Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Lillian Evanti – Opera Star

Annie Lillian Evans was born into a Washington, DC, African-American family which counted a Revolutionary War soldier, two abolitionists at Harper’s Ferry and the first black U.S. Senator as ancestors. Lillian herself would become the first African American to sing Grand Opera anywhere in the world.
Her parents were both educators and for a short time she followed in their footsteps by teaching kindergarten. However, she left teaching to study at Howard University, receiving a degree in music in 1917.  Shortly thereafter she married her music professor, Roy Tibbs, and combined their last names to form “Evanti,” the name she would use professionally.
By 1925, she had moved to France, believing it would be easier to cross the racial divide in Europe. She lived there until the beginning of World War II, although she made a number of trips back to the United States during her time in France.  In 1932, she auditioned for the New York Metropolitan Opera but was not asked to join the company because she was African American. 
In 1934, she gave a command performance for Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. On that same trip to the United States, she also performed with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
She and Mary Caldwell Dawson founded the National Negro Opera Company in 1941 in Pittsburgh. Newspapers of the time gave very favorable reviews to the efforts of this company. 
Lillian was quite popular in  South America and sang, as well, in Africa. She performed in 24 operas over her lifetime. A very versatile singer, she spoke (and sang) five different languages. Later in life, she returned to Washington, D.C., where she coached singers and gave voice lessons. She died in Washington in 1967.

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