Camilla Williams: African American Opera Pioneer (1919-2012)

Camilla Williams with her  mentor Geraldine Farrar during Williams' debut in Madama Butterfly, May 1946.

Camilla Williams with her
mentor Geraldine Farrar
during Williams’ debut in
Madama Butterfly, May 1946.

The Amistad Research Center’s staff was saddened to learn of the passing of pioneering opera diva Camilla Williams, who died at her home in Bloomington, Indiana, this past Sunday. Williams was a lyric soprano who was credited with being the first African American woman to hold a regular position with a leading United States opera company. Her accolades were many and well-deserved, but she was best known for her performances in the title role in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, and was a protégé of the creator of the role, Geraldine Farrar. Williams toured internationally throughout Europe, Asia, and Africa beginning in 1950. After retiring from opera in 1971, she taught at Brooklyn College, Bronx College, and Queens College before becoming the first African American professor of voice at Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music. A tribute to Williams can be found on the school’s website.

Williams preparing for the role of Mimi in La Boheme, 1947.

Williams preparing for the role of Mimi in La Boheme, 1947.

In 2011, Williams’ autobiography entitled The Life of Camilla Williams, African American Classical Singer and Diva was published by The Edwin Mellen Press. According to Amistad’s Director of Library and Reference Services, Christopher Harter, Williams was thrilled to see the publication of what she proudly called “my book.” “Ms. Williams and I spoke on the telephone last year and she was pleased that her autobiography had recently been published, but she wanted me to make sure Amistad had a copy in its library!” Not only is the Amistad Research Center pleased to own a copy of the book, but the Camilla Williams papers are one of the premier collections at the Center. The collection not only provides a rich view into Williams’ life and accomplishments, but it is an amazing resource for the study of African American classical and operatic singers.

Flyer for the NAACP's Freedom Spectacular with Camilla Williams listed as a performer, 1964.

Flyer for the NAACP’s Freedom Spectacular with Camilla Williams listed as a performer, 1964.

Posted by Christopher Harter

(Images from the Camilla Williams Papers. May not be reproduced without permission.)

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