Sunday, April 18, 2021

Cynthia Cozette Lee: Black Classical Firsts Honored in April: Day 16 – Sylvia Olden Lee, Acclaimed Vocal Coach, Pianist and Music Educator

Sylvia Olden Lee (1917-2004)

Sylvia Olden Lee at Piano

(PHILADELPHIA, PA-APRIL 16, 2021):  CYNTHIA COZETTE LEE, a multi-talented Black American contemporary classical composer and poet, continues her project for April 2021 of showcasing the Black musicians, singers, composers, conductors and artists of classical music who have been one of the first African American artist in the area of their expertise to accomplish an outstanding achievement in the classical music field. C. Cozette Lee has been posting a different distinguished artist daily in April 2021 on her Facebook page to honor the historic achievements of these exceptional artists. Below is a sample of one C. Cozette Lee’s post highlighting the works and achievements of Sylvia Olden Lee, internationally, acclaimed vocal coach, pianist and music educator.

Please be sure to visit the Cynthia Cozette Lee Facebook page daily during April to review the history of the featured ”Black Classical Firsts” artist. Sylvia Olden Lee, who was an internationally acclaimed vocal coach, musician and music educator, is being featured for Day 16. For more information contact the composer, Cynthia Cozette Lee, at Email: or her website at:

BLACK CLASSICAL FIRSTS – SYLVIA OLDEN LEE (June 29, 1917 – April 10, 2004) – DAY 16

(This is the sixteenth in a series of historic biographies on noted Black Classical Musicians, Composers and Singers who were trailblazers. These biography excerpts are taken mainly from

The Memoirs of Sylvia Olden Lee, Black Pianists of Classical Music, Schiller Institute Archives, Grove Music Online, Wikipedia and other reference sources).

SYLVIA OLDEN LEE (1917 – 2004) was internationally acclaimed as a vocal coach, pianist and music educator of African American descent who was the granddaughter of slaves. She was a professional classical musician who overcame the classical music racial barriers to become the first African American to be hired by the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. Her outstanding career began as a small child performing in public recitals and accompanying great Black concert singers. Sylvia Olden Lee rose to greater heights being a concert pianist, teaching at the Curtis Institute of Music and coaching Metropolitan Opera stars including Jessye Norman, Kathleen Battle and many others. She was highly respected by the international operatic community and was an exceptional musician.

I first learned about Maestra Sylvia Olden Lee, the vocal coach, through my association with the opera students who were attending local Philadelphia colleges and conservatories of music. I had met these students through my association with them by frequently going to their concerts and student performances. They told me Mrs. Lee was highly respected. She required singers to perform at their best at all times. I was impressed by what I heard from the student singers about Mrs. Lee’s dedication and passion for voice and singing.

At the same time I was asked to volunteer as the classical music consultant for a local public broadcasting radio show. The producer and I decided we needed to start highlighting Black classical music talent through an interview program. After one year of interviewing Black classical musician guests, I began producing and hosting my own radio program as a volunteer for the WPEB – West Philadelphia Education Broadcasting Corporation. My radio program was titled “Classical Reflections” was geared to highlight Black classical musicians living in the area. Of course, Sylvia Olden Lee was number one on my list to invite as a guest on my program.

I believe I sent her a letter of invitation to be a guest on “Classical Reflections.” I was surprised when she contacted me and informed me she accepted my interview invitation. Mrs. Lee had a kind friendly voice on the telephone. She really made you feel at ease with her joyful voice. When I finally met her in person on Monday, December 27, 1982 Sylvia Olden Lee was still cheerful as she had been on the telephone. Her wonderful daughter Eve, whom I was able to interview the next week for my program accompanied her mother to the radio station. Later, at the end of the program I met the late Everett Lee, III, who was Mrs. Lee’s son. I am sorry to say that Everett Lee, III passed away in December 2018 in Dallas.

I recall being very impressed with Mrs. Lee’s experience and knowledge about opera and music. She was very proud of her American heritage being a granddaughter of slaves. She recounted some of her memorable experiences of accompanying great singers in concert. She had accompanied Paul Robeson, Todd Duncan, Roland Hayes and many others. I sat in awe during the interview on hearing her many accomplishments.

The next time I met Sylvia Olden Lee was when I attended a performance and gala reception of Opera Ebony’s “Nabucco” at the Academy of Music. I met Maestro Everett Lee for the first time briefly. I also had the opportunity to speak briefly with Sylvia Lee at the reception. A day or two later, I unexpectedly briefly met both Mrs. Sylvia Lee and Maestro Everett Lee again at a Mozart On The Square concert in Rittenhouse Square Park in Philadelphia. Max Rudolf, the illustrious conductor, was conducting this program. Unfortunately, I was unable to schedule Maestro Lee for an interview for my radio program. However, I was elated later to meet Max Rudolf and be able to schedule Mr. Rudolf for my radio interview program, “Classical Reflections.” I recall Maestro Rudolf was very proud of the accomplishments of Everett Lee, as a conductor.

