In the 1920s, a young opera singer by the name of Mary Cardwell came face-to-face with a hard truth: the color of her skin would dictate the outcome of her career.
A National Negro Opera Company souvenir brochure from 1957 describes her realization:
During intermission, she often went back stage to really observe for herself, hoping eventually to find one of her people there. Actually, she was only to be discouraged, disappointed and finally made to wonder why the omission of her people… She thus began to wonder why even she had chosen this field for her life’s work. She found the same type of exclusion existing in the Boston Symphony Orchestra, which she often attended on Fridays, as well as operas in other cities from coast to coast. Everywhere, and in every respect, she found complete discrimination or exclusion. This weighed heavily upon that young student of the Conservatory. (link)
Racism has cost classical music countless stars. Many great musicians left the field altogether, and for good reason. But Mary Cardwell Dawson chose another path. She attempted to remake the art from the inside.
Mary Cardwell was the second of six children born to a farming family in Madison, North Carolina. Sources differ as to exactly when; some say 1894, while others indicate 1896. Around 1900, her father J.A. and her uncle moved to Pittsburgh to work at a brickyard in Homestead. In 1901, after the brothers had finally saved enough money, they sent for the rest of their family. In Mary’s new neighborhood, recently relocated African-Americans lived next door to white European immigrants. Growing up in such a place had a profound effect on her worldview.
Musical ability seems to have run in the family. J.A. was a leader in his church choir. (In fact, walking to worship, he’d often wrap his throat with a scarf to protect his voice.) Mary received her initial musical training there. Later she began studying piano and organ with a private teacher named Mrs. Leafie White. She must have displayed great talent, because she was ultimately accepted to the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. She would be the only African-American student in her class.
Mary didn’t move to Boston until around 1920, when she was in her mid-twenties. She couldn’t go earlier; her family simply hadn’t had the money to pay. In the end, the Cardwells were only able to send two of their six children to college. Mary went first because she was deemed the most talented.
Along with studying the voice, piano, and organ, Mary also took classes in choral conducting and stage production. Her interest in these subjects was consequently, fatefully piqued.
She graduated from the New England Conservatory in 1925 with a Teacher’s Diploma. But as she set out into the world, trying to make a name for herself as a performer, it became increasingly obvious that racism had paralyzed her career before it even began. No opera company would hire her. Deflated, she returned to Pittsburgh and to her family.
In 1927 she married a remarkable man named Walter Dawson, who she had met while a student in Boston. Walter was an electrician who worked in both the public and private sectors, dealing with crippling racism in both. In 1941 he was actually fired from his job at the Pittsburgh Housing Authority because the Authority had became associated with a union that disallowed black members. Walter began his own business on the side called the Dawson Electric Company. The money he earned there went directly to supporting his wife’s ambitious musical projects.
One of those projects was the opening of the Cardwell School of Music in Homewood, which she founded in the late 1920s, soon after her return to Pittsburgh. (It was also known as the Cardwell Dawson School of Music. Interestingly, Mary used both her maiden and her married names professionally.) The first school was housed above the Dawson Electric Company service shop, and initially Mary was the only teacher. But over the following decade, the school’s offerings – and its staff – increased exponentially. By 1940, students attending the Cardwell Dawson School could take classes on anything from diction to play directing, in addition to the traditional piano, violin, and voice lessons.
Although no statistics on its demographics have survived, Mary’s school was open to students of all classes and all races. She even went out into the community to find them. Well aware that many great African-American musicians were performing primarily in churches, she traveled from congregation to congregation, always on the lookout for standouts. If a prospective student couldn’t pay, she would trade music lessons for services.
Many benefited from Mary’s proactive approach in scouting out talent. One was a lyric soprano named O’Labrice Beckom. In 1943, when she was thirteen, she auditioned for the Pittsburgh Opera. The judge was impressed, reportedly sighing, “Boy, if we could only paint her white.” She never got the job. But thanks to Mary’s support and the opportunities that she helped create, Beckom got the chance to explore her passion for singing opera. She enjoyed a long career as a teacher in Pittsburgh, touching the lives of thousands.
