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Soprano Camilla Williams was the first female African–American soloist at a major U.S. opera company.
By Fred Cohn 

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Camilla Williams as Nedda in Pagliacci, which she first sang at NYCO in September 1946

WHEN CAMILLA WILLIAMS made her opera debut, as Cio-Cio-San with the nascent New York City Opera on May 15, 1946, she achieved a milestone, becoming the first African–American singer to appear with a major American company as a full-fledged member of the ensemble.

The ensuing headlines attest to the excitement Williams provoked: “Negro Soprano Makes Hit as Mme. Butterfly”; “Negro Girl Sings Role of Butterfly.” For all the enthusiasm, though, the coverage suggested a novelty act. The New York Post’s Edward O’Gorman wrote of Williams’s debut that although it was easy to imagine “a Negro” as Aida or Otello, Cio-Cio-San fell in “the ‘perhaps-but’ category.” Still, he said, “Miss Williams … took the role right out of the doubtful class.” His words suggest just what an anomalous—and vulnerable—position she held. 

Williams went on to a long, honorable career in opera and concerts, in the U.S. and abroad. She starred in the first full-length recording of Porgy and Bess. She sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial at the 1963 March on Washington, prefacing Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” oration.She sang for four U.S. presidents. She became a revered voice teacher, appointed in 1977 as the first black person on the voice faculty of Indiana University. But Williams never achieved superstardom, and it is hard not to see racism as a root cause.

WILLIAMS WAS BORN A HUNDRED YEARS AGO in Danville, Virginia. Her father was a chauffeur; her mother took in washing. They had little money, but they instilled in their daughter a lifelong sense of decorum, along with a deep-rooted religious faith. Williams was a born performer; as a little girl, she aspired to be a “toe dancer,” but the ballet classes in Danville were for whites only. She made her mark singing solos at the High Street Baptist Church.

After earning a degree in music education from the Virginia State College for Negroes, she taught briefly in her hometown but soon made her way to Philadelphia to study with the noted Hungarian-born pedagogue Marion Freschl. She lived as a kind of indentured servant with the Ashley Jones family, members of Philadelphia black society’s upper tier, and ran afoul of Jones when she refused to let him manage her career (and grab her earnings). She won the Marian Anderson Award, established by the great contralto, two years in a row, 1943 and 1944. 

Later in 1944, she gave a recital, in Stamford, Connecticut, at which the retired Met star Geraldine Farrar was in the audience. Farrar was enthralled by Williams’s lovely lyric voice and sterling technique. Williams had no idea who the grand lady who introduced herself after the concert might be. “I was so naïve at the time,” she later wrote. “I didn’t know about any of the big opera stars.” But Farrar took the young soprano under her wing, introducing her to the all-powerful manager/impresario Arthur Judson, who signed Williams for Columbia Artists. Farrar also set up the audition with Laszlo Halasz, City Opera’s director, that led to Williams’s contract there.

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Geraldine Farrar, the Met’s first Cio-Cio-San in 1907, congratulates Williams on her NYCO debut in Madama Butterfly, 1946

THE CHOICE OF BUTTERFLY for the debut was influenced by Farrar; it had been her signature role at the Met. She coached Williams thoroughly, and the process cemented a bond between the two sopranos that endured for the rest of Farrar’s life: at the time of her death, she had a letter from Williams on the nightstand next to her bed.

The Pinkerton in that NYCO Butterfly was Eugene Conley. During an interview in 2000, Williams discovered a deeply unpleasant footnote to her debut: Conley had written a protest letter to Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, president of City Opera’s parent corporation, about having to sing with a black woman. “Somehow I finished the interview, but when I came home … I cried and cried,” she says in her 2011 memoir, The Life of Camilla Williams (written with Stephanie Shonekan). “I thought I was over prejudice, that after all I had gone through nothing could hurt me again…. It was as if the floodgates had been reopened.” 

The Columbia Artists contract was hardly the boon it had first seemed. “I don’t think [Judson] was really comfortable representing black singers,” Williams wrote. “Judson and the other managers at Columbia Artists did not want to take a chance that I would be vocal with the racial issue. Instead, they chose the safe route by underplaying my celebrity and booking me in smaller venues.”

The agency sent her on grueling cross-country recital tours, including dates in the South that required Williams to sit behind a curtain on railway cars, away from the “Whites Only” section, and to take her meals alone in her hotel room rather than in the dining room. Making matters worse, she received little money for her work. Even though a Philadelphia Enquirer story reported she was making $1,000 a concert, she took home only $250. The rest went to Columbia Artists. “She was taken advantage of,” says pianist Richard Glazier, who became a close friend when he was an Indiana University student. “They ripped her off. And she was working her ass off.”

Under the auspices of the State Department, she embarked on international tours. In Africa, she later wrote, “White folks … lived like kings and queens, better … than they would in their own countries.… The rest of the Africans did not live in splendor at all.” In Australia, she reported, “People thought that since I was a black woman who was a singer, I was some sort of a sex symbol…. They expected me to be sexy and suggestive, but that is just not who I am.”

Later in life, she told Glazier, “Honey, the older I get, the more I realize people are no damn good.”

