Tuesday, October 16, 2012

John Malveaux: Leonora Lafayette (1926-1975) - first African American to sing at Royal Opera House

John Malveaux of www.MusicUNTOLD.com sends this link:        

Uploaded by on Oct 24, 2011
Leonora Lafayette sings "Mi chiamano Mimi"

from La Bohème by Giacomo Puccini
Hallé Orchestra
Sir John Barbirolli, conductor

The story of how Leonora Lafayette, a young woman from Baton Rouge, La., came to sing at Covent Garden is almost a fairy tale. She was 26 years old and living in Basel, Switzerland, performing leading roles in operas there as well as in Germany and France. At 1:15 p.m. on Jan. 28, 1953, Lafayette received a phone call asking her to come to London to perform the leading role in the 7 p.m. performance of Aida at the Covent Garden. Even without a rehearsal, Lafayette was a smashing success. She was applauded for overcoming the obstacle of substituting for the Dutch singer Gre Brouwenstijn — and, as an English critic wrote, "the exceptional beauty and vitality of her voice, the simple dignity of her stage presence, and the truthfulness of her acting."

  Lafayette's musical career began at McKinley High School in Baton Rouge. After graduation, she received special training at Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn. She won the Marian Anderson Award (for using the arts for the betterment of society; Mia Farrow is the 2011 winner) in 1947 and a year later won a $2,000 Julius Rosenwald Fellowship and studied at Juilliard School of Music in New York. In 1950, Lafayette won the $3,000 John Hay Whitney Fellowship to study in Europe. A year later, in 1951, she starred in Aida at the Basel Opera House and so impressed everyone that she was signed for a full season.

   Health problems put her in the hospital, but Lafayette managed to enter and place second in a prestigious international musical competition in Geneva. With this win she received many offers to perform and was able to stay in Europe, where Sir John Barbirolli sought her out to star in Aida at Covent Garden. She later returned to play the lead in Puccini's Madama Butterfly.

  Leonora Lafayette did not achieve the fame of contemporaries such as Leontyne Price, and segregation limited her stardom in America, but Lafayette's international career lasted until right before the civil rights movement — and she made history as the first African-American to perform at the Royal Opera House — or any English opera house.

  She died of cancer in 1975.

Comment by email:

I asked two former classmates at Juilliard of Leontyne Price what it was like -- Calvin Lampley and Elaine Kelly.  They independently said Miss Price would walk past the lounge, her music held tightly in her arms, and nod to her friends without slowing her pace to the practice rooms.  They both regarded Price as an extraordinary talent but the one they most admired was Leonora Lafayette.  Dominique-René de Lerma

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