Anna and Emma Hyers, professionally known as the Hyers Sisters were the first African American women to succeed as touring operatic concert artists. They created the first African American musical on the mainstream stage. They used visual narration, interviews and song to explore their work and pursuit for human rights.
The Hyers Sisters integrated casting and opened the first leading roles for African Americans in US musical theatre. They were able to achieve this feat at a time when African American artists were disregarded and maligned, but unfortunately their story is absent from many books of American theatre.
John Hopkins University Press described the Hyers Sisters as the darlings of the nineteenth-century stage famous for their soaring voices and original dramatic productions. Anna was a soprano singer and Emma a contralto.
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Born to Samuel B. and Annie E. Hyers, the musically gifted sisters received musical tutelage from their parents until they went for private study with German music teacher Hugo Sank and opera singer Josephine D’Ormy.
Unfortunately, their parents separated shortly after their debut at the ages of 12 and 10 at the Metropolitan Theatre in Sacramento but their father Samuel managed their careers. From 1867 to 1876, the sisters devoted themselves to concerts of operatic excerpts, art songs, popular ballads, and, from 1872, spirituals.
Their company was said to have served as the anti-minstrel show with productions boldly displaying resilience, talents, resourcefulness as well as their commitment to their race. The Hyers Sisters broke colour barriers in opera houses around the world in the 1870s and used their platform to promote the humanity of their people.
In 1871, Samuel formed a concert company around his daughters, engaging tenor Wallace King, baritone John Luca, violinist John Thomas Douglass, and pianist Alexander C. Taylor. For Anna’s range and flexibility coupled with Emma’s power, the sisters were heralded as musical prodigies.
The company brought the first African American lead performers and the first integrated casts on stage. They created stories which fused classical voice and popular spiritual music with rich narratives of the African American experience.
According to the African American Review, “They impressed audiences with their vocal prowess and command of Western classical music traditions. As actors, they pushed boundaries of acceptable and expected roles for blacks and female performers by developing works that moved beyond stereotypical caricatures of African American life”.
In 1868, the San Francisco Chronicle referred to them as “rare natural gifts”. In 1871, St. Joseph Missouri’s Daily Herald called the Hyers Sisters “a rare musical treat.”
The Hyers Sisters, Emma Louise and Anna Madah traveled until the mid-1880s with their own shows and continued to appear on stage in the 1890s. Emma later died in 1901 but Anna continued to travel with a show of John Isham. Anna Madah lived until 1929.
“They left their dream and they came forward and for 20 years they were the sole providers of a new image of African Americans as humans,” filmmaker Susheel Bibbs said. “As having a story and as claiming the American dream, the Hyers fought the mockery with music.”
“They fought the minstrels’ ridicule. And what were their weapons? Charming musical stories of black life that asserted black dignity without blackface”.
“Anna and Emma Hyers stood up to become voices for freedom,” soprano Denyce Graves said in the opening scene of the film “Voices For Freedom – The Hyers Sisters Legacy,” a short film by Soprano, actress, musical scholar, filmmaker Susheel Bibbs.
The film, which originally aired on PBS in 2017 was met with acclaim at several film festivals, including the famed Cannes Film Festival. The film won the 2017 Grand Festival Award at the Berkeley Video Film Festival.