Despite her important contributions, soprano Camilla Williams (1919-2012) has been largely written out of the history books. Williams was the first African-American to have a contract with a major US opera company, with her 1946 performance as Cio-Cio-San in New York City Opera's first production of Madama Butterfly.
Williams was born in Danville, Virginia, as the youngest of four siblings. Her parents didn't have a lot of money to spare from their jobs as a chauffeur (father) and laundress (mother), but they had a love of music, which they passed on to their daughter. She began to take private voice lessons at age 12 with Raymond Aubrey, who taught her from home (during the era of Jim Crow, she was not allowed to work with him at the all-white colleges where he taught).
Williams graduated from what is now Virginia State University with a degree in music education, taught third grade for a year, and then was awarded a scholarship to further her voice studies in Philadelphia. After a few more years of study, Williams was giving a recital in Stamford, Connecticut, attended by the soprano Geraldine Farrar. Farrar became Williams' champion, securing her a recording contract with RCA, putting her in touch with a manager, and contacting City Opera's founder and artistic director, Laszlo Halasz. Her performance as Cio-Cio-San began an eight year relationship with City Opera, but despite her successes with fans and critics, she was largely cast in non-white roles. In 1995, Williams recalled, "I would have loved to sing the Countess and Susanna in ‘Le Nozze di Figaro.’ Mozart was so right for my voice. But they were afraid to put me in a white wig and whiter makeup."
Williams also had the distinction of being the first African-American to sing a principal role with the Vienna State Opera; of singing "The Star Spangled Banner" before Martin Luther King, Jr.'s iconic "I Have a Dream" speech; of appearing as a soloist with the New York Philharmonic, Philadelphia Orchestra, Berlin Philharmonic, Vienna Symphony, Chicago Symphony, and Royal Philharmonic, to name a few; and of appearing as Bess in the first complete recording of "Porgy and Bess." She was the first African-American Professor of Voice at Indiana University as well as at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing.
Williams was aware of being overshadowed by artists including Marian Anderson (who will be featured tomorrow, on her birthday). From the same 1995 interview, she noted that "The lack of recognition for my accomplishments used to bother me, but you cannot cry over those things. There is no place for bitterness in singing. It works on the cords and ruins the voice. In his own good time, God brings everything right."
Though Williams is best remembered for her operatic performances, she was by all accounts a wonderful concertizer, as evidenced by the 1952 recording below, with pianist Borislav Bazala. Let us help bring everything right by enjoying this stunning performance of French and Italian repertoire.
Sparks Co-Artistic Director Martha Guth interviews internationally renowned Baritone to discuss American Song, his Hampsong Foundation and the Song of America educative Initiative which explores the history of American culture through Classical song.
The music for Celestial Refrains: Songs of Juliana Hall was chosen directly by its featured composer. In this article, composer Juliana Hall discusses her musical roots, her compositional process, and the inspiration behind the music chosen for Celestial Refrains.
The Cartoonery of Tyler Duncan (Baritone)
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