Camilla Williams, the first black woman to appear in a leading role with a major US opera company, aged 92. She made her debut in May 1946 in the title role of Madam Butterfly with the New York City Opera. Williams’ debut performance came nearly nine years before Marian Anderson became the first African-American singer to appear at New York’s more prestigious Metropolitan Opera.
The New York Times review of that performance said the singer displayed “a vividness and subtlety unmatched by any other artist who has assayed the part here in many a year”.
The following year she played Mimi and in 1948 she sang Aida. In 1951 she sang in first complete recording of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess.
Williams became a strong supporter of civil rights. A lifetime member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the singer performed in her hometown of Danville, Virginia in 1963, to raise funds to free jailed civil rights demonstrators. She also 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.
In 1950, she married defence lawyer Charles Beavers, whose clients included civil rights leader Malcolm X. After Beavers’ death in 1970, Williams left opera in 1971 and became the first black professor of voice at Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, before eventually retiring in 1997.
Her autobiography – The Life of Camilla Williams, African American Classical Singer and Diva – was published last year.
via BBC News