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Mary Cardwell Dawson: First Lady of Opera

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The following is a guest post from Music Reference Specialist Sam Perryman.

Portrait of Mary Cardwell Dawson. Box 13 / Folder 31, National Negro Opera Company Collection, Music Division.

Some people know that the Music Division is home to the National Negro Opera Company Collection. They also know that, while it’s not the first African American opera company, it was one of the largest.  It was founded and managed by Mary Lucinda Cardwell Dawson (1894?-1962), it was active for 20 years (1941-1961), and it had branches situated mostly along the East coast. It also may be well known that Mrs. Dawson’s organization provided opportunities for gifted African American performers while simultaneously challenging racist ideas by her use of White orchestras and conductors to accompany a Black cast. This strategy affirmed her belief that good (diversity) ultimately triumphs over evil.

The company’s repertory included Verdi’s Aida and La Traviata, Gounod’s Faust, Robert Nathaniel Dett’s The Ordering of Moses, and Clarence Cameron White’s Ouanga.   The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra performed Aida on August 28, 1941 after Mrs. Dawson negotiated an opportunity for African American violinist Lawrence Peeler to play in the orchestra.

Photograph of Lawrence Peeler. Box 14 / Folder 52, National Negro Opera Company Collection, Music Division.

Mrs. Dawson struggled to raise funds sufficient to cover expenses associated with staging operas (operas were performed in English translation). This task was especially difficult since she insisted that leads would receive standard (union) wages.  As a result, she was often embroiled in battle with the American Guild of Musical Artists (AGMA) because she believed that it conspired to take over her company. For example, in Washington, DC in 1949, a performance of Aida was interrupted during the first act. A union member abruptly demanded that the conductor stop the orchestra while a dispute between Mrs. Dawson and union members occurred back stage. After five minutes of silence, the curtain was lifted and the performance continued.

Several years later, the company performed on stage at the Metropolitan Opera House (1956), before it stopped staging operas because it became too expensive. Subsequently, the company performed excerpts from Robert Nathaniel Dett’s The Ordering of Moses.

There were also defining moments in the company’s pre-history. In the mid-1930s, Mrs. Dawson organized and operated a School of Music that she ran from her Pittsburgh home (Jazz pianist Ahmad Jamal was among her students).  She also organized the Cardwell Dawson Choir which auditioned on the Major Bowes Amateur Hour in New York in 1935.   I listened to many broadcasts of the Major Bowes Amateur Hour in hopes of hearing a recording of the choir, but unfortunately I didn’t come across the choir’s performance.  However, I did hear La Julia Rhea’s audition of Verdi’s “Pace, pace, mio Dio” on that show in 1935.   Mrs. Rhea was not only the National Negro Opera Company’s first Aida, but she was also the first African American to audition (unsuccessfully) at the Metropolitan Opera Company in 1934.  Fifteen years later, she sang the same selection on the Ted Mack Show (the show that replaced the Amateur Hour).

A broadcast of Mrs. Rhea’s audition on the Major Bowes Amateur Hour (recording LWO 5799-4B 1835) and her performance on the Ted Mack Show (NBC Tape 9701 A) are available for researchers to hear in-person by appointment in the Recorded Sound Research Center.

Since I am not aware of extant recordings of the National Negro Opera Company, I thought that La Julia Rhea’s audition on the Major Bowes Amateur Hour might give listeners a sense of the quality of performers Mrs. Dawson employed in her company.  I would also mention that Mrs. Dawson’s husband (Walter) received a new job in Washington, DC, and the couple moved there in 1943, the same year that the opera company performed Verdi’s La Traviata on stage at the Watergate on August 28, 1943 with Lillian Evanti (1890-1967) as Violetta.

Photograph of La Julia Rhea and Mary Cardwell Dawson. Box 8 / Folder 24, National Negro Opera Company Collection, Music Division.

In 1959, the National Negro Opera Foundation sought funding from the Ford Foundation.   According to a draft of the proposal,

“The opera company has never had the benefit of a highly ‘organized’ fund raising campaign which other groups regard as their life blood.  Instead, it relied on the organized efforts of its guilds along with thousands of dollars given by Madame Dawson and her devoted husband.”

The company may never have applied for the grant.

Tragically, Mary Cardwell Dawson died of a heart attack on March 19, 1962.  After receiving news of her passing, La Julia Rhea wrote the following to Mrs. Dawson’s husband,

“It seems to me like only yesterday that she invited me to sing the title role of Aida in her very first great grand opera venture.  We had differences of opinions, but we always resolved them in the true Christian spirit.”

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