It’s a sad thing to read an obituary and discover that someone wonderful was alive for many years and you never knew it. It happens to me a lot. The only saving grace is that now, at last, I know about them and I know they made a difference and I’m grateful.
Camilla Williams. Photo by Carl Van Vechten, 1946.
Today, I’m grateful for Camilla Williams. That she died the other day, at the beginning of Black History Month, means that many people who have never heard of her will learn of her significance at just the right time. Camilla Williams was the first black woman to sing with a major United States opera company. She did that nearly a decade before Marian Anderson graced the stage of the Metropolitan Opera, only she sang with the Met’s poorer cousin, the newly formed New York City Opera.
Camilla Williams was born in 1919, the daughter of a chauffeur and a domestic worker in the then Jim Crow town of Danville, Virginia. Her family was musical,, but she might not have discovered opera if a Welsh singing teacher hadn’t come to town. He’d heard there were beautiful black voices in town: he wasn’t allowed to teach them in the white college where he worked, so the class met in a private home, and at twelve years old Camilla Williams learned to sing Mozart.
Because she had a voice that was operatic and marvelous, and despite the racism of the music business and the nation, she managed to embark on a modest concert career by the time she was in her twenties. Her big break came in 1944 at a recital in Stamford, Connecticut when she attracted the attention of one of the most important singers of the first half of the 20th century, Geraldine Farrar. Taken by Camilla Willliam’s singing, Farrar contacted an impresario with the suggestion that he manage her career. Remembered Ms. Williams, “He didn’t believe the great Farrar would take time to write a letter about an unknown little colored girl” and called Farrar to be certain the note was from her. “When [he] confirmed it really was Miss Farrar, he was dumbfounded.”
Farrar also contacted the director of the newly founded New York City Opera and suggested an audition.Two years later, when the war with Japan ended and Madame Butterfly once again became acceptable fare, Camilla Williams debuted as Cio-Cio-San, the same role Geraldine Farrar had introduced at the Met in 1907. “Raved the New York Times, “there was a warmth and intensity in her singing that lent dramatic force of no mean order to the climactic episodes, and something profoundly human and touching in her delivery ….”
Over the next eight years she sang roles like Nedda (Pagliacci), Mimi (Boheme) and Aida at New York City. She also appeared with the Boston Lyric Opera and the Vienna State Opera, and was a soloist with some of the world’s leading orchestras. She sang Bess for what was then the most complete recording of “Porgy and Bess” (Columbia Records), and toured worldwide as a recitalist.
Over the years, she crossed paths with Marian Anderson many times. At the 1963 March on Washington, she sang “The Star Spangled Banner,” just before Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, substituting for Anderson who was caught in traffic. The two women were fast friends.
Even though Camilla Williams never achieved the fame of her friend, she enjoyed a life in music. Her voice is very different from the Anderson’s dark contralto. It’s a lyric soprano’s voice—light, bright and shimmering at the top. You can hear it on a recording of an early recital on YouTube. There’s also a brief speech that she gave at a tribute for singer Giulio Gara. Talking about some of the problems she’s encountered because of race over the years, she tells a wonderfully funny story of a tenor whose racism made it difficult for him to sing with her. Ah, but she inadvertently got her revenge when they did a love duet and “he touched me and something happened to his body—his face got so red and he was so embarrassed but I paid no attention….”
Of the racism she struggled against for most of her life she said, “There is no place for bitterness in singing. It works on the cords and ruins the voice. In his own good time, God brings everything right.”
Ms. Williams was married to a civil rights attorney for 19 years until his death in 1969. She taught singing first in New York City and then at Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music at Bloomington, where she retired in 1997.
Which takes me to the part of the story I like best because it’s about the elderly Camilla Williams, who continued to charm everyone. She was always outgoing, vivacious, critical and “a consummate diva.” Recalls a friend, “She’d always dress as if she was going to be soloing at an opera. She never went out without a gorgeous hat, a beautiful umbrella, heels and a mink stole.”
In 1947, she had met Bulgarian-born pianist, Boris Bazala, who became her accompanist. The two traveled and concertized together for many years, and remained friends for the decades after. Bazala remembered the challenges she faced because of her race. He insisted on riding in the back of the train when she was only permitted to ride in front; often, they couldn’t sit together in restaurants. After his wife died, the two friends lived together and continued making music together until he died at 100 last year. Every day was a celebration of their friendship— the refugee from Eastern Europe and the woman who “opened the door for Marian Anderson.”.