In addition to her passion for fighting racism and promoting young people’s careers, Mary especially enjoyed choral conducting. In the 1930s she took on several important projects. In 1935 she directed a chorus hundreds of singers strong, resulting in a radiant review in a local paper: “The crowd thrilled to the splendid spirituals sung by 500 Negro voices selected from Western Pennsylvania’s best choirs and painstakingly trained by Mary Cardwell Dawson.” She also worked on a smaller scale, recruiting her favorite singers for an elite 35-member choir, which appeared regularly in the Pittsburgh area. In 1937 the choir took first place at a Pittsburgh Sun-Telegram-sponsored festival at Forbes Field, and in 1939 they performed at the New York World’s Fair.
Mary’s talents also extended to administrative and organizational leadership. After establishing a local chapter of the National Association of Negro Musicians, she worked her way up the ranks of the organization, and in 1940, was named national president. She knew exactly how she wanted to employ her new notoriety: to create an organization to promote African Americans in opera.
She made her point in audaciously bold fashion. At the NANM’s annual meeting in June 1941, she presented an interracial, fully staged production of Verdi’s Aida. Approximately two hundred singers, dancers, and musicians were involved. Performers were a mix of professionals and talented locals.
Most of the vocalists were black, but the conductor Frederick Vajda and members of the orchestra were white. This integration wasn’t a move borne solely of starry-eyed idealism. It was also a play to legitimize classical musicians of color by getting endorsements (so to speak) by privileged whites. Frederick Vajda, for instance, was a bass who had sung multiple times at the Metropolitan Opera, an opportunity no black singer had yet had. Mary understood that to succeed in the world of American opera meant engaging with the power structure of the Met. So to have a former Met Opera performer serve as conductor and advocate for her Aida was a major coup.
The NANM performance was received warmly. She immediately mounted a second production, this time in Chicago. Within a matter of months, she formed the National Negro Opera Company (NNOC). Its premiere production was Aida, given at the Syria Mosque in Pittsburgh on 30 October 1941.
The world-class cast included
- Soprano La Julia Rhea, the first African American to star in “the title role of a major opera company” with the Chicago Civic Opera Company in 1937;
- Baritone Robert McFerrin, who would become the first African-American man to sing at the Met in 1955;
- Contralto Carol Brice, who would become the first African American to win the prestigious Walter Naumburg Award in 1943;
- Soprano Lillian Evanti, who, realizing that America was an impossible place for a black soprano to make a career, had emigrated to Europe and enjoyed a great career there.
This historic production received rave reviews. “We have rarely heard so impressive a chorus in all our opera experience,” the Pittsburgh Sun-Telegram opined. The Pittsburgh Courier wrote: “It wasn’t simply ‘good for Negroes’ opera. It was a show that might have roused Verdi himself… You must see and hear this opera.”
The National Negro Opera Company continued giving groundbreaking performances. In 1943, Mary produced and presented La Traviata. This appearance launched Lillian Evanti’s American career. Over the following years, other highly acclaimed performances of Carmen, Faust, and other traditional operas followed.
In 1946, the NNOC produced its first work by an African-American: R. Nathaniel Dett’s The Ordering of Moses, a 1932 oratorio based on the Exodus story. The production was initially given on a small scale in Chicago, but in 1950, Mary re-imagined it as an extravagant staged opera.
The Ordering of Moses, in its oratorio form
The Ordering of Moses became the bread and butter of the NNOC. It was given at Carnegie Hall in 1951 in a production so lavish that a florist and chemist created an unconsumable Burning Bush especially for the occasion. The rented costumes alone were valued at $150,000, the modern equivalent of an eye-popping $1.3 million. But the performance wasn’t all flash. The State Department actually broadcast the performance internationally on “Voice of America.” As the Pittsburgh Courier wrote, “This marks the first time such an event has been scheduled for worldwide broadcasting and is a recognition of the importance the state department attaches to the Negro’s contribution to American Musical Life.” Suddenly the NNOC had become a force for international diplomacy.
