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Color bar muted coloratura; Music: In the 1890s, Madame Jones, called 'the most gifted singer' of her era, had to pursue black musical theater instead of opera.


Matilda Sissieretta Joyner Jones, the African-American dramatic soprano who had performed in Baltimore, was such a commanding presence on the stage that she was often compared to Adelina Patti, one of the greatest coloratura Italian opera singers of the 19th century.

Jones, who sang for presidents and kings and was denied a role at the Metropolitan Opera in New York because she was black, was known throughout her career as "the Black Patti," a name she somewhat despised.

Born in Portsmouth, Va., in 1869, the daughter of a former slave and Baptist minister, Jones moved in 1876 with her family to Providence, R.I.

She began singing as a child at the Pond Street Baptist Church there and studied at the Providence Academy of Music and the New England Conservatory of Music.

She first toured as Matilda S. Joyner and later as Madame M. Sissieretta Jones and made her professional debut at the Bergen Star Concert in New York City in 1886.

Afterward, she toured for several years as a soloist with concert companies and other groups. She thrilled audiences at Madison Square Garden, Carnegie Hall and the Wintergarden Theater in Berlin.

"Carnegie Music Hall presented an animated appearance Monday night, when the brilliant audience hung with breathless stillness upon the clarion notes of the most gifted singer the age has produced. It was the first time any company of colored artists has ever occupied the hall," wrote a critic.

"That 'the first Negro prima donna' had a natural soprano voice of great richness, with considerable range and power, is apparent from critical comment throughout her career," wrote William Lichtenwanger in a profile in "Notable American Women."

"Jones was one of the most publicized and most talented black performers of the nineteenth-century concert stage; she was also one of many black classically trained performers whose careers included appearances with popular music shows," writes Thomas L. Riis in "Just Before Jazz, Black Musical Theater in New York 1890-1915," published in 1989.

In 1892, she sang in the White House Blue Room for President and Mrs. Benjamin Harrison and would later return to perform for William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt.

She traveled abroad to Europe. In England, she confronted less racism and sang for the Prince of Wales and the German Kaiser.

"It matters not to them what is the color of an artist's skin," Jones wrote. "If a man or a woman is a great actor, or a great musician, or a great singer, they will extend a warm welcome. It is the soul they see, not the color of the skin."

In 1896, she founded the Black Patti Troubadours, a company of singers and musicians that toured the United States and abroad.

The show started as a minstrel show and ended with an "operatic kaleidoscope" finale that featured Jones singing operatic arias from "Lucia," "Martha," "Il Trovatore" or "El Capitan," for example.

"The Black Patti Troubadours shows exploited the common devices of black musical theater of their day -- African themes, vaudeville specialties, and ragtime songs -- and were blessed with a dazzling star and several talented comedians. The most successful touring company of the mid-1890s, whether judged by the fame of its star, the quality of the houses it played, or its sheer longevity, undoubtedly was Black Patti's Troubadours," writes Riis.

In 1912, the Black Patti Troubadours performed "In the Jungles," a musical comedy, at Baltimore's Holliday Street Theater, with Jones playing the role of "Queen Le-Ku-Li, Queen of the Gumbula Tribe," and sang "Home, Sweet Home" and "My Jewel of the River Nile."

In 1916, with the public's taste for such theatrical presentations declining, Jones disbanded the troupe and returned to Providence, where she nursed her ill relatives.

She was a largely forgotten and impoverished figure when she died in Providence in 1933. She is buried there in Grace Church Cemetery.

Despite her success and fame, the one thing that eluded her was an operatic career.

"I would like very much to sing in opera," she once told a reporter, "but they tell me my color is against me."

Sun Library researcher Dee Lyon contributed to this article.

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