Portrait photograph of soprano Camilla Williams. Camilla Williams, Carl Van Vechten.

She Broke the Color Barrier in American Opera

Portrait photograph of soprano Camilla Williams.

New York: May 31, 1946.

Bust portrait in profile. Gelatin silver print. 1 vols. 25.2 x 18.7 cm. (approximately 9-7/8 x 7-3/8 inches). She Broke the Color Barrier in American Opera. Fine. Atelier stamp on verso, and docketed in pen, giving the name of the sitter, date, and print reference ("III - cc - 15"). From the Estate of Saul Mauriber, Van Vechten's assistant, and the editor/compiler of PORTRAITS: THE PHOTOGRAPHY OF CARL VAN VECHTEN (1978); EXTRAVAGANT CROWD: Carl Van Vechten's Portraits of Women (Beinecke Library, Exhibition Catalogue, 2003). Item #222442

In 1946, the year Van Vechten shot this fine profile portrait of the young soprano, Camilla Williams (b. 1922) became the first Afro-American to sign a contract with a major American opera company (the New York City Opera). Her debut with the company was as the title role in Madame Butterfly; she was also the first to appear in a role not specifically created for black performer. Over the next six years Williams was to perform Nedda in Leoncavallo's Pagliacci, Mimì in Puccini's La Bohème, and Verdi's Aida. In 1954, she appeared as Madame Butterfly with London's Sadler's Wells Opera and later the Vienna State Opera. Miss Williams was also a distinguished concert artist, and performed on tour throughout the United States, in fourteen African countries, in South Korea, Japan, the Philippines, New Zealand, and Australia. From 1977 to 1997, she was professor of voice at Indiana University's School of Music. William died January 29, 2012

The Library of Congress possesses two other images of Williams from this same session; both are half-length views, and neither conveys the intimate detail of this warm bust portrait, which is inscribed to Saul Mauriber, Van Vechten’s assistant.

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