Mary Cardwell Dawson: Upcoming Lecture at the Library of Congress

Black and white photograph portrait of Mary Cardwell Dawson seated at a table, elbow rested on table and hand posed under her chin.

Portrait of Mary Cardwell Dawson. National Negro Opera Company Collection, Box 13, Folder 32. Library of Congress Music Division.

On Thursday, January 19th, 2023 at 7pm in the James Madison Building’s Montpelier Room, Dr. Karen Bryan, Dean of the Arts at Pima Community College, is presenting what promises to be a fascinating lecture: “Self-Determination on the Operatic Stage: Mary Cardwell Dawson and African American performance in Washington, DC and New York City.” This lecture is part of the Library of Congress/American Musicological Society Lecture Series that features AMS members presenting on exciting research conducted using the Music Division’s unique collections – in this case, the Library’s National Negro Opera Company Collection. Additionally, Dr. Bryan’s lecture is scheduled in conjunction with Washington National Opera’s performance of The Passion of Mary Cardwell Dawson, starring mezzo soprano Denyce Graves and running at the Kennedy Center the weekend following the lecture. In addition to the performance, the Denyce Graves Foundation and Washington National Opera have partnered to create Introducing Mary Cardwell Dawson, an exhibit that will be installed in the Kennedy Center’s Hall of States from January 18–February 1, 2023. The exhibit will include photographs from the Library’s NNOC Collection as well as artifacts on loan from the Heinz History Center, that tell the story of Dawson’s life and work.

Mary Cardwell Dawson (1894-1962) was a music educator, choir director, opera director, and administrator who worked tirelessly to create opportunities for African American creative artists and demonstrate those artists’ value to the arts community at large. In her early career Dawson founded The Cardwell School of Music in Pittsburgh, as well as the Cardwell Dawson Choir, which Dawson molded into a renowned, prize-winning ensemble. Dawson was also highly active in the National Association of Negro Musicians, serving as president of the NANM from 1939 to 1941.

In fact, it was at the 1941 NANM annual convention that Dawson launched the National Negro Opera Company with its premiere performance of Verdi’s Aida at Pittsburgh’s Syria Mosque. The performance starred La Julia Rhea (as Aida), Minto Cato, Carol Brice, Robert McFerrin, and Lillian Evanti. The NNOC was legally incorporated the following year with the stated purpose of “affording for the Negro the opportunity for the fullest expression in cultural development.” Exactly two years after the company’s premiere in Pittsburgh, Dawson and the NNOC achieved great success and publicity after performing Verdi’s La Traviata at the Watergate in Washington, D.C. – the stage being an anchored floating barge. The La Traviata production would go on to play at Madison Square Garden in 1944, to enthusiastic crowds.

Black and white photograph of opera singers William Franklin and Lillian Evanti in a performance of Verdi's "La Traviata" with the National Negro Opera Company. Franklin is standing in the background, watching on as Evanti sings in the foreground.

William Franklin and Lillian Evanti performing La Traviata with the NNOC. National Negro Opera Company Collection, Box 15, Folder 36. Library of Congress Music Division.

The NNOC operated from 1941-1962, until Dawson’s death. The Company and its Foundation networked and fundraised tirelessly, and presented outstanding performances ranging from operas by canonic composers like Verdi and Bizet, to an operatic staging of Nathaniel Dett’s oratorio The Ordering of Moses, to notable performances of Clarence Cameron White’s 1932 opera Ouanga (including a 1956 performance at the Metropolitan Opera House). The Library’s National Negro Opera Company Collection documents these productions, the Foundation’s administrative work, and Dawson’s career through remarkable photographs, correspondence, programs and promotional materials, scores, and other relevant papers. Read more about the collection in a 2019 blog post, Mary Cardwell Dawson: First Lady of Opera.

Those who come to Thursday night’s lecture will see a curated table display of materials from the NNOC Collection; alternatively, researchers are welcome to study material from the collection in the Performing Arts Reading Room Monday-Friday from 8:30am-5pm. Appointments are not required, but recommended. You can book an appointment online, call our reference desk at (202) 707-5507, or email our reference librarians via Ask a Librarian for more information about the collection.


Dr. Bryan’s lecture will be recorded and published on the Library of Congress website at a later date.

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