France's pioneering black opera star Christiane Eda-Pierre dies

AFP , Monday 7 Sep 2020

Christiane Eda-Pierre, a French soprano who broke ground as the country's first black woman to make her mark on the international opera stage, has died at 88, her family told AFP on Monday.

She died of natural causes at her home in Deux-Sevres, western France, on Sunday.

Born on March 24, 1932, in France's Caribbean territory of Martinique, Eda-Pierre was steeped in the arts from an early age -- her aunt Paulette Nardal, an author and journalist, was the first black female student at the Sorbonne.

She learned to read music from her mother, a piano teacher, while still a young child.

"Her first experience with opera was through her grandfather, who knew all sorts of arias from ensembles which would stop for performances in Saint-Pierre or Fort-de-France while travelling between Europe and the United States," her biographer Catherine Marceline told AFP.

After arriving in Paris for piano studies in the late 1950s, she made the acquaintance of the Swiss baritone Charles Panzera, who proposed to help her get into the rigorous Conservatoire de Paris music school.

"My eyes nearly popped out of my head because I thought, 'Me, a black girl, in the Conservatoire, it's just not possible'," she recalled in a 2013 podcast.

She soon made her debut at the Opera de Nice in southern France, performing in Bizet's "The Pearl Fishers" alongside Gabriel Bacquie, the French bass-baritone who died in May.

That led to a series of major roles in Paris, including the prestigious Opera Garnier, before she embarked on tours that brought her to arts capitals including London, New York and Vienna.

A highlight of her career was a triumphant turn in a 1977 production of "The Tales of Hoffmann" directed by Patrice Chereau.

Her experiences made her a steadfast promotor of black artists in all fields.

"She would say that the more often you put them on stage, the more normal it would eventually be," said Marceline.

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