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picture - Camilla WilliamsOpera Review

by William Gooch

published February 20, 2009


One Fine Day: A Tribute to Camilla Williams

presented by the New York City Opera

and the Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture

on February 11


Most great legends are remembered for their inimitable talent, great wit, and their impact on their art. When they are honored and feted—and great artists always are—at great banquets, rarely are the platitudes about their generosity and kindness heaped on them like many flower bouquets after a debut. Such was not the case with the tribute to the great soprano Camilla Williams on February 11. Known for the beautiful spinto qualities of her soprano and her legendary debut at New York City Opera as Cio-Cio San in Madama Butterfly in 1946, Ms. Williams is also known and loved for her deep spiritual devotion and the generosity of her teaching. At 89 years of age, she is still a grand diva, but in the best sense of the word: a female operatic star, a goddess. Resplendent in a white fox stole with a matching sequined turban, Ms. Williams radiated an effervescence and mental agility that belied her advanced age. Accompanied by her pianist of 67 years, Dr. Boris Bazala, Ms. Williams reminisced about the many triumphs and struggles of her long career.


picture - Porgy and Bess albumBorn in the segregated town of Danville, Virginia, Ms. Williams early on set her goal on becoming a classical singer. For African Americans, a career in opera was unheard of in the 1940s. Even the great contralto Marian Anderson didn’t appear in a full-scale opera until 1955. (Ms. Anderson appeared at the Metropolitan Opera House as Ulrica in Giuseppe Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschero. Although her debut at the Metropolitan Opera was of great historical significance, at the age of 58, her voice was well past its prime.) With the assistance of the Philadelphia Alumni Association of Virginia State College, Ms. Williams was able to study voice with the renowned Madame Marion Szekely-Freschl.  And after being endorsed by retired Metropolitan Opera diva, Geraldine Farrar, Ms. Williams debuted in Madama Butterfly at New York City Opera, making her the first female African American singer to appear with a major American company.


There have been many first in Ms. Williams’ life. She sang the first Aida at New York City Opera; she was the first black artist to sing a major role with the Vienna State Opera; she sang the role of Ilia in the first complete New York production of Mozart’s Idomeneo; she sang the role of Bess in the first complete recording of Porgy and Bess; she was first African American professor of voice at Indiana University; and, she was the first black professor at Beijing’s Central Conservatory.


picture - Camilla WilliamsAlong with these triumphs came disappointments and struggles. “In preparing for [Madama] Butterfly, I didn’t even have the nine dollars for the score,” said Williams, reflecting on her early struggles. Oftentimes, because of her race, there were a limited amount of roles that she was invited to perform. “What I love is Mozart, but [rarely] could I do the Mozart roles because they require a white [powdered] face and white wigs. So, I was asked to do the dark roles: Mimi, Nedda, Aida, and Butterfly.” But through it all she persevered always the professional, always giving every task her full commitment and concentration.


Many of the guests in attendance testified to Ms. Williams’ musical gifts, fortitude and character. Colleagues Maestro Julius Rudel, Lawrence Gee, and Dr. Boris Bazala spoke of her attention to detail in preparation for a role and how she was able to work vocal miracles with her students. And the many students in attendance lauded her with tearful tributes, flowers, and words of gratitude.


How wonderful it must be to have lived one’s life with passion, purpose, and a sense of adventure. If all of us had the courage to knock down the walls of Jericho in our own lives and make the bumpy way a little plainer for the next generation, then maybe, like Camilla Ella Williams, ‘our soul will look back and know, how we got over.’


williamgooch @


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