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Williams, Camilla (1919-2012)

Professional opera singer Camilla Williams was born October 18, 1919 in Danville, Virginia to Fannie Carey Williams and Cornelius Booker Williams. The youngest of four siblings, Williams began singing at a young age and was performing at her local church by age eight. At age 12, she began taking lessons from a Welsh singing teacher, Raymond Aubrey, but because of Jim Crow laws the lessons had to be conducted in private in Aubrey’s home.

After high school, Williams attended Virginia State College for Negroes, now Virginia State University, in Petersburg, Virginia. She graduated in 1941 with a bachelor’s degree in music education. After graduation, Williams taught 3rd grade and music at a black public school in Danville. In 1943, fellow Virginia State College alumni paid for the gifted singer to move to Philadelphia and study under influential voice coach Marion Szekely-Freschl. Williams began touring in 1944 and during one concert in Stamford, Connecticut she met Geraldine Farrar, a respected soprano opera singer and the original star of the New York Metropolitan Opera’s Madame Butterfly. Farrar was so impressed with Williams’ voice that she soon took her under her wing and became her mentor. Farrar even helped Williams to sign a recording contract with RCA Victor and to break into the highest levels of American opera.  

In 1946, Ms. Williams had her first major role when she played Cio-Cio-San in Puccini’s Madame Butterfly at City Opera in New York. While at City Opera, Williams also played the roles of Nedda in Leoncavallo’s Pagliaci, Mimi in Puccini’s La bohème, and the title character in Verdi’s Aida.  Throughout her long career she performed with the Boston Lyric Opera, the New York Philharmonic, and became the first African American to sing a leading role at the Vienna State Opera in Austria. Although she had a successful career, due to the color of her skin, Williams was often cast to play “exotic” characters and was sometimes forbidden to play leading roles that had been originally written for a

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