In 1900, decades before the desegregation of mainstream opera houses seemed even remotely possible, the African American baritone and impresario Theodore Drury founded an opera company that presented operas from the standard repertory performed by largely African American casts. Working within the context of pervasive Jim Crow segregation, Drury became an unparalleled advocate for the performance of grand opera by and for African Americans, creating opportunities for black singers at the turn of the 20th century when mainstream venues and audiences remained hostile to their participation.
Only minimal precedent existed for Drury’s endeavor. In 1873, a Colored American Opera Company had been established in Washington, D.C, under the direction of a white musician named John Esputa. But that group had disbanded after only three years, and its repertory had been limited to the lighter, less sophisticated genre of comic opera. Somewhat more successful were the handful of black female singers, including Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield ....