Camilla Williams, Black Opera Pioneer, Dies at 92

Tuesday, January 31, 2012 - 05:58 PM

Camilla Williams, believed to be the first African-American woman to appear with a major U.S. opera company, has died. She was 92.

Williams died Sunday at her home in Bloomington, her attorney, Eric Slotegraaf, said Monday. She died of complications from cancer, said Alain Barker, a spokesman for the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, where Williams was a professor emeritus of voice.

Williams' debut with the New York City Opera on May 15, 1946, was thought to make her the first African-American woman to appear with a major U.S. opera company and came nearly nine years before Marian Anderson became the first African-American singer to appear at New York's more prestigious Metropolitan Opera.

In her City Opera debut, Williams sang what would become her signature role, Cio-Cio-San, in Puccini's "Madama Butterfly." She displayed "a vividness and subtlety unmatched by any other artist who has assayed the part here in many a year," according to a New York Times review of the performance.

She also appeared with the City Opera that season as Nedda, in Leoncavallo's "Pagliacci." The following year she performed the role of Mimi, in Puccini's "La Boheme," and in 1948 she sang the title role of Verdi's "Aida."

Williams first appeared overseas in 1950 on a concert tour of Panama, the Dominican Republic and Venezuela. She also appeared as Cio-Cio-San with the London Sadler's Wells Opera in 1954 and later that same year as the first black artist to sing a major role with the Vienna State Opera.

Williams, the daughter of a chauffeur, was introduced to "Madama Butterfly," Mozart and other classical works at age 12 while growing up in Danville, Va. A Welsh voice teacher came to the segregated city to teach at a school for white girls and taught a few black girls at a private home. By that time she had been singing at Danville's Calvary Baptist Church for four years.

"My grandparents and parents were self-taught musicians; all of them sang, and there was always music in our home," she wrote for her entry in the first edition of "Who's Who in the World."

A graduate of Virginia State College, she was teaching third grade and music in Danville schools in 1942 when she was offered a scholarship from the Philadelphia Alumni Association of her alma mater for vocal training in Philadelphia, where she studied under Marion Szekely-Freschl and worked as an usher in a theater.

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 and sang at the 1963 civil rights march on Washington, D.C., immediately before the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his "I Have a Dream" speech. She also sang at King's Nobel Peace Prize ceremony the following year. The Chicago Defender lauded her in 1951 for bringing democracy to opera.

In 1950 she married Charles Beavers, a fellow Danville native and a defense attorney whose clients included Malcolm X. He died in 1970. The couple did not have children.

Williams retired from opera in 1971 and taught at Brooklyn College, Bronx College and Queens College until becoming the first African American professor of voice at Indiana University. In 1983, as a guest professor at Beijing's Central Conservatory, she became that school's first black professor. She retired from teaching in 1997.

A memorial service has been scheduled at the First United Methodist Church in Bloomington on Feb. 18. -- By KEN KUSMER

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Comments [5]

Neil Schnall

I too did not know of this person, I am abashed to say. (Sadly, there are many people I only learn of by reading their obituaries.)

Based on that brief example "Summertime", what a voice! What a woman!

Feb. 03 2012 05:24 PM
Harriet J. Brown from Bayside, NY

Does anyone know if she had a son?

Feb. 03 2012 03:17 PM
Ash in Chelsea from Manhattan, NY

Within the last half-hour, thanks to my friend Tom Southern (see his comment below), I learned about this extraordinary woman. I also heard your announcement about her and your playing of her singing "Summertime". I am a black man who graduated from Morehouse College in 1959. I cannot believe that I have lived all these years and not know about this woman. My learning about her has jump-started Black History Month for me. My thanks to WQXR for contributing to this moment.

Feb. 03 2012 03:06 PM
Tom Southern from Harlem, New York City

Miss Williams celebrated her 90th birthday at The
Schomburg two years ago. I was there for that celebration. She often sang at Morehouse College during the sixties. She loved the students and we loved her. So gracious and loving. I applaud her on her triumphant victory.

Feb. 01 2012 10:19 PM
Glenn from Pemberton Township,NJ

Sorry to have missed her performances. Hope to hear her recordings.

Feb. 01 2012 07:54 PM

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