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The National Negro Opera Company — Black History Month

Early home of the National Negro Opera Company, 7101 Apple Street, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Neighbors dubbed the house “Mystery Manor” because of the famous comings and goings. This house has a rich history. Businessman William “Woogie” Harris, brother of famed Pittsburgh photographer “Teenie” Harris, bought the house in 1930. First, it served as apartment to famous African-Americans who visited the city but because of Jim Crow laws were not allowed to stay in other parts of the city:  Lena Horne, Sarah Vaughn, Cab Calloway, Joe Louis, Roberto Clemente, to name a few. Second, it was the early home of Mary Cardwell Dawson‘s National Negro Opera Company.

The National Negro Opera Company was the first permanent African-American Opera company in the United States. It remained based in Pittsburgh until 1960 and lasted until 1962. The interracial performing arts organization was founded in 1941 by Mary Cardwell Dawson (1894-1962). For twenty years, the National Negro Opera Company and its founder/director Mary Cardwell Dawson staged large-scale opera productions featuring African-American performers.

The company had guilds located in various cities in the northeastern United States and performed before sold-out crowds in venues such as Carnegie Hall and the Metropolitan Opera House. Its repertory included “Aida,” “La Traviata” and “Il Trovatore” (Giuseppe Verdi), “Faust” (Charles Gounod), “Carmen” (Georges Bizet), “Ouanga” (Clarence Cameron White), and “The Ordering of Moses” (R. Nathaniel Dett). Though Dawson’s intention was to match the splendor of the Metropolitan Opera Company, the company never enjoyed the government and aristocratic patronage required to stage grand opera, and the company’s operations came to an end shortly after the death of Mrs. Dawson in 1962.

Mary Cardwell Dawson

She attended the New England Conservatory, financed entirely by cleaning a Boston dentist’s office, where she graduated with degrees in piano and voice in 1925. At 31, she was the only African-American in her class.

Mary Cardwell’s dream was to be an opera singer, but after further study in Chicago and New York and the realization that opportunities were not forthcoming, she returned to Pittsburgh in 1927, not only with a new dream, but with a master electrician, Walter Dawson, her new husband.

She opened the Cardwell Dawson School of Music above her husband’s electrical service shop on Frankstown Avenue in Homewood, and for fourteen years she continued to train hundreds of African-Americans in the art of opera. Cardwell-Dawson was enterprising. She recruited from many churches. She recruited elevator operators, laborers, domestics, drivers, janitors, school children. Some sought her out, some bartered for lessons, one woman ironed for her and a man offered to drive her wherever she needed to go.

In Pittsburgh, her choirs were praised in The Pittsburgh Courier and The Pittsburgh Press. By 1939, the Cardwell Dawson Choir was nationally-recognized and had been invited to perform at the World’s Fair in New York City. A consummate campaigner and traveler, she raised money for her choirs. A consummate networker, she was elected president of The National Organization of Negro Musicians.

Finally, in 1941, the National Negro Opera Company came into being. Its first performance coincided with the August convention of the National Association of Negro Musicians in Pittsburgh. Cardwell-Dawson had created a place where hundreds of marginalized artists to perform music’s most elite form.

Madame Lillian Evanti seated on train in Europe

One of Dawson’s greatest acquirements was Lillian Evanti, a coloratura soprano who had already established herself on European stages by 1943. Throughout the 30s, Evanti auditioned repeatedly for the Metropolitan Opera and was repeatedly rejected. When the National Negro Opera Company presented “La Traviata” on a floating stage near the Watergate in Washington in 1943, Evanti played Violetta, its tragic heroine.

Grace W. Tompkins, a Chicago critic, described that evening in 1943:

“As the curtains parted on Violetta’s drawing room, and Evanti made her entrance, wave after wave of thunderous applause rolled out over the listening Potomac. Metro police circled the barge as small boats of spectators bobbed on the water. The shore was packed with people.”

“It should be of great significance to the thousands of young music students and concert aspirants all over the country that this new field, the field of grand opera, which was opened for the first time to Negro musicians on a large scale in 1941, should yield such gratifying results in its first attempts,” Tompkins continued.