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Williams during her years as a professor of voice at Indiana University Bloomington
Indiana University Archives

WILLIAMS APPEARED AT CITY OPERA through 1954, singing Mimì, Nedda and Aida as well as Butterfly. She took her Cio-Cio-San to the Vienna State Opera in 1955, breaking another color barrier. But she never sang at the Met, which was a cause for regret, even bitterness. In her memoir, she lauds Leontyne Price’s 1961 Met debut (“a marvelous job”), but Williams clearly resented the younger soprano’s stupendous career. Williams writes that she had expected to sing at two high-profile occasions—Roy Wilkins’s funeral and Lyndon Johnson’s inauguration—at which Price took her place; she also notes a Columbia Artists event from which Price decamped early, leaving her as the only African–American present. “She felt that Leontyne didn’t treat her very well,” Glazier says. “She had been overlooked, and Leontyne wasn’t necessarily sensitive to that.”

Today, Williams may be known best for her star turn in Columbia Records’s thrilling 1951 Porgy and Bess. The recording, under the incandescent leadership of Lehman Engel, offers testament to just how well Williams sang. But her ingrained propriety puts her at a certain distance from the promiscuous Bess. Although she sang excerpts in concert, she never appeared in a staged version. “She was very much against her students singing the staged business,” recalls soprano Janet Williams (not a relation), who studied with Camilla at I.U. “I never understood until I saw many of my friends singing only Porgy or Carmen Jones—those roles that are only for black singers.”

A more representative token of Williams’s art is A Camilla Williams Recital, a ten-inch LP issued by MGM Records in 1952 (available on YouTube), containing a program of French, Italian and English songs with Romanian pianist Boris Bazala as her accompanist. The recording captures the lyric freshness of Williams’s voice. Soprano Sylvia McNair, who years later sought her coaching advice, says that Williams emphasized “the openness of the head spaces, wide open in the back of the throat, between the upper molars and lower molars. And nice, deep breathing! She said, ‘You have to breathe from the curlies to the curlies.’” On the recital record, you also hear Williams’s sheer joy in singing.

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Williams during her years as a professor of voice at Indiana University Bloomington
Indiana University Archives

EVEN AS LATE AS 1977, when she joined the faculty of I.U., Williams continued to encounter racism. When she first planned to buy an apartment in Bloomington’s upscale Woodcrest condominiums, a professor told her, “You can’t live there.” She persevered but endured snubs from other residents. Children taunted her at the grocery store, saying “Hi, nigger.” “I always ignored them,” Williams wrote. “My head high, I would wrap my fur around myself and keep walking in my high heels. But inwardly, I cringed with a combination of distaste, sadness and disbelief.” 

She nonetheless established herself in Bloomington as an imposing, flamboyant presence. “She was larger than life,” says McNair. “Her jewelry—oh my goodness! Bracelets on both arms, from her wrist almost to her elbow. Pendants. Oversized earrings. She always wore turbans, which added four to six inches to her height.” 

“She kept herself in trim condition her whole life and never went to the grocery store when she wasn’t dressed in beautiful attire and a striking hat,” remembers Charles H. Webb, dean emeritus of I.U.’s Music School. Williams would set out on foot to O’Malia’s Food Market, navigating the hilly half-mile on four-inch spike heels. “I would see her in the supermarket, and I’d feel like a washerwoman,” says mezzo-soprano Marietta Simpson, an I.U. faculty member. Simpson sees Williams’s scrupulous grooming as a matter of racial pride. “It was never just you that you’re representing,” she says. “You’re always representing other people.” 

As a teacher, Williams demanded utmost seriousness. “If you were intensely working, regardless of where you were in your study, she was there with you,” says her student Krystal Banfield. “If you didn’t come prepared, that was a huge no-no. But at every opportunity to work with her, you were going to learn something.” Williams got involved in her students’ lives in a way that might be unthinkable today, even advising them on their love lives. “It was some education,” Banfield says. “She would tell you how to dress … how to present yourself so that you’re ready for [the music] industry, or any industry.” Williams rewarded her students with quasi-maternal warmth; at the end of her life, a group of them took turns visiting her in Bloomington as “the daughters she never had.”  

Williams was married to Charles Beavers, a civil-rights lawyer who died in 1969 at forty-eight. Late in life, she reconnected with Bazala, her erstwhile accompanist, taking the widowed pianist into her apartment. In a segment of the 2006 PBS documentary The Mystery of Love, the shared affection between the two aged musicians is unmistakable. They remained together until Bazala’s death in 2011; Williams died of cancer less than a year later. 

In 2009, Williams returned to New York for a tribute at the Schomburg Center in Harlem, organized by New York City Opera. She thought she had been totally forgotten; sitting backstage before the start, she told Janet Williams, “Well, there probably isn’t going to be anybody there.” She was wrong—the house was packed. “She walked on the stage, and her eyes lit up—she couldn’t stop laughing,” Janet Williams says. 

Through it all, up to the very end, Camilla Williams kept singing. “She could still use her voice, because she was disciplined,” says Glazier. “When she sang, she’d say ‘This is God blessing me.’” spacer

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