Today I read that famous opera soprano Camilla Williams died. She was 92. It was May 1946 when she debuted with the New York City Opera in New York City, playing Cio-Cio-San in Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly.” World War II had only just ended, the Civil Rights movement not yet begun (the director of “Madame Butterfly” received death threats for casting her), but Camilla Williams, the daughter of a domestic and chauffeur from Virginia, managed to secure a contract with a major American opera company roughly ten years before the better-known Marian Anderson, when in 1955 Anderson became the first African-American to perform with the Metropolitan Opera in New York. (Anderson was already a well-established performer in 1939 when she sang at Lincoln Memorial to a crowd of 75,000 after the Daughters of the American Revolution and District of Columbia Board of Education forbid her to sing at either Constitution Hall or even in the auditorium of a white public high school.)
Despite the significance of that 1946 evening, Williams said she was “primarily confined to playing exotic heroines like Aïda and Cio-Cio-San.”
“They were afraid to put me in a white wig and whiter makeup,” she said, noting that she would have loved to sing Countess and Susanna in Mozart’s “Le Nozze di Figaro.”
Coincidentally, I just re-watched “Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson” last night, a film by Ken Burns (based on a book by Geoffrey C. Ward from 2004, and narrated by Samuel L. Jackson). I confess I do not like everything Mr. Burns does (his documentaries on the Civil War and Baseball sound too much the same, for example), and know that his history is not always accurate. (More on those controversies in the future.) Yet this compassionate portrayal of Jack Johnson, who becomes heavy-weight boxing champion of the world, is stunning, perhaps because the subject himself was so astonishing. Jackson would have been an audacious spirit and a brilliant athlete in any age, but forced to endure Jim Crow, an era of vicious – and visceral – hatred, and to succeed? His strength was superhuman, and it wasn’t primarily in his fists. “I am a man,” Jackson said, a mantra Civil Rights activists would repeat once again in the 1960s. (See the teacher’s guide for Unforgivable Blackness, here.)
Camilla Williams could not of course use her fists to pry open a society that would deny her. But she did use her voice. She had the composure to say, “There is no place for bitterness in singing. It works on the cords and ruins the voice.” One wonders at what personal expense.
Hear a tribute to Camilla Williams.
Listen to Marian Anderson’s moving voice, here.
And read the scholarly work by Adam Fairclough, Better Day Coming. Notice the placards the men are carrying on the cover of the book.