Hyers Sisters, African American opera singers in the Nineteenth Century.
Singer-filmmaker Susheel Bibbs has revealed new research about the Hyers Sisters, African American opera singers in the Nineteenth Century.Her work will lead to a new PBS film documentary and live concert entitled “Voices for Freedom.”
While nearly forgotten after their deaths, sisters Anna and Emma Hyers were opera prodigies who toured the US from the 1870s to the 1890s, presenting musicals centered on the African-American story from slavery to freedom.
The sisters, who lived in Sacramento and were educated in San Francisco, became the first African-American women to succeed nationwide as mainstream, touring concert artists.
Bibbs’ new film research shows that the Hyers were influenced by California activists like Mary Ellen Pleasant and that, during an era of intensified ridicule and abuses against African Americans, they left promising opera careers to use their mainstream popularity to confront these trends through new, risky civil-rights musicals.
Bibbs is an award-winning filmmaker, author, historian, performer, and Emmy Award-winning Public Television producer. She holds a doctorate in communications, as well as degrees in vocal performance and opera. She recently retired from a long-term faculty position at UC Berkeley
According to noted music-historians, such as theater author Erroll Hill and Black-music historian Eileen Southern, the Hyers sisters created the first African-American musical to counteract the negative imaging of their people. They gave the first leading roles in mainstream musicals to African-American artists and were the first to integrate casting in American music theater.
“Still, they are all but forgotten,” said Dr. Bibbs.
To bring a new look at the sisters to Bay Area audiences in concert and to national PBS audiences on film, Bibbs plans a live concert in period dress with outstanding singers and PBS host Akiba Howard as narrator.
Like Bibbs’ previous PBS film, the Hyers film will combine performance excerpts with expert commentary, narration, and other colorful elements.
“The Hyers’ lives and times reveal parallels with current struggles today. So, we can’t afford to lose the lessons and inspiration of their story. We have a lot to raise (of money),” said Dr. Bibbs.
A donation website has been launched for these projects, through Oct. 12 at http://igg.me/p/173654