Robert McFerrin and His Role in Diversifying Classical Music

Robert McFerrin. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division; Photo by Carl Van Vechten.


Robert McFerrin Sr. was the first Black man to sing at the Metropolitan Opera. He won the Met National Auditions in 1953, and his debut was in “Aida” in 1955, in the role of Amonasro. This was 3 weeks after Marian Anderson’s historic debut as the first Black person to sing a principal role at the Met. Robert’s voice was described as “beautiful…he sang with such joy and commitment. It reminds me of the profound pleasure of a beautifully trained singing voice,” quoting the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis general director Charles MacKay by the Associated Press. 

Robert was born in Marianna, Arkansas in 1921. His father, who was a Baptist minister, only allowed his children to sing gospel music. However, when Robert moved to St. Louis in 1936, his music teacher encouraged his music talents outside of gospel music.  

Robert auditioned for Summer High School’s choir, and this brought him into the world of classical vocal music. He attended the Chicago Musical College, and received his undergraduate degree in 1946. Listen to Robert’s talented voice here, where he is singing spirituals.

In the 1940s and 50s, he sang on Broadway and with the National Negro Opera Company as well as the New York City Opera Company. In 1959, Robert played the vocal role of Porgy (who was played onscreen by Sidney Poitier) in the film “Porgy and Bess,” 

Robert moved back to St. Louis in 1973 after touring internationally and teaching. He had a stroke in 1989, but he still continued to sing. Check out this inspiring video of Robert singing Verdi’s “Eri Tu” after his stroke. Robert’s son, Bobby McFerrin is an awardwinning vocalist and conductor, and the father/son due worked together in a performance with the St. Louis Symphony in 1993. 

Robert remained active in his music until his death on November 24, 2006. Though he is unfortunately a lesser-known musician, he played a pivotal role in helping the world of classical music open up and embrace African-American musicians. Robert’s legacy is stilled remembered today through his children and their work. “His work influenced everything I do musically,” said Bobby in an 2003 interview.