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Black History Moment: Camilla Williams

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Camilla Williams was the first African-American woman to receive a contract with a major U.S. opera company. Her major debut was for the New York City Opera in 1946. Williams played Cio-Cio-San in Giacomo Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly,” which gained her immediate adoration from critics.

Williams was born in Danville, VA, a segregated town, and was taken in as a private student by a Welsh teacher. At the age of eight, Camilla was dancing, playing the piano, singing at school and at her home church. She was introduced to theater at age 12. The first production she witnessed was “Madame Butterfly.”

Williams carried a handful of jobs while attending Virginia State College. She held a job as a teacher as well as an usher at the local theater. Camilla Williams was granted the opportunity to work with a well renowned opera singer and voice teacher Marion Szekely-Freschl.

To help activist in Danville, she used her musical talent to help raise money for Civil Rights demonstrators. Later in life, she played Bess in “Porgy and the Bess.” Under the baton of Lehman Engel, this recording is considered by some to be the most authentic recorded performance of the opera and brought Williams international recognition. Her husband of 20 years, Charles Beavers was an attorney who served as Malcolm X’s defense lawyer. He later died in 1979.

With a talent such as Williams’, she was in high demand for the most prestigious events. Williams sang at the famous March on Washington in front of 250,000 people in 1963 just before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. She also performed at Dr. King’s Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in 1964.

In the 70s, Williams began teaching at the collegiate level, making history as the first black professor of voice at Indiana University. She served as a professor at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music.

Her intelligence and skill were welcomed internationally, and her voice was renowned in Panama, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, London and Vienna. While teaching at the Central Conservatory of Beijing, she became the first African-American to hold any teaching position there.

At the age of 92, Williams died of cancer on Sunday, Jan. 29 2012 at her home in Bloomington, Indiana.

  • Amanda Rhoda, Contributor
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