Friday, February 15, 2013

Gloria Davy, First African American to Sing Aida at the Met, Dies at Age 81


She was the daughter of parents who had come to the United States from St. Vincent, in the Windward Islands. Gloria Davy was born on March 29, 1931. She graduated from the High School of Music and Art in Manhattan, and in 1951 and 1952 received the Marian Anderson Award. The prize, for young singers, was established in 1943 by Anderson, the first black singer to appear at the Met.

Davy's voice was that of a lirico-spinto (a high voice that is darker and more forceful than a lyric soprano’s). In particular, she was an interpreter of 20th-century music, including the works of Richard Strauss, Benjamin Britten, and Paul Hindemith. She was praised by critics for the beauty of her voice, the sensitivity of her musicianship, and the perfection of her pianissimos—the elusive art of attaining maximum audibility at minimum volume. Davy sang with the Met 15 times over four seasons.

After receiving a bachelor’s degree in 1953 from the Julliard School, where she studied with Belle Julie Soudent, Davy embarked on a career as a concert singer.

In January 1954, as a prize for winning a vocal competition sponsored by the Education League, Davy appeared at Town hall with the Little Orchestra Society, singing Britten’s song cycle ”Les Illuminations,” a rigorous undertaking for even a seasoned singer. That May, Davy replaced Leontyne Price as Bess in an international tour of Porgy and Bess, providing her with her first significant stage experience.

When the tour reached Milan, the conductor Victor de Sabata suggested Davy learn the role of Aida for a forthcoming production at La Scala. Though she was unable to sing it there due to political turbulence in Italy which caused the performance to be canceled, she made her debut in the role in Nice, France, in 1957, and later sang it elsewhere in Europe. Before Davy was cast in the role, Aida, an Ethiopian princess, was perennially sung by white singers in dark makeup.

When Davy first sang at the Met, she was only the fourth African American to appear there, after Anderson , a contralto, and Robert McFerrin, a baritone, both of whom made their debuts in 1955; and the soprano Mattiwilda Dobbs, who first sang there the next year.

Davy’s other opera work included appearances with the American Opera Society, a mid-century ensemble in New York, with which she sang the title role in Donizetti’s Anna Bolena. In Europe, she appeared at the Vienna Staatsoper and at Covent Garden in London.

For decades Davy made her home in Geneva, returning to the United States periodically to perform and teach; she was on the faculty of the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University from 1984 to 1997.

Though she had planned to be a concert singer, Davy took unhesitatingly to the operatic life. “For sheer joy of singing,” she said in an interview with Opera News in 1958, ”there’s nothing like opera.”

Sleep well, Nubian princess.

Submitted by Russell Lee
Arts, Literature & Sports
Central Library

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