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Opera Singer Camilla Williams dies at 92

1st Feb 2012

Camilla Williams, the first black woman to appear in a leading role with a major US opera company has died in her Bloomington home in Indiana, surrounded by family and friends, aged 92.  She died of complications from cancer, according to Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, where Williams became the first black professor of voice.
Born in Virginia on October 18th 1919, Camilla was the youngest of four children and grew up in a family of self-taught musicians. “All my people sing. We were poor, but God blessed us with music”. Camilla studied with the great teacher Marion Szekely Freschl in New York and earnt a Marion Anderson Fellowship in 1943 and 1944.
Williams' debut with the New York City Opera on 15th May 15 1946, when she was the first African American to receive a regular contract with a major US opera company. Her debut role was the title role, Cio-Cio-San in Puccini’s Madam Butterly. During the next six years, she performed Nedda in Leoncavalle’s Pagliacci, Mimi in Puccini's La Boheme and the title role in Verdi’s Aida. Williams sang throughout the United States and Europe with various other opera companies. In 1951 she sang Bess in the first complete recording of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess under the baton of the Gershwin expert, Lehman Engel. This recording remains the best, most authentic recorded performance of the opera and made Camilla Williams internationally famous. In 1954 she became the first African American to sing a major role with the Vienna State Opera when she performed her signature role of Cio-Cio-San.
Camilla Williams was a lifetime member of the National Association for the advancement of Colored People and performed in her hometown in 1963 to raise funds to free jailed civil rights demostrators. She also sang the “Star Spangled Banner” at the White House before 200,000 people at the 1963 civil rights march on Washington, immediately before Martin Luther King gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. In 1951 she was lauded by The Chicago Defender for bringing democracy to opera.
In 1950, she married defence lawyer Charles Beavers, whose clients included civil rights leader Malcolm X. The couple did not have children. After Beavers' death in 1970, Williams stepped away from opera in 1971 and began teaching at Brooklyn College and Queens college before arriving at Indiana University. She eventually retiring in 1997.

Camilla’s autobiography - The Life of Camilla Williams, African American Classical Singer and Diva - was published last year.