Maya Angelou Appeared in Touring Production of Porgy and Bess

Email a Friend

Maya Angelou, the poet, writer and performer who died on Wednesday at the age of 86, also has a place in the history of opera: in the 1950s, she played the small role of Ruby in a 22-nation tour of Porgy and Bess, sponsored by the State Department.

In a 2010 interview with NPR's Tell Me More, she recalled, "I was a dancer who could sing a bit. And the dancer, the principal dancer was leaving the company. So when the company came to San Francisco in 1954, I was singing in a nightclub and some of the artists saw me and they asked if I could dance on the stage."

Angelou was interested, but first had to wait for her contract to expire at the Purple Onion, a San Francisco nightclub.

"And then I was offered a role in a Broadway play called House of Flowers. So I went to New York to audition for it. And while I was there, Porgy and Bess called me and asked, would I like to join them in Portland, Maine, and then go overseas. And I said yes."

Angelou toured Italy, France, Egypt, Israel, Greece and the former Yugoslavia with Porgy and Bess, an experience that opened her horizons to a world beyond the segregated United States of the 1950s.

Angelou called herself a poet, in love with the "sound of language," "the music in language," as she told the Associated Press in 2013.

In an interview last year on the Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC, she was asked to name her favorite art form.

"I love them all. I respect them all," she said. "When I'm doing any one of them that's all there is in the world. But I long for poetry. I have a yearning to read it and to write and to recite it to myself." She went on to name Amiri Baraka, Edgar Allen Poe and William Shakespeare as some of her favorites.

Below: A song from Angelou's one commercial recording, "Miss Calypso" (1957) [Youtube].