History Hunt: Ruby Elzy

While I was getting my Bachelor of Music Education degree, I studied a lot of opera–European opera, that is. The operas of other countries, such as China and the United States, were unfortunately not part of the program. If they had been, one of the singers I hope I would have learned about would have been Ruby Elzy.

Ruby Elzy was born in 1908 to an extremely poor family in Mississippi. While she was growing up, there were strong restrictions on what African-American people could do because of the racism of the time, but Elzy’s incredible voice allowed her many opportunities. She studied at one of the most famous music schools in the world, the Julliard School, and she even sang at the White House at the invitation of Eleanor Roosevelt, who was the First Lady and married to President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Probably her most famous role was as Serena, in white composer George Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess. Although she played the part over eight hundred times, very few recordings still exist. Below is a rehearsal recording where she’s introduced by Gershwin before singing her part.

In spite of Elzy’s genius, there were only so many roles open to her. Even though her career was given a tremendous boost by her role in Porgy and Bess, it’s important to remember that the opera itself has been protested for its racist portrayals of African-Americans since its debut.

Recently, a collection of Elzy’s work has been released, Ruby Elzy in Song. Anyone wanting to hear more of her beautiful singing can buy it here.

To Learn More (sources):
The Sweet Sound of Ruby Elzy at NPR.org
Ruby Elzy at Classic Ladies of Color on Tumblr (Note for parents/guardians: Tumblr asks its members to be 13+. This entry is safe for all ages.)
Ruby Elzy at Wikipedia.org

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