My next meeting with Sylvia Olden Lee occurred about a year later when she attended one of my concerts. I had graduated from the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Arts and Sciences with a Master of Arts degree in music composition in 1977. I was the first Black and first woman to receive this degree in 1977. I started writing one opera “Adea” in 1980 and had finished it by 1982. Like Gian Carlo Menotti I wrote both my own libretto and composed my own music. I was very proud of my opera “Adea.” I knew that if the public heard it they would too like it. However, other events were happening that would not allow the full performance of my opera “Adea” to occur until the year 2011 when I independently produced the opera myself.

This concert highlighting excerpts from my opera “Adea” took place at the West Philadelphia Regional Library. The late Fran Alston, the founder of the West Philadelphia Cultural Alliance and the Paul Robeson House and Museum had sponsored this event. She was the senior librarian director at the Regional Library and was highly interested in supporting African American community artists. My performers included 5 local opera singers who were graduates of local colleges and music programs. Two of my performers were a husband and wife team, Hazelita Fauntroy Hayes, a dramatic soprano and her husband bass-baritone, Terry Hayes. Mr. and Mrs. Hayes had founded the Philmont Opera Company that was a local company which tried to promote Black composers and Black singers of opera.

I was pleasantly surprised to see Sylvia Olden Lee in attendance at my concert. I may have sent her a flyer with the concert announcement, however, I never dreamed she would attend. In addition, I had another surprise guest attend my concert. It was Charles Fuller, the Pulitzer Prize winning playwright. He had written “The Soldier’s Story” play and the previous year won the Pulitzer Prize. Hazelita Fauntroy Hayes’s performance was outstanding. She was Academy of Vocal Arts (AVA) trained and displayed such wonderful expression and gestures while dramatically singing.

At the end of my concert I thought I would take this opportunity to find out whether or not Opera Ebony might be interested in performing my opera “Adea.” Mrs. Lee informed me Opera Ebony had another contemporary composer whose opera they were going to perform, her name was Dorothy Rudd Moore. 

I thought about Florence Price’s life and music as a composer and decided not to become discouraged. I went forward and wrote another opera titled “The Black Guitar.” Then wrote another opera inspired by the life of my great-grandfather who fought in the American Civil War. This opera is titled “Partway To Freedom.”\

When I look back on knowing Sylvia Olden Lee I recall seeing some concerts she produced highlighting local talent. Prior to the event sometimes I would attend the rehearsal. She was always honest with the singer, sometimes direct and straight to the point. However, whatever comment she made improved the singing voice of the singer. I feel honored and pleased to have known Sylvia Olden Lee. She left a legacy of singers, musicians and composers who will always remember her and be strengthened by her knowledge and teaching she shared with all of us.


Sylvia Olden Lee (June 29, 1917 – April 10, 2004) “was born in Meridian, Mississippi into a musically gifted family. Her mother, Sylvia Ward Olden, was a successful concert artist and her father, Reverend James Clarence Olden, was a member of the Fisk Quartet. In 1933 [Sylvia Olden Lee] performed at the inauguration of Franklin D. Roosevelt. She studied piano at Howard University and transferred to the Oberlin Conservatory where she graduated in 1938 with a performance degree in piano and organ. Oberlin awarded her an honorary doctorate in 2003. In 1944 Sylvia Olden Lee married the violinist and conductor Everett Lee. After her tenure as a Fulbright scholar in 1952, she became the first African American professional musician hired by the Metropolitan Opera (1954). Her time at the Met helped to facilitate Marian Anderson’s debut, as well as the majority of other black opera singers’ debuts there during the 20th century.”


“Sylvia Olden Lee’s distinguished career began at age five when she started studying piano lessons with her mother, Sylvia Ward Olden, a successful concert artist who graduated from Fisk University in piano and voice. Mrs. Lee’s father, James Clarence Olden, was a minister and had also studied classical singing. Her father was one of the Fisk Quartet that included Roland Hayes, Charles Wesley and Lemuel Foster. “James’s mother was Lizzie and she was among the first Jubilee Singers and was in the first graduating class.” Mrs. Lee had two brothers, one older, James, who was “involved in Natural Sciences” and one younger, Georg, who was a “Visual Arts success story. He designed the emancipation stamp in 1963 and was invited to the White House when President John Kennedy was there.”

Mrs. Lee’s mother, Sylvia Ward, was an accomplished soprano and was accepted by the Metropolitan Opera if she would not reveal that she was Black for six months. Mrs. Lee’s mother declined the offer refusing to go against her race. Sylvia Ward along with her husband, Reverend Lee, instead began a school for Black people.”

