The first black woman to appear in a leading role with a major US opera company has died in Indiana at the age of 92
Camilla Ella Williams was an American operatic soprano, and the first African American to have received a contract with a major American opera company.
Life and Music
- Camilla Williams made her legendary debut in May 1946 in the title role of Madam Butterfly with the New York City Opera, nearly nine years before Marian Anderson became the first African-American singer to appear at New York's Metropolitan Opera. A New York Times review of Williams at the time, said the singer displayed "a vividness and subtlety unmatched by any other artist who has essayed the part here in many a year".
- A year after her debut performance she performed the role of Mimi in Puccini's La Boheme and in 1948 she sang the title role of Verdi's Aida.
- In 1951 she sang the title female role in the first complete recording of Gershwin's celebrated opera Porgy and Bess, best known for the song ‘Summertime’.
- In 1950, she married defence lawyer Charles Beavers, whose clients included civil rights leader Malcolm X.
- After Beavers' death in 1970, Williams retired from the world of opera in 1971 and began teaching as a professor of voice at Brooklyn College before going on to Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, where Williams became the first black professor of voice. She retired in 1997.
Did you know?
As well as a celebrate opera singer, Williams was also a strong advocate and campaigner for civil rights. She was a lifelong member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and sang the national anthem before 200,000 people at the 1963 civil rights march on Washington, immediately before Martin Luther King gave his famous I Have a Dream speech.