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Williams, Camilla (1919-) | Amistad Research Center

Name: Williams, Camilla (1919-)

Historical Note:

Recognized as being the first African American female to hold a regular position with a leading United States opera company, Camilla Williams, a lyric soprano, performed around the world, became the cultural ambassadress for the U.S. State Department, taught voice at several American colleges, and received many accolades for her musical career.  Williams performed the title role in Puccini's Madama Butterfly, became the protege of the Geraldine Farrar, and performed "Bess" in the first complete phonographic recording of Gershwin's Porgy and Bess. Additionally, she performed the title role in the Vienna premiere of Menotti's Saint of Bleeker Street.

Williams was born in Danville, Virginia, to Booker T. Williams and Fannie Cary Williams. In 1941, she earned a BS degree from Virginia State College. Williams taught third grade and music at Westmoreland Elementary School in Danville, Virginia, between 1941 and1942. In 1942, Williams began to study voice with Marian Szekely-Freschl and modern foreign languages at the University of Pennsylvania. The Virginia State College Alumni Association had raised a fund to support Williams' studies.

Following her studies at the Virginia State College, she immediately received recognition for her musical talent.  In 1943 and 1944, she won the Marian Anderson Award.  Additionally, in 1944, Williams won the Philadelphia Orchestra Youth Concert Audition Award, signed a contract with RCA Victor, and made recordings of two spirituals, "City Called Heaven" and "O, What a Beautiful City." That same year, on November 11, 1944, she appeared with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy.  Moreover, after the retired soprano Geraldine Farrar heard a recital by Williams on December 16, 1945, she adopted Williams as her protege.

In 1946, Laszlo Halasz, the musical director of the New York City Opera Company, hired Williams to play the title role in Giacomo Puccini's Madama Butterfly, an opera that she had never seen.  Her operatic debut on May 15, 1946 in Madama Butterfly was very successful.  Between 1946 and1951, Williams worked as the leading soprano with the New York City Opera Company.  On January 6, 1947, the Newspaper Guild of New York gave her its Page One Award for being the first Black female to hold a regular position with a major opera company.  In 1948, Williams performed in Giuseppe Verdi's Aida, and then embarked on a concert tour of Central America in the summer of 1949.

In 1950, Williams married New York City attorney and former schoolmate, Charles Theodore Beavers, and continued to perform and receive recognition in New York and around the world.  In April of 1950, Williams made three performances of Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 8 and performed the "Symphony of a Thousand" with the New York Philharmonic Symphony under Leopold Stokowsi.  In the summer, she made a concert tour of Venezuela and the Caribbean.  In January of 1951, The Chicago Defender placed Williams on its 1950 Honor Roll for bringing democracy to opera.

In 1951, Williams started to record her music and continued performing.  Williams made three ten-inch phono-recordings for MGM: "Camilla Williams Recital," "Camilla Williams Sings Spirituals," and "Highlights from Aida (New York City Opera Company, conducted by Laszlo Halasz)."  In April of 1951, she played the part of "Bess" in the first complete recording of Georde Gershwin's Porgy and Bess (Columbia OSL 162, also Columbia Odyssey reissue). Additionally, she took a leading role in Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Idomeneo in New York City. In June, Williams made an appearance with the Boston Pops Orchestra under Arthur Fiedler, among the first of her many concerts featuring selections from Porgy and Bess.

During the 1950s, Williams performed more recitals and expanded her travels to Europe.  Between 1951 and 1958, Williams did a series of duet recitals with baritones Todd Duncan and Lawrence Winters. On January 8, 1952, Williams performed her first recital in New York City Town Hall. In 1954, she embarked on her first European recital tour, including appearances in London, Amsterdam, The Hague, Salzburg, Vienna, and Berlin. In 1955, Williams' contract with London Sadler's Wells Opera had to be cancelled because she could not get a British labor permit. In the spring of 1955, Williams became the first African American to appear at the Vienna State Opera, where she sang Madama Butterfly. In the summer, she performed the title part in the European premiere of Gian Carlo Menotti's Saint of Bleeker Street.

