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January 31, 2012

Camilla Williams, who broke down racial barriers in opera, dies at 92

Camilla Williams, who broke a racial barrier several years before Marian Anderson famously did so at the Metropolitan Opera, died from cancer at the age of 92 in Bloomington, Ind., where she was a professor emeritus at Indiana University.

Ms. Williams is credited as the first African American to be featured in a starring role with a major American opera company. That debut on May 15, 1946 was in the title role of "Madama Butterfly" with the New York City Opera. The soprano went on to become the first singer in a major role at the Vienna State Opera in 1954, a year before contralto Marian Anderson made her Met debut.

Ms. Williams also was involved in another bit of history -- she sang the national anthem at the Lincoln Memorial before Martin Luther King's delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech there.

Here is a disarming video clip of Ms. Williams describing her early career, which got a boost from the legendary ...

Geraldine Farrar. I have also attached an extended excerpt from a 1953 recital disc that provides a fine example of Ms. Williams' artistry:

Posted by Tim Smith at 11:01 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Opera

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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