National Negro Opera Company — “Aida”

Company Debut

The debut performance of “Aida” at the Syria Mosque in October 1941 is not the first time African-Americans have ever taken an opera stage en masse. Several companies were formed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in New York City, but none had the breadth or longevity of Dawson’s National Negro Opera Company. Newspapers commented on Dawson’s ambition.

Ralph Lewando, a critic for The Pittsburgh Press, praised the company’s “worthy aims” in the face of great expense.

The Chicago Herald-American wrote: “Opera has a nasty habit of running into big deficits no matter how much you skimp and save.”

In the Pittsburgh Courier, the city’s black newspaper, P.L. Prattis described the $9,000 production of amateurs in an unfamiliar milieu as “a tenuous and tangled skein of Negro talent.” Yet, the quality impresses him: “It wasn’t simply ‘good for Negroes’ opera. It was a show that might have roused Verdi himself.” He pleaded with his readers: “Tickets at the door did not pay for all of this. Donations from all over the land helped to pay. We must continue to pay. You must see and hear this opera. It is a stunning retort to your critics.”

When she moved to Washington, D.C., in 1943 — her husband had been recruited to work for the government as a master electrician — she established another chapter of the National Negro Opera Company. The Washington and the Pittsburgh companies performed in tandem, with support of opera guilds and the interchange of musicians and singers. By 1945, Dawson had organized opera guilds in Chicago, Cleveland and New York.

Production was not prolific, but it was regular. How often, and where, depended on which guild has raised enough money and on the availability of stages. The company went everywhere and performed in stadiums, theaters, a Baptist church, Carnegie Hall, the Met, Madison Square Garden, the Watergate, the Syria Mosque.

While the Pittsburgh chapter performed nearly every two years, the Washington chapter performed annually,  sometimes twice in a year. Clark Griffith, owner of the Washington Senators Baseball Club, gave the opera company use of Griffith Stadium free of charge for nine straight years. The newspapers don’t say why.

Hard Times

But not everyone was so gracious and supportive. After two rainouts on stages along the Potomac River, several patrons drove their Cadillacs to Dawson’s home for their 75-cent refunds.

Dawson was stung by this, especially in light of the devastating losses the rains caused. She recovered nothing for the wages she paid, the costs of her musicians’ travel, staging and stage construction costs, costume rentals. And when trade-union representatives push onto the stage in the middle of a performance to demand that Dawson pay her musicians professional scale, she paid wages she could not afford. She never paid herself.

While the opera company struggled to raise enough money to keep the productions coming, the Pittsburgh Courier wrote: “How easy it would be for one of the many foundations in Pittsburgh to underwrite such an effort as hers with a yearly grant of $10,000. Such a grant would allow her to eradicate quickly all imperfections. This would be a cheap price to pay, for a few years, for what Mrs. Dawson can contribute to our cultural renaissance.”

In 1961 President Kennedy appointed Dawson to the National Music Committee. When Dawson died in 1962 at the age of 60, the National Negro Opera Company, too, dies, insolvent.

Mary Cardwell Dawson, pictured, founded the National Negro Opera Co., first in Pittsburgh then in four other cities during the 1940s. She created a legacy of classical music training for African-Americans. Her niece, Barbara Lee of Munhall, saved a body of historical memorabilia that is now in safe-keeping a the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. (Bob Donaldson, Post-Gazette)

The Ongoing Legacy of Mary Cardwell Dawson and the National Negro Opera Company

Robert McFerrin, baritone. Robert McFerrin, the first black male soloist at the Metropolitan Opera. If you love Bobby McFerrin, then you probably remember his father, Robert McFerrin, singing a piece in “Discipline” on the Medicine Man album. He received an undergraduate degree from Chicago Musical College in 1946, then moved to New York. In 1949, he appeared in William Grant Still’s Troubled Island at New York City Opera and as Amonasro in Aida with the National Negro Opera Company. He joined the New England Opera Company in 1950. In 1953, McFerrin won the Metropolitan Opera national auditions and became the first black male to join the company. He made his debut in 1955 as Amonasro, three weeks after contralto Marian Anderson became the first black to sing a principal role at the Met. His other roles at the house were Valentin (in Gounod’s Faust) and Rigoletto. McFerrin also sang the role of Porgy (played onscreen by Sidney Poitier) in the soundtrack of the 1959 film of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. He toured internationally as a recitalist and was also active as a teacher.

