PORTLAND, Ore. -- Singer Marian Anderson, the first black performer to appear at New York's Metropolitan Opera, died Thursday at 91 after a spectacular career as the greatest contralto of her age that opened doors for black artists and spurred the civil rights movement.
Anderson was forbidden to perform in Washington's Constitution hall in 1939 because of her color and sang instead from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, an act that dramatized the plight of black performers who suffered discrimination throughout the South and other parts of the country.
Anderson died at the home of her nephew, James DePreist, music director of the Oregon Symphony, deputy Medical Examiner Paul Horan said. She suffered a stroke a month ago.
'She will be remembered for her artistry, the unique quality of her voice. She will be remembered for her grace and compassion. And of course, many people will remember her for her place in the social fabric of this country,' DePreist said.
In 1955, Anderson became the first black performer to sing at New York's Metropolitan Opera, hired by the company's Austrian-born director, Sir Rudolf Bing. Unfortunately, her debut came too late in life for her to have much of a career on the opera stage.
Joseph Volpe, general director of the Met, said Thursday Anderson's performances 'though few in number, were among the most important events of the century for this company and this country.'
She also was honored by a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences during the 1991 Grammy ceremonies. The academy praised her as 'not only one of classical music's most admired and revered opera, concert and spiritual singers, but also an inspiration for other performers of various creeds, cultures and colors.'
Anderson was born Feb. 17, 1902, in Philadelphia and began singing in South Philadelphia's Union Baptist Church choir at the age of 6.
With her three-octave voice and her humility, Anderson became not only one of the United States' most celebrated singers but a goodwill ambassador.
A tall, elegant woman, she was so well received during a 35,500-mile, 12-nation Asian tour in 1957 she was named a member of the U.S. delegation to the United Nations the following year.
'Understanding is the basis of all peace,' she declared at the time.
She was singing in South Philadelphia High School as a student when an actor, John Thomas Butler, arranged for her first lessons with a voice teacher, Mary S. Patterson, who provided them free.
Under the tutelage of Giuseppe Boghetti, she trained for a contest among unknown singers to appear as a soloist with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra at Lewisohn Stadium in New York in 1925. She won and sang the aria 'O Mio Fernando' from the Donizetti opera 'La Favorita.' The Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra promptly signed her for an engagement in her hometown under the direction of Eugene Ormandy.
Anderson went to Europe to train in languages on a scholarship from the National Association of Negro Musicians and returned in 1929 for a recital at Carnegie Hall.
Her star began its true ascendancy in 1933 when a German concert manager arranged a debut in Berlin for $500. The recital was a success -- the first of many in Europe. Finland's greatest composer, Jean Sibelius, was sufficiently impressed to dedicate the song, 'Solitude,' to her.
It was during this tour that Arturo Toscanini heard her and said, 'A voice like yours is heard only once in a hundred years.'
Anderson made her New York Town Hall debut in 1935, and critics were lavish in their praise. She toured Europe, Africa and South America in 1936 and President Franklin D. Roosevelt invited her to sing at the White House.
She enchanted audiences in 75 concerts in 60 cities through the South in 1938 and told reporters she could see signs the racial bars were being lowered slowly in some places.
Anderson did not personally take part in the civil rights movement, preferring, as she once said, to help 'by providing an example.'
In cities where there was segregation, she asked theater managers to provide 'vertical' seating for blacks. Than meant they were seated separately but were alloted seats in every part of the theater.
In 1939, a scheduled appearance at Washington's Constitution Hall was canceled when Anderson was refused its use by the Daughters of the American Revolution, which claimed District of Columbia laws barred mixed audiences.
In the resulting furor, Eleanor Roosevelt resigned from the DAR, and Anderson sang instead before an audience of 75,000 at the Lincoln Memorial, the largest public tribute since Charles Lindbergh returned from France.
The same year she was awarded the Spingarn Medal, given annually to the American black who 'shall have made the highest achievement...in any honorable field of endeavor.' Honorary degrees from a number of institutions followed.
Anderson married Orpheus H. Fisher, an architect from Wilmington, Del., in 1943 and the couple made their home on Anderson's 105-acre Marianna Farm in Danbury, Conn.
In 1963, Anderson received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President John F. Kennedy. She served as a member of the National Council on the Arts from 1966 to 1972.
Anderson published an autobiography, 'My Lord, What a Morning,' in 1966.
On July 14, 1986, Anderson was honored as a recipient of the National Medal of Arts. Poor health kept her from attending the ceremony at which President Reagan praised her and 11 other award winners for 'crowning our nation's greatness with grace.'