HBCU Legends

Who's Who in the World of HBCU Opera Stars

Often when people think of music and Historically Black Colleges and Universities, they immediately think of the show-stopping marching bands.  Of course, it should come as no surprise that HBCUs have also produced outstanding musicians like The Commodores, Roberta Flack, Cannonball Adderley and Smokey Norful.  HBCU alumni have also had an impact on the world of opera.  Here are some of those who have found success.  


For information on HBCUs that have successfully prepared students for careers in opera and those that specifically offer opera programs or workshops click HERE

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Angela Brown

Oakwood University

After winning the National Council Auditions of New York's Metropolitan Opera on her 4th attempt, Brown began performing consistently.  Initially she had small roles with larger opera companies and larger roles with smaller opera companies.  In the 2004-2005 season Brown debuted at the Metropolitan Opera in the title role of Verdi's Aida. She has won numerous awards and continues to perform around the world.  

Hear Brown as she discusses "Opera from a Sistah's View"

Mattiwilda Dobbs

Spelman College

From a prominent Atlanta family, Dobbs was a trailblazer in the opera world.  She was the first African-American singer selected by the Met for a romantic role.  She was the first black singer to appear in a principal role at La Scala, one of the most prestigious opera houses in Europe.  She was the first black singer to play a lead role at the San Francisco Opera. Her achievements have been recognized by the King and Queen of Sweden, the Library of Congress and the NAACP.

Hear Dobbs as she sings 'Caro nome,' recorded in the late 1950's

Lillian Evanti

University of the District of Columbia, Howard University

Evanti made her professional debut in 1925 with the Paris Opera in the title role of Lakmé, becoming the first African-American to sing with an organized European opera company. Evanti won acclaim around the world, sang at the White House and performed with the National Negro Opera Company.  She also began composing music. Evanti retired in the 1950s.  Her DC home is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.



Kisma Jordan

Kentucky State University

Jordan has been performing professionally for more than a decade. Her style combines opera and soul music and was presented during an original fusion project, OperaSoul at TEDxDetroit.  She is the recipient of the 2017 Sherrill Milnes American Opera Award.  Jordan's most recent performances have been with the Toledo Symphony Orchestra, the Warren Philharmonic, and the Wisconsin Philharmonic.  
Hear Jordan as she performs during the production "Hard Enough to Smile: Live From Detroit"

Brian K. Major

Morehouse College

Major's opera credits include Bartolo in Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia, Speaker in Mozart’s The Magic Flute, and Sam in Gershwin’s Blue Monday. In April the baritone debuted with the Boston University Symphony Orchestra and Chorus.  Major has won numerous awards including Opera Ebony Vocal Competition and the Harlem Opera Theater Vocal Competition.  He is married to fellow opera singer, Michelle Johnson.  

Hear Major as he headlines a concert at Sun Valley Opera House

Robert McFerrin, Sr.

Fisk University

McFerrin was a baritone who was the first African-American man to sing at the Metropolitan Opera (1955) as well as the first to sign a contract with the company.  He began performing on Broadway in 1949 and then was cast in performances with the New England Opera Theater. He provided the vocals for Sidney Poitier in the 1959 movie “Porgy and Bess."  McFerrin is the father of Grammy Award-winning musician Bobby McFerrin.

Hear McFerrin perform an excerpt of Cortigiani in the late 1950's

Jessye Norman

Howard University

Soprano Jessye Norman is the recipient of a Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement as well as a member of the British Royal Academy of Music.  She began her professional career in Germany, winning the 1969 ARD International Music Competition and a three-year contract with the Deutsche Oper Berlin. Her debut performance was as Elisabeth in Richard Wagner's 'Tannhäuser'.  She is co-f0under of the Jessye Norman School of the Arts, an after-school program in her hometown of Augusta, Georgia.  

Hear Norman perform 'When I Am Laid In Earth' from the opera Dido and Aeneas by Henry Purcell

Leontyne Price

Central State University (Wilberforce University)

The first African-American to become a leading artist at the Metropolitan Opera (the Met), Price enjoyed a long career, receiving many accolades and honors before retiring in 1985.  She sang 201 performances with the Met, in 16 roles.  Among her most famous roles was that of Cleopatra in Barber's 'Antony and Cleopatra,' a role created for her.  She was a member of the first class of National Endowment for the Arts Opera Honorees in 2008.  Price also wrote a children's book version of Aida.   

Hear Price perform 'America, the Beautiful' at the inauguration of President Lyndon Johnson

Dara Rahming

Xavier University

Since graduating from Xavier, Rahming has performed with numerous opera companies in the United States and abroad. She launched her professional career with the Sarasota Opera performing the title role in Puccini’s “Tosca" and  Medora in Verdi’s “Il Corsaro.” Rahming has also performed with the Washington National Opera, the Oakland East Bay Symphony and the New Orleans Opera.  In New Orleans, Rahming served her alma mater as a voice instructor and Director of its Opera Workshop.

Hear Rahming perform 'Sylvie's Aria' from Freedom Ride by Dan Shore

Faye Robinson

Bennett College

Soprano Faye Robinson has had a career highlighted by performances in major musical centers across the world. She has appeared in opera houses in Paris, Berlin, Vienna and Argentina, singing leading roles with the opera companies of Duesseldorf, Madrid, Buenos Aires, New Orleans and the New York City Opera.  As a concert artist, she has performed with the orchestras of Chicago, Cleveland, New York, Boston, London and Berlin.  In recent years Robinson has been on the faculty of the University of Arizona.  

Hear Robinson perform an aria from Don Pasquale

Kevin Short

Morgan State University

Short is an award-winning bass-baritone who made his home in Switzerland for many years.  He has performed at Paris' Opera Comique, Theatre du Luxembourg Oper der Stadt Koln, Theater Bern, and Teatro Nacional di São Carlos.   In the US his performance locations include Lyric Opera of Chicago, Houston Grand Opera, Los Angeles Opera, Opera Company of Philadelphia and Opera Birmingham.  Notably, from 1991-1998 he appeared annually at the Metropolitan Opera in multiple roles for a total of 129 performances. Recently, Short became a visiting Associate Professor at the University of Maryland.

Hear Short perform  "Bess, You is My Woman Now" from Porgy & Bess with DeVaunte Ogden

Camilla Ella Williams

Virginia State University

In 1946 Williams became the first African-American to receive a regular contract with a major American opera company, the New York City Opera. Over the next six years, she performed in Pagliacci, La bohème and the title role in Verdi's Aida.  Williams was also the the first African-American to sing a major role with the Vienna State Opera.  She became the first African-American professer at the University of Indiana's school of music and Beijing's Central Conservatory of Music.  An interesting point of trivia: Williams sang the Star-Spangled Banner at the March on Washington.  


Hear Williams perform from a 1952 recording



Image credits:  Brown: Roni Ely,  Dobbs: Associated Press, : Evanti: Detroit Public Library, Jordan: University of Michigan-Flint, Major: CAPA, Norman: Getty,  Robinson: Detroit Public Library, Short: Bill Cooper, 

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