Black History Month is well underway, and with a paltry 29 days with which to revel in the achievements of Blacks here in America and throughout the African diaspora, we need to get moving!
Camilla Williams is a great place to start. A lyric soprano, her debut in the lead role in Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” with the New York City Opera on May 15, 1946, marked a triple threat. She had never performed in an opera before; the NYC Opera had never staged “Madama Butterfly”; and no African-American had landed a contract with a major opera company previously. Ms. Williams died just last week, at around 93 years old. Sadly, Ms. Williams passed away this week, as I read in an obit in The New York Times.
What a life Camilla Williams must have lead! She was the daughter of a chauffeur and a domestic worker, really humble beginning, like more Blacks who go on to earn a line in the history books. Williams started serious vocal training from a Welsh instructor who taught at a local white college. Jim Crow segregation laws, however, required that she take lessons at his home. She graduated college, became a teacher, and embarked on a series of vocal scholarships to hone her craft.
It is a tragedy, I think, that I heard about this American gem just as she left this world, especially because I genuinely admire lyricists. Enough of the contrived, digitally enhanced embroidery that peppers so much of popular much today! Let’s hear about life, love and loss from the masters.
The Times put it another way and more eloquently:
That Miss Williams’s historic role is scarcely remembered today is rooted in both the rarefied world of opera-house politics and the ubiquitous racial anxiety of midcentury America. And though she was far too well mannered to trumpet her rightful place in history, her relegation to its margins caused her great private anguish.
“The lack of recognition for my accomplishments used to bother me, but you cannot cry over those things,” Miss Williams said in a 1995 interview with the opera scholar Elizabeth Nash. “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.”
I’ve only been to see two operas: Carmen and La Traviata, but I immensely enjoyed both. It’s too bad that the hustle and bustle of everyday life prevents us from seeing more productions. The Met, the American Ballet Theater and the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater are just a handful of the cultural institutions that I feel are sorely neglected today. I don’t understand why more people don’t see the beauty, so moving and perfectly executed, in the fine arts. Hubby and I took Little Sister to see the Alvin Ailey company when it came through Newark, hoping to instill an appreciation of a beautiful art form. She was languid and pouty through the whole thing, and not even the rousing, masterfully done “Revelations” could get her to stop slumping in her seat. It bothered me quite a bit, but I suppose that since the dancers were not bumpin’ and grindin’, or shaking her hands for their men to “put a ring on it.” their exertions were lost on one so young.
Please don’t get me wrong. I heartily congratulate Beyonce and her cohort on her well-earned success. It would be nice, is all, if somehow the public’s musical and artistic diet could be more balanced, and if they could embrace those shake our hearts, not their booties.