“Sylvia Olden Lee began at age eight accompanying musicians when she played for her parents on the piano in Schubert lieder for her father and French songs for her mother. By then Mrs. Lee was studying piano with Frank La Forge. Her first piano recital occurred when she was ten years old and her first public recital accompaniment was at age eleven.

By 1933, Mrs. Lee was continuing her music studies with the piano as her major study at the Conservatory in Howard University studying with Cecil Cohen and William Allen. While there, she accompanied students of Todd Duncan. Most importantly, Mrs. Lee had the honor of appearing in concert at the White House for the inauguration of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.”

“In 1935, Sylvia Olden Lee transferred to Oberlin Conservatory on a full scholarship being recommended by William Allen. At Oberlin, she continued being an accompanist with voice lessons and performed in full recitals. Sylvia Olden Lee graduated from Oberlin in 1938 with a major in piano under Dean Frank Shaw and a minor in organ. She gave solo recitals at her graduation on both the piano and organ. While at Oberlin she was inducted into Pi Kappa Lambda, the honorary music fraternity. 

Sylvia Olden Lee became an instructor in piano and organ at Talladega College in 1938. While she was at Talladega she coached and accompanied voice recitals and even toured with contralto, Carol Brice. For the next few years Mrs. Lee lived in Washington D.C. (1939-1942) giving solo recitals and being an accompanist on recital tours. She even had two more White House appearances. Then from 1942-1943 she was invited to teach at Dillard University in New Orleans for a sabbatical. Mrs. Lee had concert appearances that included joint programs with Paul Robeson, solo piano performances and organ recitals. She also coached students privately and at the university level and even created music for the drama festival play.

Sylvia Olden Lee spent the years 1943 to 1952 living in New York City. Mrs. Lee married the distinguished conductor, Everett Lee, in January 1944. They first met in New York on September 17, 1943. Mrs. Sylvia Olden Lee and Maestro Everett Lee had two children, the late Everett Lee, III who sadly passed away in 2018 and Dr. Eve Lee and two grandchildren. Sylvia Olden Lee and Everett Lee eventually separated.

While in New York, Sylvia Olden Lee studied piano with Victor Wittgenstein and performed in solo recitals. She taught voice interpretation and accompanied voice technique students in the studios of Elisabeth Schumann, Eva Gautier, Konraad Bos, Rosalie Miller, Fritz Lehmann and others. In addition, she prepared singers for the New York City Center and Metropolitan Opera. Also Mrs. Lee coached opera at Tanglewood with Boris Goldovsky. While at Tanglewood, Mrs. Lee was the technical advisor for the world premiere of Britten’s “Peter Grimes.”

During this time, Sylvia Olden Lee assisted her husband, Maestro Lee, in preparing concert versions of his opera concerts with his symphony, Cosmopolitan Symphony, a world-class, diverse orchestra. (See DAY 5- CYNTHIA COZETTE LEE FACEBOOK POST -EVERETT LEE “BLACK CLASSICAL FIRSTS” BIOGRAPHY). She assisted with such operas as Cavalleria Rusticana, Aida, La Traviata, Faust, Il Trovatore, La Forza del Destino, Thais, Don Pasquale, La Serva Padrona, Riogoletto, etc. Mrs. Lee also assisted her husband in his Columbia University Opera Workshop for two semesters.”

“From 1952 to 1953, Sylvia Olden Lee studied Italian opera, oratorio and song literature at St. Cecilia Conservatorio. She coached Italian and American singers under the supervision of Maestra Maragliano, Maestro Piccozzi and Maestro Savagnoni. Mrs. Lee accompanied recitals at Perugia for opera, a concert at Castel Sant’Angelo and prepared a student who became a prize-winner in 1953 in Lausanne, Switzerland. Mrs. Lee in 1952 became a Fulbright Scholar.

In 1954 Max Rudolf, the artistic administrator of the Metropolitan Opera, invited Sylvia Olden Lee to join the opera company as a vocal coach. She was the first African American professional musician hired at the Metropolitan Opera. Later, Mrs. Lee was instrumental in having the acclaimed Marian Anderson, hired at the opera for the production of Giuseppe Verdi's Un Ballo in Maschera. Marian Anderson became the first African American soloist to sing at the Metropolitan Opera with Ms. Anderson’s debut performance on January 7, 1955.”

