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From Detroit to Milan and beyond: Mary Lindsey's life in opera

Mary Lindsey grew up in Detroit. Her opera career took her to concert halls across Europe. Today she lives at Casa Verdi, a home for retired musicians in Milan, Italy  established by composer Giuseppe Verdi. Here she is shown sitting on a sofa at Casa Verdi.
©Nanni Fontana/©Nanni Fontana
©Nanni Fontana
Mary Lindsey grew up in Detroit. Her opera career took her to concert halls across Europe. Today she lives at Casa Verdi, a home for retired musicians in Milan, Italy established by composer Giuseppe Verdi.

This is a story from Italy with roots in Michigan.

Mary Lindsey is an operatic soprano who has performed in concert halls here in the U.S. and across Europe.

Lindsey was born in 1940 in Arkansas. Like many African-American families living in the South at that time, Lindsey and her family moved north and settled in Detroit when she was just a toddler. She later studied music at Michigan State University. Her career led her to Milan as a young singer and she lives there today.

Lindsey’s home is in a large villa commissioned by legendary Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi. Verdi wanted to help retired musicians find a comfortable place to live. He paid for the construction – and royalties from his works funded Casa Verdi’s operations for decades.

Lindsey told the story of her life and work to reporters Marzio Mian and Nicola Scevola.

My name is Mary Lindsey. I live in Milan. I've been living in Milan for many years. And when I think back of the long way I've come, starting back basically in Little Rock, Arkansas, and then coming to Detroit when I was just so about three years old, I would never have thought that I’d have ended up in Europe.

In the early '40s, many people were leaving the south because in the north, because of the war, the factories were hiring. Daddy went first in 1941 and then he sent for us in 1943. I was three years old and we traveled by train. And so we arrived in Detroit and within six years of our arrival, my father and mother were already purchasing a house in a mixed neighborhood of immigrants who are all working in the local factory. And so I grew up in a neighborhood where there were Italians, and Polish people, and French people, and Hungarian people.

My love for music came very early, and my curiosity about it. I tried to play the piano. I couldn't. We couldn't afford piano lessons. But I was looking at books that taught music and trying to find out this mystery.

 Mary Lindsey, ca. 1965
E. Azalia Hackley Collection, Detroit Public Library
Mary Lindsey, ca. 1965

But in my family, everybody sang. My brothers like to harmonize. We're eight [siblings]. I have six brothers.

I went to Cass Tech [High School] in Detroit. And I was actually studying pre-nursing commercial.

But then when I got there and I went to a concert and I heard for the first time an orchestra, soloists and choir sing.

It was like I'd been hit by a tsunami.

After that I did a year of voice lessons and so forth and then I had a good voice and I went to the university. I had a scholarship at Michigan State University, and they gave me various tests, aptitude tests. And in the end I [came] away with a music scholarship. My parents were a little surprised because they said, "What do you do with it? What kind of a job can you get?"

And at the time of finishing my master's degree [also at MSU], I received a Fulbright scholarship, which again proved to me that work hard [and] the American dream was possible.

But when I received this big [Fulbright acceptance] package in my mailbox, I thought, "That's funny." And when I opened up the letter, I think I screamed a note that was two octaves higher than high C. And I was so excited that I jumped on my bike to ride back to campus to tell my teacher. And when I arrived in the studio, my voice came out like this. [Excited squealing]. So my larynx had gone up so high. She said, “Calm down.” You know? But it was a great honor. Unbelievable.

Personally, when I inaugurated the symphonic season in Detroit, that really meant a lot to me because I was in Detroit. So my family, my friends, my background. And [I was] inaugurating, also, the new auditorium, the Ford Auditorium. [The audience] find themselves that the person who opens up the concert is a young black singer from Detroit who's singing [Arnold] Schoenberg in German. This was ‘74. And for me, it was really coming full circle.

Mary Lindsey in concert, 1965.
E. Azalia Hackley Collection, Detroit Public Library
Mary Lindsey in concert, 1965.

I think I was one of the lucky people that was able to go to Europe not because I was doing a tour of Porgy and Bess. Almost historically, all of them from Leontyne Price to Gloria Davy all began their careers doing a tour of Porgy and Bess. And I think that this was really a revolutionary thing in that I was breaking the glass ceiling of not just being a black opera singer — which is a wonderful thing — but an African-American who was singing music that would have been recognized as being very refined, very different, and requiring a lot of different skills.

During these years of the '80s, and the '90s, I sang a lot of contemporary music, but also did a lot of recitals in very beautiful recital halls. I was also at La Scala because we did the first performance of Luigi Nono's piece from the letters that the people who were condemned to die in the Holocaust. That their last night, they were writing letters and one letter that he composed the music for is of a daughter who's writing to her mother, [saying] "Addio [goodbye], Mamma."

A statute of Guiseppe Verdi stands in front Casa Verdi in Milan, Italy. The famed composer commissioned the retirement home for musicians in the late 1800s.
©Nanni Fontana/©Nanni Fontana
©Nanni Fontana
A statute of Guiseppe Verdi stands in front Casa Verdi in Milan, Italy. The famed composer commissioned the retirement home for musicians in the late 1800s. Today Mary Lindsey is one of about 60 retired performers who live there along with a about a dozen young musicians.

But back to where I am right now. In Casa Verdi, I did decide to come here thinking about the fact that really I was going to be living my life out in Milan. It's quite a unique place because Verdi who, we all know is a great opera composer, he was very proud of the idea of being able to give a perspective of dignity and respect to the old order, the last period of life of musicians. And so he generously had this building constructed, this beautiful villa, very grand, very elegant.

Verdi was an open-minded person, so it was not a place only just for opera singers. We have had very famous percussionist, jazz players.

When you go to a regular [retirement] home, you give up music and then you start to die on the inside. And here, you live in music all the time.

Editor's notes: Some quotes in this story have been edited for length and clarity. You can listen to the original recording near the top of this page.

Two photographs were used with permission from E. Azalia Hackley Collection, Detroit Public Library: Mary Lindsey, ca. 1965 and Mary Lindsey in concert, 1965

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