Ahmad Jamal, jazz pianist. He began studying with Dawson in 1937, was invited to a ceremony for a state historical marker to be erected at the Apple Avenue site in 1994. He wrote to Barbara Lee: “It is very painful not being there with all of you. As you know, my studies began with your aunt when I was 7 years old. I can still hear her heels on the staircase coming down to give me my weekly lessons.

“…Elderly women who were young women Dawson trained have since trained singers who have won Metropolitan Opera auditions. These same singers have trained and are training African-American high school and college singers, themselves hungry to study at places like the New England Conservatory.”

But the situation suffers a curious resemblance to the one that motivated Dawson to begin her company. Operatically trained African-Americans in Pittsburgh for years have champed at the bit for roles.

The Pittsburgh Opera employs four African-Americans, two men and two women, in its chorus of 63. An estimated two to three dozen potential performers scattered throughout the metro area field requests for the occasional concert, festival or banquet, or they work in banks and other businesses, or they teach.

O’Labrice Beckom coaches a student.

In 1943 O’Labrice Beckom, a fifteen year old lyric soprano, auditioned for the Pittsburgh Opera.  The opera judge said Boy, if we could only paint her white.” Barred from performing by the Jim Crow policy of the Pittsburgh Opera, Beckom sang opera, instead, on national stages across the country with the National Negro Opera Company.  When Mary Cardwell Dawson moved to Washington, Beckom helped to manage the Pittsburgh branch of the National Negro Opera Company. She directed choirs at several churches and taught music in the Pittsburgh Public Schools and the Hill House. “Before a hip and a knee replacement and a heart attack in 2006,” writes Diana Nelson Jones of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “she walked like a diva, with her neck high and shoulders back.”

Neal Huguley, left, listens to Darrell Hutcherson sing during the three-day gospel music workshop this week at the Benedum Center. (Gabor Degre/Post-Gazette)

Demareus Cooper and Neal Huguley, both teachers now, have won Metropolitan Opera auditions here, Huguley in the ’60s and Cooper inthe ’80s.

Huguley’s good fortune was to audition in New York: “You sang for 45 minutes in four different languages, and you didn’t see a soul but the accompanist,” he says. But he foresaw a brutal career. “I thought, ‘This isn’t what I want for my life.’ I wanted to teach.” Today, he’s a part-time instructor at the African-American Music Institute in Homewood.

With a different temperament, Cooper, a dramatic soprano, might have made a career in New York,

Demareus Cooper as Erda Mother Earth Opera Theater in Pittsburgh

but she wanted a life beyond opera. She recently finished her first year teaching at the High School for the Creative and Performing Arts (CAPA) in Homewood. “Opera doesn’t consume me,” she says. “But there are operas I’d love to perform and symphonies I’d love to sing with.”

Thomas Douglas

Such sentiments have pushed Thom Douglas, a 42-year-old tenor and Carnegie Mellon University voice instructor, to try to rejuvenate Dawson’s dream. By year’s end, he says, the Neighborhood Opera Company, his effort to give African-Americans a consistent stage, will perform, most likely at one of CMU’s concert halls.”

Not yet with underwriters or a board, but musicians on his list of potential performers say they believe he will wrestle it into being: “The seeds are waiting to sprout,” says Robert Pruitt, a Pittsburgh Opera chorus tenor who teaches at CAPA and Point Park College” (Diana Nelson Jones is a Post-Gazette staff writer).

Evans-Tibbs Collection, Anacostia Community Museum Archives, Smithsonian Institution La traviata

Online Sources:

Anacostia Community Museum, Smithsonian Museum, WQED.org, National Opera House.org, Young Preservationists.org, Explore PA History.com, Post Gazette.com, Today In African American History.com, Pittsburgh Live.com, “Grand Opera as Racial Uplift: The National Negro Opera Company 1941-1962” 2009 thesis by Christopher Wells, University of North Carolina.
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About Amirh

Ever-evolving spirit moving about via body. I'm a writer and a an ever-evolving spirit in service of animals through my blog and Buddhist and Reiki practices. My blogs: AllCreaturesLargeAndSmall.wordpress.com. and AmirhBahati.wordpress.com. For more about me: https://amirhbahati.wordpress.com/about/

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