Camilla Ella Williams (born October 18, 1919) is an American operatic soprano and the first African American to receive a contract with a major American opera company.Born in Danville, Virginia, Williams 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. Williams then performed on the coast-to-coast RCA radio network. In May 1946 she debuted with the New York City Opera singing the title role in Puccini‘s Madama Butterfly. Williams sang throughout the United States and Europe with various other opera companies. 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. Williams was appointed to the faculty of Indiana University in 1977. She was one of the pioneering African American singers 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 History project.Williams continues to live in Bloomington, Indiana. She is an outspoken member of her community and a very lively person to be around.She is the widow of the late Charles T. Beavers, who was one of the principal attorneys for civil rights leader Malcolm X. Beavers represented Hinton Johnson, police brutality victim, following the now infamous beating that took place at the hands of police officers of New York City’s 28th precinct on April 26, 1957.The NAACP’s Roy Wilkins had asked her to sing a spiritual at the August 1963 civil rights rally in Washington, D.C. But Camilla Williams ended up singing The Star Spangled Banner as well. Williams recalled that another singer on the program was caught in traffic, and Wilkins needed someone to sing the national anthem. (Contralto Marian Anderson was stuck in traffic.) “I ran up all the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and was out of breath when I got to the microphone,” she said. But she sang to the 200,000 gathered there and the next year, after King won the Nobel Peace Prize, she sang The Battle Hymn of the Republic for a gathering of dignitaries and friends of the civil rights leader. “I was honored to know Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife, Coretta,” she told the audience. Williams was the first black singer on contract to appear with the New York City Opera. She premiered in 1946 as Cio Cio San in Madame Butterfly, and she was the IU School of Music’s first black professor of voice.
She was recently honored by the Library of Virginia as one of Virginia’s Outstanding Women in History.
Each person has his concept of what an angel’s voice sounds like, but certainly an angel’s voice can be no clearer, nor have more vibrant quality, than that of the internationally acclaimed operatic soprano Camilla Williams.
Mrs. Williams was born in Danville, Virginia to Cornelius Booker and Fannie Cary Williams. She was the youngest of four children. Her father was a chauffeur, and her grandfather, Alexander Cary, was a singer and choir leader. Miss Williams’ youth, in relation to music, is best recalled in notes she penned for her entry into the first edition of Who’s Who in the World. She wrote, “My grandparents and parents were self-taught musicians; all of them sang and there was always music in our home. From this, at an early age, was born a desire to be a concert singer.” She was singing in Danville’s Calvary Baptist Church at the age of eight. “All my people sing,” Miss Williams has said. “We were poor, but God blessed us with music.”
Also blessed with a rich mind, she was Valedictorian of her 1937 graduating class at John M. Langston High School, and was named outstanding graduate of the Class of 1941 at Virginia State College. She returned to Danville for the 1941-1942 school term and was appointed third grade teacher and instructor in music in the elementary schools. Following that term, the Virginia State College Acapella Choir invited her to be the guest soloist in a concert in Philadelphia. After this performance, Miss Williams was offered a scholarship from the Philadelphia Alumni Association of Virginia State on the condition that she come to Philadelphia for voice training. The young soprano accepted the offer, and while studying, worked as an usherette in a Philadelphia theatre to support herself. Assistance also came from her mother’s former employer, Dr. W. R. Laird, and from Mrs. L. D. Crumpler, the Danville Music Club, and from Virginia State College, which established the Camilla Williams Fund at the suggestion of Miss T. P. Whiting, Dean of Women.
In both 1943 and 1944, Miss Williams won the Marion Anderson Award, which is given to outstanding young musicians. Also in 1944, she signed with RCA-Victor and made her debut on Victor’s The Music America Loves Best. In that same year she took top honors in the Philadelphia Orchestra Youth Concert auditions, and was engaged as a soloist with the Philadelphia Orchestra, conducted by Eugene Ormandy.