Between 1956 and 1959, Williams made annual appearances in New York City Citizenship Day programs, received much recognition for her musical career, and continued to travel.  In 1957, Virginia State College awarded her the 75th Anniversary Certificate of Merit. That same year, she made the first of two concert tours of Israel. On March 31, 1958, Williams made her first Town Hall recital in six years, and in December, she was listed in Who's Who of American Women. From December 1958 to January 1959, Williams toured fourteen northern and central African countries under auspices of the America National Theatre and Academy and the U.S. State Department. In March 1959, Williams became the first African American to receive the Key to the City of Danville, Virginia. Additionally, on May 18, she received the New York University Presidential Citation in honor of her tour in Africa.

Between 1959 and 1961, Williams performed at the White House, important celebrations, and represented the U.S. State Department on another world tour. On September 27, 1959, Williams made a command performance at the White House during the first state visit to the U.S. of the Crown Prince and Princess of Japan. Between October and November 1960, Williams made appearances in Mahler's Symphony No. 4 with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Ormandy in celebration of the 100th anniversary of Mahler's birth.  Moreover, in 1961, she made a State Department tour of Japan, South Korea, Indochina, the Philippines, New Zealand, and Australia.

Throughout 1962 and 1963, Williams received a variety of awards from prominent music organizations. In 1962, Noble Sissle, Broadway songwriter and president of the Art, Culture, and Civic Guild, presented the Guild's Award to Williams. In 1963, Williams received the Negro Musician's Association Plaque, the Harlem Opera and World Fellowship Society Award, and the Radio Station WLIB Award for Contributions to Music. Between 1969 and 1970, Williams made Chamber recital tours with clarinetist David Glazer. In 1969, U.S. composer Meyer Kupferman wrote a song cycle, The Conceptual Wheel, for Williams and Glazer.

Throughout the 1970s, Williams started working as a teacher of voice, and continued to perform. In 1970, Williams taught voice at Brooklyn College and Bronx College. In 1971, she performed in the first New York production of George Handel's Orlando. That same year, Who's Who in the World listed Williams in the first edition. Additionally, on September 23, 1972, the State of Virginia honored Williams as a "Distinguished Virginian." In 1973, she taught voice at Queens College and Talent Unlimited, New York. In 1974, she taught voice at the Danville Museum of Fine Arts, which put her in their History Hall of Fame. Additionally, the City of Danville, Virginia also named a park after Williams.

In 1977, she became the first African American professor of voice at Indiana University.  Two years later, in 1979, she was honored by Indiana University, School of Music, Black Music Students Organization for Outstanding Achievements in the field of music.  That same year, Kentucky Governor Julian M. Carroll also honored her as a "Kentucky Colonel."

Throughout the 1980s, she received many awards and recognition from many organizations.  In 1980, she became an honored member of Sigma Alpha Iota. She became a member of the National Society of Arts and Letters in 1981. The next year, Williams was an honored guest to the New York Philharmonic 10,000th Concert Celebration and was honored by the Philadelphia Pro Arte Society. In 1983, she became the first Black professor of voice to teach at Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, China.  That same year, she received the Distinguishing Award from the Center for Leadership and Development.  In 1984, she was included in the first edition of Most Important Women of the Twentieth Century, by the New Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Virginia State University named a residence hall the "Taylor-Williams student residence hall" in honor of Billy Taylor and Camilla Williams in 1985.  That same year, she received an Honorary Doctor of Music from Virginia State University at Petersburg.  Additionally, in 1989, she received the Arts and Humanities Award from Virginia State University.

Sources: The papers of Camilla Williams at the Amistad Research Center.
Note Author: Mossialand Novena Williams and Lester Sullivan, Jr.

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