DANBURY, Conn. -- With grave dignity, the voice of Marian Anderson fills the studio where she once practiced, a modest building recently opened to the public that many regard as a shrine.
Opera diva Jessye Norman recalled the first time she heard a Marian Anderson recording. "It was a revelation," she said. "I wept." Norman is one of many well-known African-American opera and concert singers, including Leontyne Price and Kathleen Battle, who have credited Anderson as their inspiration.
Anderson (1897-1993) was one of the greatest contraltos of the 20th century, and broke the color barrier at the Metropolitan Opera. When the Daughters of the American Revolution denied her a concert at Constitution Hall in Washington in 1939 because of her color, she sang on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Her courageous Easter Sunday performance drew 75,000 people.
Now Anderson's inspiring story will be told to future generations. The studio from her farm property in Danbury has been moved to the downtown complex of the Danbury Museum and Historical Society, where the restored building opened to the public Sept. 4.
While recordings of Anderson performances play softly in the background, visitors to the Marian Anderson Studio hear from a docent or from the museum curator, Brigid Guertin, about the extraordinary accomplishments of a girl whose widowed mother worked as a cleaning woman and who was denied even an audition at a music school because of her color.
Yet Anderson's gift was too great to be ignored. When she was a teenager, the Philadelphia Choral Society held a benefit concert, providing $500 for private lessons. She toured black colleges and churches, the only places she was allowed to perform, and entered and won competitions.
In 1930, she became the first black performer to sing at Carnegie Hall. More scholarships let her study in Europe, where she toured extensively. When conductor Arturo Toscanini heard her sing in Salzburg, Austria, in 1935, he said, "Yours is a voice such as one hears once in a hundred years."
Nevertheless, she had to wait another 20 years before the Metropolitan Opera offered her a role. At 58, she was the first African-American to appear there.
At last, rewards and recognition came unstintingly. She sang at the inaugurals of Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy and was awarded the American Medal of Freedom and the National Medal of Arts. In 1980, the Treasury Department coined a half-ounce gold commemorative medal with her likeness.
The airy, domed studio was designed by Anderson's architect husband, Orpheus Fisher, when the couple purchased a farm in 1943 as a country house. Known as Marianna Farm, it became Anderson's full-time home when she retired from the stage in 1965.
After her death, when citizens protested plans to subdivide the property and raze the studio, the developers donated the building to the Danbury Museum and Historical Society in 1999. The community rallied with money for moving and restoration.
The Historical Society complex also includes the 1785 John and Mary Rider House, the John Dodd Hat Shop, and a one-room schoolhouse. The society also maintains the birthplace of composer Charles Ives (1874-1954).
Eleanor Berman is a freelance writer in New York.