Camilla Williams: Opera Diva and Beloved IU Voice Instructor
Camilla Williams was born in Danville, Virginia and grew up in a musical household. As a child, she developed her special gift for music by playing the piano and singing in her local church choir. This gave Williams a strong foundation for her success in vocal performance later in life. Williams earned her degree in music education from Virginia State College, and following her graduation, she studied with a respected voice instructor, Marion Szekely Freschl. Williams became the recipient for numerous voice scholarships and awards. In 1943 and 1944, she was presented with the Marian Anderson Award, which was a scholarship given to talented vocal singers.
Recognition for her talent first began in 1944, when a soprano singer, Geraldine Farrar, attended one of William’s concerts and became her mentor after enjoying this performance. Although prejudice and racism was a major barrier for Williams, the opportunity came for a key step in her career, when in 1946, the New York Opera cast her as Cio-Cio-San, a main character of “Madama Butterfly” by Puccini. In 1958, Williams experienced an African Tour, performing in fourteen African countries, including Liberia, Nigeria, Kenya, and Egypt. In the 1960s, she continued her global travels by visiting numerous countries, such as New Zealand, Israel, and Korea. She performed recitals on her worldwide tour and typically incorporated spirituals into her programs.
Williams actively engaged in music performance as a profession and passion for her life. She participated in shows for the Boston Lyric Opera and the Vienna State Opera, concerts across the United States, and even sang as a soloist for the Philadelphia Orchestra and New York Philharmonic. She recorded and released music during her lifetime, and taught as a professor of voice at Brooklyn College and Queens College in New York City. In 1977, Indiana University hired Camilla Williams as a voice instructor, making her the first African American faculty member in the voice department. She taught and inspired students at Indiana University in Bloomington until retiring in 1997.
Even after her retirement, Williams lived in Bloomington, Indiana. In 2012, she passed away at the age of 92 years old and leaves behind a powerful legacy.
Fox, Margalit. “Camilla Williams, Barrier-Breaking Opera Star, Dies at 92." The New York Times, 2 Feb. 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/03/arts/music/camilla-williams-opera-singer-dies-at-92.html. Accessed 3 Mar. 2017.
Langer, Emily. "Camilla Williams, An Acclaimed Soprano Who Broke Racial Bounds, Dies at 92.” The Washington Post, 30 Jan. 2012, https://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/music/camilla-williams-an-acclaimed-soprano-who-broke-racial-bounds-dies-at-92/2012/01/30/gIQA0QfedQ_story.html?utm_term=.9b4a86483ed5. Accessed 3 Mar. 2017.
Nash, Elizabeth. "A Day with Camilla Williams." The Opera Quarterly, vol. 18, no. 2, 2002, pp. 219-230. EBSCOhost, proxyiub.uits.iu.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com.proxyiub.uits.iu.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=edspmu&AN=edspmu.S1476287002202197&site=eds-live&scope=site. Accessed 3 Mar. 2017.
Shonekan, Stephanie, and Camilla Williams. The Life of Camilla Williams: The African American Classical Singer and Opera Diva. Edwin Mellen Press, 2011.