ed egli alquanto in pena
olezzo di verbena’
i nomi che mi dava al suo venire
In 1946, Camilla Williams sang those words of longing and woe. It was her debut at the New York City Opera, and she delivered the lead in Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” with what the New York Times described as “a vividness and subtlety unmatched by any other artist who has assayed the part here in many a year.” It was not only her portrayal of Cio-Cio San that proved noteworthy—Williams was the first African-American to sing for a major American opera company, nine years before Marian Anderson’s celebrated performance as the first African-American singer to appear at the Metropolitan Opera.Four days ago, America lost Williams. Her passing came just before African-American history month 2012 was set to begin. In a society still struggling with trenchant legacies of racism, it is unique to remember a historical step toward equality through what became Williams’ signature role as Cio-Cio San. Puccini turned the typical operatic tragedy on its head by telling the tale of a 15-year-old Japanese girl who is seduced and abandoned by a handsome American naval officer, ultimately committing suicide. Though an opera’s plot is often considered its weakest point, one can hardly ignore the cultural and historical resonance of Williams mastering that role at the time that she did. Before retiring from the stage in 1971, Williams went on to many more performances, and sang for the civil rights movement’s 1963 march on Washington. “Madama Butterfly” is now the most popular opera in the US.Her memory remains important because of the contribution she made to breaking racial barriers in American performance art. Today, race is largely no longer a barrier in opera or in entertainment generally, and America is a richer and more vibrant society because of it. As we celebrate African-American history month, we should remember the debt owed to pioneers like Camilla Williams.