“In 1956, Sylvia Olden Lee returned to Germany to reside for 7 years on a German government grant. She was involved in a wide range of musical ventures. Mrs. Lee studied German lieder for 3 years at the Munich Conservatory with Gerhard Hüsch, an eminent lieder singer, and also accompanied him. Mrs. Lee was invited by Munich Radio to be the official accompanist for the annual international voice competition. She became a musical producer for television specials in Munich, Stuttgart and Berlin. Mrs. Lee was a recital accompanist for almost 500 classic recitals, concert versions of “Porgy and Bess”, pocketsize versions of “Show Boat”, “Oklahoma” and others. “Mrs. Lee coached and directed the Broadway Arts Quartet and was central and instrumental for the production and for getting the engagements. The original idea for Broadway Arts Quartet came from baritone, George Kronlein.”  In addition, Sylvia Olden Lee solely created the entire musical and visual preparation for the vocal anthological program requested by the German government titled “Negroes’ Contribution to Music in U.S.A.” This program was critically acclaimed and recommended for the White House.

In 1963, Sylvia Olden Lee, moved to Norrköping, Sweden, the site of Maestro Everett Lee’s post as Chief Conductor of the town symphony. She would often commute back to Germany for musical commitments. In Scandinavia, Mrs. Lee staged and produced full and concert versions of operas including “Porgy and Bess.” In addition, Mrs. Lee did live radio and recorded performances and performed as a piano soloist in concerts with symphonies throughout Scandinavia.

From 1967 to 1969, Sylvia Olden Lee was a guest at the University of Cincinnati. While at the University, Mrs. Lee prepared the music and staged operas for one-woman shows, television productions and voice recitals. She also prepared and performed Black History Week music for instrumentalists and singers. The University president invited Mrs. Lee to prepare a festival for the university on Martin Luther Memorial First Anniversary Ecumenical Musical Offering. In addition, Mrs. Lee was the Metropolitan Opera Auditions judge for Indiana University.”

“The 1970s was filled with enriching duties and experiences for Sylvia Olden Lee. In 1970, Sylvia Olden Lee was invited to teach in the Voice and Opera Departments at Curtis Institute and remained with this illustrious school for over twenty years as Professor of Vocal Interpretation. From 1971 to 1972, Mrs. Lee was invited to Interlochen Summer Camp to teach vocal interpretation and master classes. In 1976 she inaugurated a program called SYLVIA (Save Young Lyric Voices In Advance) which was dedicated to preserving voices and careers of young singers. In 1979, Mrs. Lee was inducted into the Women’s Hall of Fame as the first Black member of the musical staff at the Metropolitan Opera.

In 1980 Sylvia Olden Lee taught at the Philadelphia College of Performing Arts (now known as the University of the Arts). In the 1990s Mrs. Lee continued her music endeavors by being a pianist and accompanist for soloists such as Robert McFerrin at the Schiller Institute concerts in Washington, D.C.

Maestra Sylvia Olden Lee passed away in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on April 10, 2004. A celebration for Mrs. Lee’s one hundredth birthday was given in 2017 in a concert at Carnegie Hall, sponsored by the Foundation for the Revival of Classical Culture.” Mrs. Lee’s legacy includes having a NANM (National Association of Negro Musicians) chapter named after her in Wilmington, Delaware. The chapter is called “The Sylvia Olden Lee Musical Guild.” The distinguished and illustrious life and career of Maestra Sylvia Olden Lee will be long remembered and honored through the many singers and musicians who received the wisdom of her teachings. To learn more about Maestra Sylvia Olden Lee’s life and career, one can see her autobiography titled “The Memoirs of Sylvia Olden Lee, Premier African-American Classical Vocal Coach” by Sylvia Olden Lee and Elizabeth Nash.

Reference: “Dialogue With Sylvia Olden Lee”, Curtis Institute Schiller Institute, (7 Feb. 1998) Retrieved on April 12, 2021 from

Reference: Dr. Eve Lee, (personal communications, April 4, 2021, April 5, 2021 and April 15, 2021).

Reference: Lee, Sylvia Olden and Nash, Elizabeth, “The Memoirs of Sylvia Oden Lee, Premier African-American Classical Vocal Coach, E. Mellon Press,  New York: 2001.

Reference: Newland, Marti, “Lee, Sylvia Olden” Grove Music Online, Retrieved April 12, 2021 from

Reference: Ottley, Nevilla E., “Black Pianists of Classical Music Born Between 1838 and 1933,” 2nd ed., Classics of Ebony Publishing: 2019, pp. 100 – 112.

Reference: “Sylvia Olden Lee Biography” Wikipedia Retrieved April 12, 2021 from

Reference: Sylvia Olden Lee, (personal communications, 1982).

Photograph 1- Sylvia Olden Lee Portrait retrieved on April 14, 2021 from Lee, Sylvia Olden and Nash, Elizabeth, “The Memoirs of Sylvia Oden Lee, Premier African-American Classical Vocal Coach, E. Mellon Press,  New York: 2001.

Photograph 2- Sylvia Olden Lee at piano retrieved on April 12, 2021 from


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