On May 15, 1946, an unknown singer named Camilla Williams took the stage at City Center in Manhattan as Cio-Cio-San, the doomed heroine of Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly.” Her performance would be the capstone of a night of glorious firsts. Camilla Williams, a soprano, in 1946 the New York Opera’s first Cio-Cio-San in “Madama Butterfly,” was the first black woman signed with a major American opera company.
Miss Williams, a lyric soprano who began her career as a concert singer, had never been in an opera. The New York City Opera, the young upstart company with which she was making her debut, had never before staged “Madama Butterfly.”
But there was another, far more important first, though its significance has been largely forgotten over time:
As Cio-Cio-San, Miss Williams, the daughter of a chauffeur and a domestic in the Jim Crow South, was the first black woman to secure a contract with a major United States opera company — a distinction widely ascribed in the public memory to the contralto Marian Anderson.
Miss Williams’s performance that night, to rave reviews, came nearly a decade before Miss Anderson first sang at the Metropolitan Opera. As Miss Williams, who died on Sunday at 92, well knew, it was a beacon that lighted the way to American opera houses for other black women, Miss Anderson included.
That Miss Williams’s historic role is scarcely remembered today is rooted in both the rarefied world of opera-house politics and the ubiquitous racial anxiety of midcentury America. And though she was far too well mannered to trumpet her rightful place in history, her relegation to its margins caused her great private anguish.
“The lack of recognition for my accomplishments used to bother me, but you cannot cry over those things,” Miss Williams said in a 1995 interview with the opera scholar Elizabeth Nash. “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.”
Miss Williams’s hiring by City Opera was of a piece with the tentative first stabs by postwar America at integrating the worlds of culture and entertainment.
In 1945, the year before she first sang there, the baritone Todd Duncan, who in 1935 had created the part of Porgy in the original Broadway production of “Porgy and Bess,” made his City Opera debut as Tonio in “Pagliacci.” In so doing, he became the first black man to sing a featured role with a prominent company.
The year after Miss Williams’s City Opera debut, Jackie Robinson integrated major league baseball.
The daughter of Cornelius Booker Williams and the former Fannie Carey, Camilla Ella Williams was born on Oct. 18, 1919, in Danville, Va. Theirs was a singing family, and Camilla, the youngest of four siblings, first sang in church at 8. At 12 she took lessons from Raymond Aubrey, a Welsh singer teaching at local white colleges. Amid Jim Crow, he had to teach his few black students, including Camilla, in a private home.
The young Miss Williams earned a bachelor’s degree in music education in 1941 from the Virginia State College for Negroes, now Virginia State University. After graduating, she taught third grade and music at a black school in Danville, though she hoped to become a singer.
The next year, a group of Virginia State alumni paid her way to Philadelphia for study with the distinguished voice teacher Marion Szekely-Freschl. There, Miss Williams supported herself by working as an usherette in a movie house.
Miss Williams won a Marian Anderson Award, a vocal scholarship established by Miss Anderson, in 1943 and again the next season. Soon afterward, she embarked on a concert career.
In 1944 she gave a recital in Stamford, Conn. In the audience was the soprano Geraldine Farrar. One of the most renowned singers of the first half of the 20th century, Miss Farrar had been the Met’s first Madam Butterfly in 1907.
Captivated by Miss Williams’s voice, she became her mentor, helping her secure a recording contract with RCA Victor and writing to the impresario Arthur Judson with the suggestion that he manage her. On receiving the letter, as Miss Williams recalled in the 1995 interview, a suspicious Mr. Judson telephoned Miss Farrar.
“He didn’t believe the great Farrar would take time to write a letter about an unknown little colored girl,” she said. “When Judson confirmed it really was Miss Farrar, he was dumbfounded.”
Miss Farrar also arranged for an audition with Laszlo Halasz, City Opera’s director, who had founded the company in 1943. It went well enough that had there not been a war on, Miss Williams might have sung Cio-Cio-San even sooner than she did.
“Since Miss Farrar had been one of the greatest interpreters of ‘Madama Butterfly,’ they had thought of that role for me,” Miss Williams said in the same interview. “The war with Japan was on, however, and it was forbidden to perform that opera. ‘If I ever give this opera,’ Mr. Halasz said, ‘call this young girl in to sing for me.’ ”
The call came in 1946, and she learned the part of Cio-Cio-San in two months. Reviewing Miss Williams’s debut in The New York Times, Noel Straus wrote, “There was a warmth and intensity in her singing that lent dramatic force of no mean order to the climactic episodes, and something profoundly human and touching in her delivery of all of the music assigned her.”
