A Q&A with the director of a new Marian Anderson documentary

American Masters — Marian Anderson: The whole world in her hands tunes on Tuesday, February 8 WTTW at 9:00 p.m. and will be available for streaming.

Marian Anderson is best remembered for her unforgettable 1939 concert at the Lincoln Memorial, held there after the Daughters of the American Revolution denied her use of their concert hall because she was black. But the life and artistry of the classical singer encompassed so much more. Arturo Toscanini called her the voice of the century. She was the first black soloist to perform at the Metropolitan Opera. She found fame in Europe, garnering praise from composer Jean Sibelius. She has sung for nobility, presidents, and the March on Washington, and served as a United Nations delegate and cultural ambassador for the State Department.

We spoke to Rita Coburn, the director of a new American masters on Anderson, about the documentary. Coburn is a Chicago-area native who lives in the southern suburbs. She previously led a American masters profile of Maya Angelou – you can review our interview with her about this documentary.

You can also hear Anderson herself in a in two parts interview led by Studs Terkel of our sister station WFMT. She spoke to Terkel alongside her nephew, conductor James DePreist, in 1966, as well as by herself in 1960. Additionally, impresario Sol Hurok, who helped put Anderson’s career in the limelight, spoken with Terkel in 1971.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

What attracted you to Marian Anderson?

Rita Coburn: Marian Anderson came to see me. Regardless of what others may think, this is only the truth. When I’m done doing the Maya Angelou [documentary]I said, “Oh my God, what am I going to do now?”

I don’t believe people come back from the dead. But what I believe is what’s on your heart is in your dreams, is in your mind, it’s in your relationship with God, if that’s what you have, and I do. So I went to bed one night just in a tithe, and I heard and saw Maya Angelou. She said to me, “Your next documentary is Marian Anderson.” And I’m like, “Marian Anderson?” I wasn’t thinking of Marian Anderson. So I woke up and ordered a book [on her].

Time passed. And then I got a call from Michael Kantor at American masters and he said, “Hey, Rita, I have a documentary I want you to do: Marian Anderson.” And I said, “I’ll do it.” So this documentary chased me away.

My daughter studied classical music and opera. I was no stranger to classical music. But my forte is black history, and it’s also black women and culture. And of course that leads to civil rights because that’s where we are as a people, as a country, as women and that’s the crucial question for American society of when will there- Does it parity.

Much of the narration in this documentary is in Marian Anderson’s own voice. Why did you want to tell the story this way?

Coburn: I went to the University of Pennsylvania, which owns its collection, and started browsing through its collection. I looked at the letters and spoke to the people who manage the collection. I found out they had recordings of his voice and they were going to have them in the collection soon. Automatically, my mind, my antenna said, Listen.

I didn’t know I was going to have to listen to 34 reel-to-reel tapes. I had the tapes transcribed and highlighted what she said about her life and built the story around that. What did she have to say? What came out was how she felt about certain things; deep belly laughter; what her father meant to her. You tell a story the way history screams at you, and what I hadn’t heard in all my research was his voice. No singing voice, she Speaking voice.

What interested you most in the life of Marian Anderson?

Coburn: Everyone wants to start with you [her concert at the Lincoln Memorial in] 1939. But that’s not where it started. She was born in 1897. How did she get from there to 1939? When I walk into this, I see a black family, a black community, a struggle. It is important that we understand that this woman was able to come out of all of this and rise up to this. And then I want to know, once she got there in 1939, what happened next, and how did she get on the Met stage, and why didn’t she get on it sooner? And then I want to know what happened to him afterwards.

Why did you want to show the lineage of black classical singers who followed Marian Anderson by including so many of their voices in the documentary?

Coburn: Historians are important. But you also need people who these days connect the dots in their craft. So Angela Brown, J’Nai Bridges, George Shirley, Martina Arroyo and Denyce Graves were asked to come on board because they live the life of a classical singer. And they culturally know things that we wouldn’t know unless they told us. I thought it was important that they speak out on this.

What do you admire most about Marian Anderson?

Coburn: I think Marian Anderson was a God-fearing woman who came to understand herself and her culture. I won’t say she transcended racism; I think she found a way in her own voice – not just the classical voice – to make herself heard. I don’t think she was the wise person people make her out to be. I think she was crafty. I think she was very in charge of her career from the very beginning. She made her political statements about being a woman, being a black woman, and being in this society much more than a voice that maybe pushed her out of situations. I have a lot of respect for her.

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