Camilla Williams (1919-2012)

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First black singer to secure US opera company contract dies aged 92

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Opera singer Camilla Williams has died in Indiana aged 92.

The lyric soprano is best known for being the first black woman to secure a contract with an American opera company, in May 1946.

She made her debut at the New York City Opera as Cio-Cio-San, the doomed heroine of Puccini’s Madam Butterfly, and performed other high-profile roles throughout the decade, including Mimi in Puccini’s La bohème and the title role in Verdi’s Aida.

On top of her opera career, Williams was an advocate for civil rights – she sang the national anthem at the 1963 civil rights march in Washington before Martin Luther King’s famous 'I Have a Dream…' speech.

She left the opera stage in 1971 and taught at Brooklyn College, Bronx College and Queens College, and later became the first African-American professor of voice at Indiana University. She retired in 1997.

Her husband, civil rights lawyer Charles Beavers, died in 1969. From 2002 she lived in companionship with Boris Bazala, her former accompanist, who died last year at the age of 100.

She died at her home in Bloomington, Indiana, after suffering from cancer.

Mel Spencer