learn from top artists. She co-founded the Memphis Music Association and the Christian Science Society Church in Memphis, and was an active member of the National Association of Negro Musicians singing at annual conferences and serving as the Chair of the Conference of Artists and the Voice Conference.

"Carla Thomas, the renowned Stax-era soul singer, was one of the many children who were mentored by McCleave. In an interview, she recalled how McCleave helped to foster her love of singing, saying, 'She'd put together a little chorus, a little ensemble, and I was going to take piano. So, I started on the piano and then I would hear all these melodious sounds coming from the other room and I said "I want to sing." I liked ballads, and with her help and training she finally allowed me to sing with the ensemble.'" (Memphis Music Hall of Fame)

In 1961, Madame Florence Cole Talbert McCleave passed away in her home in Memphis at the age of seventy. Her funeral services were held at the Chapel of the Palms on April 10, 1961.

The McCleave Project

Begun in the fall of 2017, over fifty years after Madame McCleave's death, The McCleave Project is an initiative started by Opera Memphis to engage with the issues of equity and diversity in opera, both on stage and in the audience. The first year featured a city-wide tour of Menotti's The Telephone, updated for the age of smartphones, featuring African American singers, and performed in a primarily African American area of the city to facilitate a community conversation about race in opera.

2018 saw the beginning of The McCleave Fellowships - the second part of the initiative - with the inaugural Fellowship recipient Dennis Whitehead Darling directing Movin' Up In The World (starring Darren Stokes). This 15-minute opera tells the story of an elevator operator at the old Sears Crosstown Building in Memphis who is training his replacement on the eve of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s assassination. Powerful and poignant, this opera was performed free of charge to over 1,000 Memphis audience members during Opera Memphis's iconic 30 Days of Opera.

Now in 2019, the program has evolved and grown again to include a component of outreach to the Latino community. Working with Latino Memphis and the second McCleave Fellow in Directing, Bethania Baray, Opera Memphis is developing Spanish language programming and facilitating community conversations aimed at engaging with this vibrant and growing population in Memphis. Bethania Baray will be directing Bear Hug/Abrazo de Oso, a bilingual elementary touring show that tells the story of four bears - all from different countries with different appearances and languages - who discover that they are all more alike than unalike.

Through these and continued future efforts, Opera Memphis seeks to move beyond inherited opera traditions in meaningful partnership with the community.

To learn more about The McCleave Project, CLICK HERE.

The McCleave Fellows

Launched in 2018, The McCleave Fellowships are the first of their kind, designed specifically to create early career opportunities for directors and conductors of color. The goal is to address pipeline issues in the field by advancing talented individuals who can have an impact beyond Opera Memphis. In keeping with the legacy of Madame McCleave, this fellowship is dedicated to providing professionals of color with the tools they will need to become successful, impactful artists.

2018 - Dennis Whitehead Darling | McCleave Fellow in Directing

"Theatre has the innate ability to convey feeling, provide enlightenment and inspire change. My goal as a director is to tell emotionally engaging and provocative stories that challenge the viewer to see the world from a different perspective. As an African American stage and music director, I am passionate about presenting transformative art that addresses issues of marginalization and challenges oppression, bigotry, and racism."

Dennis's passion for the arts began at an early age. From his television debut in Romper Room at age three to his teenage years of organizing magic shows and performing with his school's jazz band and church choir, Dennis knew he was destined to be in the arts. His theatre career has included both music direction and stage direction at prominent theatres like Austin Musical Theatre, Playhouse on the Square, Sam Bass Theatre, Harrell Theatre, and Hattiloo Theatre. In 2017, Dennis directed Blue Viola for Opera Memphis's Midtown Opera Festival which is when he and General Director Ned Canty connected. That following spring he was asked to direct Movin' Up In The World for Midtown Opera Festival 2018, and was offered the first McCleave Fellowship in Directing that following fall. During his time in the fellowship, Dennis had opportunities to work as a director on many major projects outside of Opera Memphis including a workshop of Marian's Song at Houston Grand Opera and an observership at the English National Opera. After his time with the McCleave Fellowship, Dennis continues to work as a stage director on projects across the globe including Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill (Spazio Teatro NO'HMA, Milan), Independence Eve (Opera Birmingham), The Gershwin's Porgy and Bess (Red Mountain Theatre), Marian's Song World Premiere (Houston Grand Opera), and The Secret River World Premiere (Opera Orlando).

2019 - Bethania Baray | McCleave Fellow in Directing

"I would like for all Latinos to know that opera is for them! We all want to be heard. Communities that have felt marginalized need programs like [The McCleave Project] to reach out so that we can open our eyes to the views of others and see a variety of visions of the world."

Bethania Baray is a Mexican-American opera stage director. For the past five years, Bethania has served as the Director of Opera at Arkansas State University directing shows such as GodspellThe Secret Marriage, and A Wake or a Wedding. An opera singer with Opera Memphis for several years, Bethania had her first opportunity to direct with the company in 2018 when she was named Assistant Director for L'italiana in Algeri with General Director Ned Canty. In the fall of 2019, Bethania joined the company as the second McCleave Fellow in Directing with a focus on Spanish language programming. During her time in the fellowship, Bethania will work closely with the Education and Outreach program to create bilingual programs for schools and the community, most recently creating Bear Hug/Abrazo de Oso - a bilingual opera for elementary school students. Additionally, Bethania will serve as an Assistant Director on Opera Memphis's productions of Suor AngelicaGianni Schicchi, and Così fan tutte, and direct a production of Bastien & Bastienne in 2020.

To learn more about the McCleave Fellowships, CLICK HERE.

"Florence Cole Talbert," November 2019.
Induction Ceremony Program. Memphis Music Hall of Fame. November 8, 2019.
Posted by Jillian Barron at 7:34 AM
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