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Camilla Ella Williams (October 18, 1919 – January 29, 2012) was an American operatic soprano who performed nationally and internationally. After studying with renowned teachers in New York City, she was the first African American to receive a regular contract with a major American opera company, the New York City Opera.She had earlier won honors in vocal competitions and the Marian Anderson Fellowship in 1943–44.
In 1954 she became the first African American to sing a major role with the Vienna State Opera. She later also performed as a soloist with numerous European orchestras. As a concert artist, she toured throughout the United States as well as Asia, Australia and New Zealand. In 1977, she was the first African American appointed as Professor of Voice at Indiana University, where she taught until 1997.
On October 18, 1919, Camilla Ella Williams was born in Danville, Virginia, to Fannie Carey Williams, a laundress, and Cornelius Booker Williams, a chauffeur. She was the youngest of four children. Her siblings were Mary, Helen, and Cornelius. Williams grew up in a poor neighborhood with music as an important part of her family. Even her grandfather, Alexander Carey, was a choir leader and singer. Her parents instilled an appreciation for music, church, and education during her childhood. By the age of eight, Camilla enjoyed playing the piano, and singing at school and Danville's Calvary Baptist Church.
Williams trained at Virginia State College, now Virginia State University, and received her bachelor's degree in music education.After her college education, she left her job as a third grade teacher to study music in Philadelphia with a prestigious voice instructor, Marion Szekely Freschl. To help Williams pay for her new studies, Tossie P. Whiting, former English teacher of hers at Virginia State College, founded the Camilla Williams fund. She earned a Marian Anderson Award in 1943 and 1944, and she continued to receive honors in vocal competitions.
Beginning in 1944, Williams performed on the coast-to-coast RCA radio network. In 1946 she was the first African American to receive a regular contract with a major American opera company, making her debut with the New York City Opera in the title role in Puccini's Madama Butterfly .Her performance was hailed by a critic for The New York Times as "an instant and pronounced success." During her time at the New York City Opera, she performed Nedda in Leoncavallo's Pagliacci , Mimi in Puccini's La bohème, Marguerite in Gounod's Faust, Micaela in Bizet's Carmen , and the title role in Verdi's Aida .
Williams sang throughout the United States and Europe with various other opera companies. In 1951 she sang Bess in the landmark, first complete recording of Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, alongside bass-baritone Lawrence Winters and conductor Lehman Engel.Though she enjoyed the recording experience, she believed strongly that the work ought to be restaged to better portray contemporary African American life, reflecting her decision to refrain from performing the work on stage.
In 1954 she became the first African American to sing a major role with the Vienna State Opera, and performed her signature role in Madama Butterfly. In August 1963, as part of the civil rights March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, she sang "The Star-Spangled Banner" at the White House and, when scheduled performer Marian Anderson was delayed trying to get through the gathered throngs, Williams sang the anthem before 250,000 people at the Lincoln Memorial, preceding Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech.
A noted concert artist, Williams toured throughout the United States, Latin America, in fourteen African countries, as well as numerous countries in Asia: Formosa, South Korea, China, Japan, Laos, South Vietnam, the Philippines, New Zealand and Australia.In addition, she was a soloist with the Royal Philharmonic, BBC Symphony, Berlin Philharmonic, Vienna Symphony, Chicago Symphony, Philadelphia Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic under the direction of Leopold Stokowski. In 1950 she recorded Mahler's Symphony No. 8 with Stokowski and the New York Philharmonic.
During the 1970s, Williams taught voice at many places, including Brooklyn College, Bronx College, Queens College, Talent Unlimited, and Danville Museum of Fine Arts.
Williams was the first African-American Professor of Voice appointed to the voice faculty of what is now known as the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music in 1977. In 1984 she became the first African-American instructor at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, China. In 1997 Camilla Williams became a Professor Emerita of Voice at Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, but continued to teach privately.
In 1950, Williams married Charles T. Beavers, a civil rights lawyer who worked closely with Malcolm X. He died in 1969.
From 2000 to 2011, she lived in companionship with her accompanist Boris Bazala, from Bulgaria.
Mary Violet Leontyne Price is an American soprano. Born and raised in Laurel, Mississippi, she rose to international acclaim in the 1950s and 1960s, and was the first African American to become a leading performer at the Metropolitan Opera, and one of the most popular American classical singers of her generation.
Jessye Norman was an American opera singer and recitalist. She was able to perform dramatic soprano roles, but refused to be limited to that voice type. She was a commanding presence on operatic, concert and recital stages, associated with roles including Beethoven's Leonore, Wagner's Sieglinde and Kundry, Cassandre and Didon by Berlioz and Bartók's Judith. The New York Times music critic Edward Rothstein described her voice as a "grand mansion of sound", and wrote that "it has enormous dimensions, reaching backward and upward. It opens onto unexpected vistas. It contains sunlit rooms, narrow passageways, cavernous halls."
Robert Todd Duncan was an American baritone opera singer and actor. One of the first African-Americans to sing with a major opera company, Duncan is also noted for appearing as Porgy in the premier production of Porgy and Bess (1935).
Shirley Verrett was an American operatic mezzo-soprano who successfully transitioned into soprano roles, i.e. soprano sfogato. Verrett enjoyed great fame from the late 1960s through the 1990s, particularly well known for singing the works of Verdi and Donizetti.
