Black opera pioneer Camilla Williams dies
First to sing with New York City Opera, Vienna State Opera
Posted: Jan 30, 2012 5:24 PM ET
Last Updated: Jan 30, 2012 5:23 PM ET
Camilla Williams, the first black woman to sign a contract with a major U.S. opera company, has died in Bloomington, Indiana. She was 92.
Williams' attorney, Eric Slotegraaf, said she died Sunday. She had been suffering from cancer.
Williams, a soprano known for her interpretation of Cio-Cio San in Madama Butterfly, debuted the role with the New York City Opera on May 15, 1946, breaking the colour barrier.
In 1951 she sang Bess in the landmark first complete recording of Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, becoming internationally famous for her interpretation of the popular opera. She also was a pioneer in voice coaching, becoming the first black professor of voice at Indiana University in 1977.
Williams was born in Danville, Va., on Oct. 18, 1919, the daughter of a chauffeur. Her grandfather was a singer and choir leader, her parents were both musicians and by age eight she was playing piano and singing in Danville's Calvary Baptist Church, according to a brief biography provided by Indiana University.
She trained at Virginia State College and began teaching school, before earning a scholarship that allowed her to study privately in New York and Philadelphia, including with Juilliard teacher Marion Szekely Freschl. She earned a Marian Anderson Fellowship in 1943 and 1944.
After being discovered by an agent, Williams began her career in 1944 with the RCA radio network.
Opera star Geraldine Farrar heard her sing in Connecticut and recommended her to others in the opera world. That opened a door to an audition with Laszlo Halasz at the New York City Opera, who received death threats when it was learned a black woman had been cast as Madama Butterfly, according to an online tribute to Williams.
With the New York City Opera, she performed Nedda in Ruggiero Leoncavallo's Pagliacci, Mimi in Giacomo Puccini's La Bohème and the title role in Giuseppe Verdi's Aida.
She became the first black singer to sing with the Vienna State Opera in a 1954 production of Madama Butterfly. Internationally, she also sang with the Royal Philharmonic, BBC Symphony, Berlin Philharmonic and the New York Philharmonic. She was also known for her interpretations of Mahler, making several recordings before giving up her opera career in 1971.
Williams sang the national anthem at the White House in 1963, the same year she sang before 200,000 people prior to Martin Luther King's legendary I Have a Dream speech at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington.
A lifetime member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, she performed in her hometown of Danville in 1963 to raise funds to free jailed civil rights demonstrators.
She taught for 20 years at Indiana University’s Jacob School of Music, retiring in 1997. During a 1983 trip to China, she also became the first black professor to teach at Beijing's Central Conservatory.
Her career as one of the pioneering black singers was outlined in the 2000 documentary Aida's Brothers and Sisters: Black Voices in Opera and she was profiled in the 2006 PBS documentary The Mystery of Love.
In 2011 her autobiography The Life of Camilla Williams, African American Classical Singer and Diva was published.
Her husband, Charles T. Beavers, one of the principal attorneys for civil rights leader Malcolm X, predeceased her.
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