Tuesday, January 31, 2012

In Memoriam: Camilla Williams 1919-2012

Ms. Camilla Williams, known worldwide as the first African American woman to have performed with a major opera company, has died. Williams died of complications from cancer on Sunday at her home in Bloomington, Indiana. She was 93.

Camilla Williams was born in 1919 in Danville, Virginia. The daughter of a chauffeur and his wife, Williams was introduced to classical music at an early age. When a Welsh voice teacher came to the segregated city to teach at a school for white girls, a young Williams took lessons privately from the teacher who had to teach the black girls in a private home.

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. Shortly thereafter, she began her studies under Marion Szekely-Freschl and and also began working as an usher in a theater.

Remarkably, just four years later on May 15, 1946, Camilla Williams debuted with New York City Opera - singing what would become her signature role, Cio-Cio-San, in Madama Butterfly. Her debut was the first step on a path that would eventually carry singers like Grace Bumbry, Jessye Norman and Kathleen Battle to the operatic stage. According to a New York Times review of the performance, she displayed "a vividness and subtlety unmatched by any other artist who has assayed the part here in many a year". She also appeared with City Opera as Nedda, in Pagliacci, Mimi in La Boheme and in 1948 she sang Aida.

Williams teaching at Indiana Univ. - 1985
Her trailblazing didn't stop there - in 1954, Williams broke yet another color barrier when she became the first African American to sing a major role with the Vienna State Opera, again singing Cio-Cio-San. In 1963, she sang the National Anthem at the White House and, that same year, sang it before 200,000 people prior to Martin Luther King's legendary "I Have a Dream" speech at the Lincoln Memorial. She also sang at King's Nobel Peace Prize ceremony the following year. Her pioneering efforts as an African-American opera singer were profiled in the 2000 PBS documentary Aida's Brothers and Sisters: Black Voices in Opera. She was also profiled in the 2006 PBS Documentary The Mystery of Love.

She continued to sing throughout the United States and Europe with some of the world's leading opera companies until her retirement from the stage in 1971. Williams then went on to teach voice at Brooklyn College, Bronx College and Queens College before arriving at Indiana University. She remained a professor of voice at the IU Jacobs School of Music from 1977-97 and became a professor emeritus of voice upon her retirement.

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