Adele Addison is an American lyric soprano who was a figure in the classical music world during the 1950s and 1960s. Although she did appear in several operas, Addison spent most of her career performing in recital and concert. Her performances spanned a wide array of literature from the Baroque period to contemporary compositions. She is best remembered today as the singing voice for Bess in the 1959 movie, Porgy and Bess. Known for her polished and fluent tone, Addison made a desirable Baroque vocal artist. She can be heard on numerous recordings, of which her Baroque performances are perhaps her best work. Many of her recordings were made with the New York Philharmonic under the baton of Leonard Bernstein.
Angela M. Brown is an American dramatic soprano particularly admired for her portrayal of Verdi heroines.
Lawrence Winters(néLawrence Lafayette Whisonant; 15 November 1915 King's Creek, South Carolina – 24 September 1965 Hamburg, Germany), bass-baritone, was an American opera singer who had an active international career from the mid-1940s through the mid-1960s. He was part of the first generation of black opera singers to achieve wide success and is viewed as part of an instrumental group of performers who helped break down the barriers of racial prejudice in the opera world. He began his opera career at the New York City Opera in 1946 during a time when the NYCO was one of the few American opera companies hiring black artists. He sang a varied repertoire there through 1955, after which his career was largely based in Europe until his death at the age of fifty.
Reri Grist is an American coloratura soprano, one of the pioneer African-American singers to enjoy a major international career in opera.
Nicole Cabell is an American opera singer. She is best known as the 2005 winner of the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Competition.
Florence Quivar is an American operatic mezzo-soprano who is considered to be "one of the most prominent singers of her generation." She has variously been described as having a "rich, earthy sound and communicative presence" as "always reliable" and as "a distinguished singer, with a warm, rich voice and a dignified performing presence." From 1977-1997 she was a regular performer at the Metropolitan Opera where she gave more than 100 performances.
Herva Nelli was an Italian-American operatic soprano.
Harolyn Blackwell is an American lyric coloratura soprano who has performed in many of the world's finest opera houses, concert halls, and theaters in operas, oratorios, recitals, and Broadway musicals. Initially known for her work within musical theater during the early 1980s, Blackwell moved into the field of opera and by 1987 had established herself as an artist within the soubrette repertoire in many major opera houses both in the United States and in Europe. Feeling that she was being "type cast" into one particular kind of role, Blackwell strove to establish herself within the lyric coloratura repertoire beginning in the mid-1990s. With the aid of such companies as Seattle Opera, Blackwell successfully made this move and is now an interpreter of such roles as Lucia in Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor and Olympia in Offenbach's Les contes d'Hoffman. She has also periodically returned to musical theater performances throughout her career in staged productions, concert work, and recitals. Blackwell is known for her interpretations and recordings of the works of Leonard Bernstein.
Gloria Davy was a Swiss soprano of American birth who had an active international career in operas and concerts from the 1950s through the 1980s. A talented spinto soprano, she was widely acclaimed for her portrayal of the title role in Giuseppe Verdi's Aida; a role she performed in many of the world's top opera houses. She was notably the first black artist to perform the role of Aida at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City in 1958. While she performed a broad repertoire, she was particularly admired for her interpretations of 20th-century music, including the works of Richard Strauss, Benjamin Britten and Paul Hindemith.
Clamma Churita Dale is an American operatic soprano. She portrayed "Bess" in the highly successful 1976 Houston Grand Opera production of Porgy and Bess. The show was transferred from Houston to Broadway and Dale was awarded a 1977 Drama Desk Award for Best Actress in a musical and received a Tony Award nomination. She won a Grammy award in 1978 for Best Opera Recording of the Porgy & Bess soundtrack.
Marquita Lister is an American operatic soprano. She has sung with major companies in the U.S. and abroad, specializing in the lirico-spinto repertoire. Lister is considered one of the leading interpreters of Bess in Porgy and Bess, having performed the role hundreds of times in companies across the globe, and she is also renowned for her portrayals of Aida and Salome, two signature roles.
Felicia Weathers is an American opera and concert singer. She is a soprano.
Claudia Lindsey is an American operatic soprano.
Janet Williams is an American soprano who has won international critical acclaim for performances at the Metropolitan Opera, Berlin Staatsoper, Paris Opera, Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, Opera de Lyon, Nice Opera, Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie, Opera Geneva, Frankfurt Opera, Cologne Opera, Leipzig Opera, San Francisco Opera, Washington Opera, Dallas Opera, and Michigan Opera Theatre as well as in concerts throughout Europe, North America, Canada, Israel and Japan with conductors including Vladimir Ashkenazy, Daniel Barenboim, Myung-whun Chung, Philippe Herreweghe, René Jacobs, Marek Janowski, Neeme Järvi, Raymond Leppard, Fabio Luisi, Sir Neville Marriner, Nicholas McGegan, Zubin Mehta, Kent Nagano, John Nelson, Donald Runnicles, Gerard Schwarz and Michael Tilson Thomas.
Camellia Johnson was an American concert and opera singer. She began her career performing works from the mezzo-soprano repertoire, but after encouragement from the staff at the Metropolitan Opera retrained her voice as a soprano. She successfully made that transition after winning the Young Concert Artists competition in 1993. She went on to perform as a leading soprano with orchestras and opera companies internationally.
Cynthia Clarey is an American operatic singer and educator. In opera, she has sung both soprano and mezzo-soprano roles and is often associated with the role of Carmen.