The Ordering of Moses continued its life beyond the storied stage of Carnegie. After the Carnegie show, the NNOC re-adapted the work yet again, scaling it down and bringing it to individual African-American churches, where members could participate in performances. These appearances reinforced the symbiotic relationship that Mary had with the black church, and helped to keep the company afloat financially.
Even with all these accomplishments under her belt, Mary still had her eye on gaining the formal blessing of the Metropolitan Opera, the gatekeepers of the highest echelons of American opera. In 1955 she wrote to the Met, pointing out that they could do a great service for the art by promoting talented black performers, and would they be interested in hosting a performance of an opera written by an African American and produced by the NNOC?
The Met administration was skeptical. Never before had they allowed an outside company to present an opera on their stage. (Plus, racism.) But Mary was persistent, and finally a compromise was found: the Met allowed the NNOC to perform a concert version, rather than a staged version. The opera the NNOC chose was Ouanga by violinist Clarence Cameron White. This 1932 work portrays the life of Jean-Jacques Dessalines, a leader of the Haitian Revolution.
The timing of Mary’s proposal is important. In 1955, the first African Americans sang at the Met: Marian Anderson on January 7th, followed a couple of weeks later by Robert McFerrin. Mary was clearly gifted at seizing the zeitgeist and savvy about exploiting it.
But what she did struggle with was finances. She didn’t have access to the kinds of privileged patrons and economic elites that a company like the Met did. So she scraped along for years, her artistic ambitions continually challenged by the NNOC’s financial instability. The company didn’t own a theater or costumes or sets or music, so every time they performed, they had to be rented. In addition, Mary refused to play in small or segregated halls. These criteria limited her venue options considerably.
Nevertheless, she worked tirelessly, and creatively, to fundraise. She held benefit concerts at Carnegie Hall and other prestigious venues. She partnered with tap dancer Bill Robinson and musician W.C. Handy to raise money. She convinced Clark Griffith, the owner of the Washington Senators, to donate the use of Griffith Stadium to the NNOC for one night a year so that they could give a benefit concert for themselves. (These annual shows became star-studded events.) Her students pitched in, selling tickets and performing fundraising concerts at their churches. She sang at those concerts; she prepared her students to sing at those concerts. And, touchingly, her husband donated money from the Dawson Electrical Company to keep his wife’s dream alive. The NNOC had become a true labor of love.
Unfortunately, tragedy struck the organization in July 1944. They were scheduled to present three operas – Faust, Aida, and La Traviata – outdoors in Washington, in front of thousands of people. Months had been spent preparing for these performances. But a long-lasting rainstorm rained them out. Because the budget had been so tight, the NNOC hadn’t purchased rain insurance.
The situation snowballed from there. The NNOC, having lost so much revenue, was unable to pay the salaries that had been promised to performers. The American Guild of Musical Artists responded by placing the NNOC on its unfair list. Mary could no longer hire union talent until the debt was paid off, making her artistic ambitions well-nigh impossible to achieve. She redoubled her fundraising efforts, but financially, the company never really recovered.
The company had also never put into place any kind of succession plan. Both Dawsons had invested everything they had into the NNOC and the cause of furthering diversity in classical music. Nobody could replace them; without their artistic and financial leadership, everything would collapse. When Mary suffered a fatal heart attack in March 1962, that’s exactly what happened. After her death, with no endowment and no one able to take its founder’s place, the National Negro Opera Company dissolved.
The house that served as headquarters for the Cardwell Dawson School of Music and the NNOC still stands at 7107 Apple Street in the Homewood neighborhood of Pittsburgh, abandoned and waiting to be remembered. Outside, standing tall in the face of crumbling stucco and broken windows, is a plaque that reads:
NATIONAL NEGRO OPERA COMPANY: Here at the Cardwell School of Music, this first national Black opera company was founded in 1941 by Mary Cardwell Dawson. Noted for its musical genius, it performed for 21 years in Pittsburgh, Washington, New York, and other cities.
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If you want to learn more about Mary Cardwell Dawson, here is a list of sources: