What Happened to the Black Opera

Vocalist Denyce Graves performs "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" for the audience gathered on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol for the PBS National Memorial Day Concert in Washington, D.C., May 24, 2009. / Chad

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It’s no surprise. Black musicians, entertainers, and performers dominate the music industry. But, back in the day, we were excluded from classical art forms and deemed ill-suited for the (generally) conservative culture that some classical arts promote.

Insert Mary Caldwell Dawson of Pittsburgh, PA: the legendary founder of the National Negro Opera Company who refused to let racism and discrimination prevent Black people from learning classical music.

Schools, water fountains, and restaurants weren’t the only segregated institutions during the Jim Crow Era. Black citizens weren’t allowed in certain musical halls and musical schools - preventing them from receiving formal classical music training.

Dawson filled the void in 1941 by starting the National Negro Opera Company (NNOC). She gave a voice to African-American composers, musicians, and singers of the classical genres.

Through performances of “Aida,” “Faust, and “Ouanga, Ouanga,” across the urban metropolis scene, NNOC would soon be recognized as a beacon of Black talent.

Caldwell, like many of our community’s greatest singers, began her career in her community church. However, she wanted to take it to the next level. This led her to enroll and graduate from the New England Conservatory of Music as the sole African-American in her class.

With aspirations to sing opera professionally, she pursued higher-level training in voice and piano with the Chicago Musical College in New York. Caldwell cleaned dental offices in order to defray the costs of her esteemed education.

Caldwell was no stranger to hard work - and likely valued those same characteristics in her partner. After marrying Walter Dawson, a master electrician who operated his own electrical service shop in Homewood, Caldwell opened her first music school - Caldwell Dawson School of Music - above his shop.

She’d accept payment and barters for her services, but likely also gave some lessons free of charge given her passion for the craft and commitment to youth development.

The Cardwell Dawson Choir, made up of both youth and adults from the Pittsburgh area, garnered attention nationwide. She even generated enough fanfare to perform at the 1939 World’s Fair in NYC.

After serving as President of the National Organization of Negro Musicians, using personal connections with her infectious attitude for fundraising, and imputing her courageous community-driven spirit into the essence of her work, Dawson formed the National Negro Opera Company in 1941.

While the NNOC was not the only African-American group to perform opera on stage, Dawson’s creation surpassed its predecessors and contemporaries in breadth, scope and longevity.

The school did not skimp on production. Its performance of “Aida” cost the equivalent of $100,000 in today’s dollars.

Dawson’s ability to produce such high-cost and quality productions when racial and economic discrimination ran rampant is evidence of her tenacity and unrelenting commitment to her craft. In addition to preparing the next generation, Dawson performed solo shows to fundraise in churches and community gatherings.

Her classical repertoire and civic engagement helped form chapters of the opera guild across the United States. Although the organization’s development dissipated with her death, her legacy lives on in thousands of musicians and singers that she taught and mentored.

In the spirit of her legacy, let’s continue to follow the careers of contemporary, Black opera singers and classical musicians like Eric Owens and Janai Bruggar. Let’s celebrate the diversity of our community’s talent and never forget to #PushBlack.

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