Marian Anderson was arguably the greatest contralto of the last century. Can anyone who's seen that grainy newsreel of her performance on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial forget her glorious bell-like voice as she defiantly sang "My Country 'Tis of Thee?" Also unforgettable was the would-be humiliation of her being barred from Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C. an insult Anderson transformed into an act of triumph that flattened and routed her enemies forever. (The Daughters of the American Revolution, who ran the hall and denied Anderson admission, never quite got over their comeuppance, especially when Eleanor Roosevelt gave up her membership in protest over their bigotry.)
Pam Muñoz Ryan's beautiful children's book, When Marian Sang, with its exquisite illustrations by Caldecott medalist Brian Selznick, gently tells the Lincoln Memorial story as well as other incidents from Marian's life, beginning with her Philadelphia childhood. The illustrations in the book are breathtaking. The great singer is caught in a cone of light that interrupts a sky full of stars. She sings with her eyes shut, wearing a black gown with a black velvet rose at her shoulder. A few pages into the story, we find the interior of a nearly empty opera house done in lavish detail. All of Selznick's illustrations are in shades of brown, cream and gold, almost like sepia-toned photographs. One picture is an amazing portrait of Marian as a child, standing on a chair among a choir of grownups and singing, as usual, with her eyes blissfully shut. What the reader notices is that the robes of the choir are parted to reveal a bit of the same starry sky that's on the cover, as if the singers are being transformed into pure spirit. You can almost hear the low, serene note that they're singing.
This wonderful tribute to the diva's groundbreaking career ends with her triumphant debut, at age 56, as Ulrica in Un Ballo in Maschera at the Metropolitan Opera. Anderson, of course, went on to greatness, and her heirs include such singers as Kathleen Battle, Jessye Norman and Audra MacDonald. When Marian Sang is an inspiring, gorgeous look at her remarkable life.
Arlene McKanic writes from Jamaica, New York.