Camilla Ella Williams

Ella Williams was born on this date in 1919. She was a Black operatic soprano.

Camilla Ella Williams was born in Danville, Virginia, to Fannie Carey Williams and Cornelius Booker. She was the youngest of four children (Mary, Helen, and Cornelius). Her father was a chauffeur. Her grandfather, Alexander Carey, was a choir leader and singer.

By the age of eight, young Williams was dancing, playing the piano, and singing at school and Danville Calvary Baptist Church. She trained at Virginia State College (now Virginia State University). After receiving a B.S. there, she studied privately in New York. She earned a Marian Anderson Fellowship in 1943 and again in 1944. She continued to receive honors in vocal competitions. Beginning in 1944, Williams then performed on the coast-to-coast RCA radio network.

In 1946 she was the first Black to receive a regular contract with a major American opera company and made her debut with the New York City Opera singing the title role in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. During the next six years, she performed Nedda in Ruggiero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, Mimi in Giacomo Puccini’s La Bohème and the title role in Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida. Williams sang throughout the United States and Europe with various other opera companies. In 1951 she sang Bess in the landmark first complete recording of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess.

Camilla Williams, 2010

Under the baton of the Gershwin expert, Lehman Engel, this recording remains the best, most authentic recorded performance of the opera and made Miss Williams internationally famous. In April 1954 she became the first African American to sing a major role with the Vienna State Opera when she performed her signature part of Cio-Cio-San. In 1963, she sang the “Star-Spangled Banner” at the White House and before 250,000 people in Washington DC preceding Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech with accompanist George Malloy.

Also a noted concert artist, she toured throughout the United States, in fourteen African countries, Formosa, South Korea, China, Japan, Laos, South Vietnam, the Philippines, New Zealand, and Australia. In addition, she was a soloist with the Royal Philharmonic, BBC Symphony, Berlin Philharmonic, Vienna Symphony, Chicago Symphony, Philadelphia Orchestra, and the New York Philharmonic under the direction of Leopold Stokowski. In 1950 she recorded Gustave Mahler’s Symphony number VIII with Stokowski and the New York Philharmonic.

Williams was the first Black Professor of Voice appointed to the voice faculty of what is now known as the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music in 1977 and in 1984 was the first African American instructor at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, China. In 1995 she was an inaugural recipient of the National Opera Association’s “Lift Every Voice” Legacy Award, honoring the contributions of African Americans to the field of opera and in 1996 was honored as Outstanding African American Singer/Pioneer by Harvard University.

In 1997, Williams became a Professor Emerita of Voice at Indiana University Jacobs School of Music. Her career as one of the pioneering African American singers was profiled in Aida’s Brothers and Sisters: Black Voices in Opera, a PBS documentary first broadcast in February 2000. Williams was also profiled in the 2006 PBS documentary The Mystery of Love. She was one of eight women honored by the Library of Virginia during Women’s History Month in 2007 as part of its Virginia Women in the History project.

In 2009, a “Tribute to Camilla Williams” program was held in New York City’s Schomburg Center’s Langston Hughes Auditorium sponsored by the New York City Opera and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, and on September 4, 2009, she was awarded the prestigious President’s Medal for Excellence by Indiana University. In 2011 The Edwin Mellen Press published her autobiography “The Life of Camilla Williams, African American Classical Singer, and Diva”.

Camilla Williams died on January 29, 2012, at her Bloomington, Indiana home, surrounded by family and friends. Her husband Charles T. Beavers, who was one of the principal attorneys for civil rights leader Malcolm X, predeceased her.

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