Following one of Miss Williams’ early concert appearances in Stamford, Connecticut, in 1945, the former Metropolitan Opera soprano Geraldine Farrar wrote to her concert manager, “I was quite unprepared for this young woman’s obvious high gifts . . . I should like to voice my unsolicited appreciation, and the hope that under careful management and encouragement, the rich promise she shows will mature to even higher artistic endeavors.” Miss Farrar’s hopes were not to be denied.
On May 15, 1946, Camilla Williams made her debut with the City Center Opera Company of New York in the title role of Madame Butterfly, and became the first black soprano to appear with an important opera company in the United States. Miss Farrar, who had created the title role of “Madame Butterfly” on the Metropolitan stage, was in the opening night audience, and told Newsweek magazine of Miss Williams’ talents saying, “I would say that already she is one of the great ‘Butterflies’ of our day.” The New York Times found her to be “an instant . . . success in the title role,” and in her performance found “a vividness and subtlety unmatched by any other artist who has assayed the part here in many years.” Later that season, Miss Williams sang Nedda in I Pagliacci, and the Times proclaimed she “sang her new role with freshness of voice, charm, and personal sincerity.” Appearing as Mimi in La Boheme in 1947, she was called “the heroine of the evening” by the Times, and the critic of PM wrote: “Her Mimi is one of the most truly touching and believable embodiments of the role I’ve yet seen and heard. The lovely quality of her voice, the purity and radiance of her high notes, the sensitivity and deep emotional sincerity of her acting . . . all contribute to the fidelity and beauty of her portrayal.”
And in 1947, she won the Newspaper Guild Award as First Lady of American Opera. In the succeeding season, the young singer was brought forward in the title role of Aida and the critics acclaimed, “Always she sang as a musician and an artist.”
In 1950, the singer embarked on a concert tour of Panama, the Dominican Republic, and Venezuela. The following year she returned to Venezuela for her first South American appearance in opera. In 1950, also, Miss Williams sang the title role of Princess Ilia in a concert version of Mozart’s seldom-heard opera Idomeneo. It was the first complete performance of the work in New York City. That year, too, she married Charles Beavers, an attorney from Danville.
The Chicago Defender’s trophy for bringing democracy to opera was bestowed on Camilla Williams in 1951. In 1955, she gave the first Viennese performance of Menottie’s Saint of Bleeker Street, but her debut with the Vienna State Opera was in the role of “Butterfly”, and a musically discriminating Vienna critic exclaimed, “Camilla Williams is a sensation!” “So moving is the intensity of this singer,” wrote another, “that it is unique.” She became box office magic throughout Europe.
In 1957, her alma mater awarded her the 75th Anniversary Certificate of Merit, and 1959 brought a presidential citation from New York University. That year as well, she became the first black person to receive the key to her city of birth, Danville, Virginia. In 1960, she was the guest of President Eisenhower for a concert for the Crown Prince of Japan. In 1962, the Emperor of Ethiopia awarded her the gold medal, and she received the key to the city of Taipei, Taiwan, as well as the Art, Culture and Civic Guild Award for her contribution to music. The next year brought her the Negro Musicians’ Association Plaque for contribution to music and the Harlem Opera and World Fellowship Society Award, in addition to the W.L.I.B. Radio Award for contribution to music. At the invitation of the State Department, Camilla Williams made an unprecedented tour of fourteen north and central African countries. Due to this tour’s success, she was invited to Ireland, Southeast Asia, the Far East, and Israel.
With the 1970s, Camilla Williams brought another first to New York City as she performed Handel’s Orlando in 1971. And that year she was listed in the first edition of Who’s Who in the World. In 1972, she was honored as a “distinguished Virginian” by Governor Linwood Holton, and was later named recipient of the National Association of Negro Musicians, Inc.’s highest award.
From 1970 to 1973, she was Professor of Voice at Brooklyn College. She later taught at Bronx College and taught with Talent Unlimited, directed by Dr. John Motley. Camilla Williams often returned to Danville, where a park beside the Dan River, on Memorial Drive, has been named after her.
Camilla Williams photo taken by Carl Van Vechten, 1946.