At City Opera, with which she performed regularly until 1954, Miss Williams also sang Nedda in Leoncavallo’s “Pagliacci,” Mimi in Puccini’s “Bohème” and the title role in Verdi’s “Aïda.”
But even there, she said afterward, she was primarily confined to playing “exotic” heroines like Aïda and Cio-Cio-San. European characters largely eluded her.
“I would have loved to sing the Countess and Susanna in ‘Le Nozze di Figaro,’ ” Miss Williams said in 1995. “Mozart was so right for my voice. But they were afraid to put me in a white wig and whiter makeup.”
Miss Williams also appeared with the Boston Lyric Opera and the Vienna State Opera, among other companies. She was a soloist with some of the world’s leading orchestras, including the Philadelphia Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic, and sang at the White House.
She toured worldwide as a recitalist, though her concerts tended to be less well reviewed than her opera work, at least by New York critics.
Miss Williams sang Bess in what was then the most complete recording of “Porgy and Bess,” released by Columbia Records in 1951 and featuring Lawrence Winters as Porgy. Her other recordings include “A Camilla Williams Recital” and “Camilla Williams Sings Spirituals.”
In 1977, Miss Williams became the first black person appointed to the voice faculty at Indiana University in Bloomington, where she taught until her retirement in 1997. Her death, at her home in Bloomington, was announced by the university, where she was an emeritus professor of voice.
Miss Williams’s path crossed Miss Anderson’s many times. At the 1963 March on Washington, she substituted for Miss Anderson, who was stuck in traffic, before the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, racing up the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” By all accounts, the two women maintained a warm, enduring friendship.
Why, then, is Miss Williams’s name not uttered in the same breath as Miss Anderson’s?
For one thing, Miss Anderson (1897-1993) spent far longer in the public eye. She had been a cause célèbre since 1939, when she was denied permission to sing at Constitution Hall in Washington, owned by the Daughters of the American Revolution.
The first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, resigned from the D.A.R. in protest and helped arrange a concert by Miss Anderson at the Lincoln Memorial, a landmark event that drew 75,000 people and was heard by many more on the radio.
For another, the longstanding David-and-Goliath relationship between the scrappy City Opera and the august Met inevitably came into play.
“Camilla never did sing at the Met,” Stephanie Shonekan, the co-author of her memoir, “The Life of Camilla Williams” (2011), said in a telephone interview on Wednesday. “And that’s something that sort of haunted her all her life. The Met, in many people’s minds, was superior to the New York City Opera. So there’s that tendency, then, to discount what happened at the New York City Opera and count only what happened at the Met.”
A third reason, said Professor Shonekan, who teaches ethnomusicology and black studies at the University of Missouri, was rooted in the fact that Miss Williams happened to come of age as a singer toward the start of the civil rights movement, timing that seemed to make her managers wary.
“She signed with Columbia Artists, and as we moved into the ’50s, Camilla’s feeling was that Columbia Artists did not want to put her ‘out there’ too much, because they didn’t want her to deal with the race issue,” she said. “And she wouldn’t have anyway: her personality is not to be ‘out there’ with an Afro, holding up her fist. But I think that there was a fear from her management that she would deal with the race issue as other artists were doing at that time.”
Miss Williams’s husband of 19 years, Charles T. Beavers, a civil rights lawyer who was the court-appointed defense counsel for Thomas 15X Johnson, one of three men convicted of murdering Malcolm X in 1965, died in 1969. No immediate family members survive.
On Jan. 7, 1955, when Miss Anderson made her Met debut as Ulrica in Verdi’s “Ballo in Maschera,” Miss Williams was in the audience as her invited guest. Both women were keenly aware of the significance of the evening, but both, Miss Williams recalled, were also mindful of a night in May nine years earlier.
“As the first African-American woman to appear with a major American opera company,” Miss Williams said in 1995, “I had opened the door for Miss Anderson.”
copyright NY Times
- Camilla Williams, Opera Singer, Dies at 92 (nytimes.com)
- Camilla Williams, Opera Singer Who Broke Racial Barriers, Has Died (current.com)