Friday, April 16, 2021

Sergio A. Mims: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: National Negro Opera Company house receives another bravo — and $500,000

Pam Panchak / Post-Gazette 

Sergio A. Mims writes:

The Richard King Mellon Foundation announced that it made made a $500,000 grant towards the restoration of the National Negro Opera Company former home in Pittsburgh to "jump start" the home's $2 million restoration.

Apr 13, 2021

Kevin Kirkland

After a 20-year overture of noes, Jonnet Solomon and a Homewood house where the National Negro Opera Company was born are suddenly basking in a growing chorus of support.

On Monday, the support came with dollar signs — a $500,000 grant from the Richard King Mellon Foundation to jump-start the house’s $2 million restoration.

“Jonnet Solomon took the first and most important step, buying the property to save it from demolition,” Sam Reiman, the foundation’s director, said in a news release. “But now she needs help, and not just to save it, but to make it special once again, converting it into a self-guided museum with powerful programming for disadvantaged young artists of today.”

Ms. Solomon, who bought the crumbling mansion for $18,000 in 2000 with the late Miriam White, has also received backing from Pittsburgh Opera and Denyce Graves, a mezzo-soprano who wants to create a program there for young performers. The Grammy and Emmy award-winning opera singer has been promoting the project since March.

“She has been singing about it from the mountaintops,” Ms. Solomon said Monday. “This is the voice I’ve been missing!”

The 44-year-old accountant has dreamed of this moment since she and Ms. White purchased the 7,000-square-foot house built in 1894 at 7101 Apple St.

Despite their efforts to preserve it, the house has been stripped by thieves of its stained-glass windows and fine woodwork. Condemned by the city, its windows are now boarded up and a fence is being built to protect what was once a favorite haunt of Black celebrities, including actress and singer Lena Horne, fighter Joe Louis, and Hall of Fame baseball player Roberto Clemente, as well as jazz musicians Count Basie, Ahmad Jamal, Sarah Vaughan and Billy Eckstine.

But they are not the reason for the house’s sudden fame.

Credit that to opera singer Mary Cardwell Dawson, who in 1941 founded the National Negro Opera Company here. The company staged performances in Pittsburgh, New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C., which was its headquarters when it disbanded in the 1960s.

Ms. Graves learned about Ms. Dawson and first visited the house in 2017 while performing in “The Summer King: The Josh Gibson Story” with Pittsburgh Opera.

“I am an African American woman opera singer, and it’s because of trailblazers like Mary Cardwell Dawson who paved the way … that allows us to have the careers that we do today,” she said during a recent visit. “We have to carry on where she left off.”

Ms. Solomon is grateful to Ms. Graves, the Mellon foundation and all the others who have taken up her labor of love since the house was named in September to the Na­tional Trust for His­toric Pres­er­va­tion’s annual list of 11 Most Endangered Places

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Madame Mary Cardwell Dawson was a longtime member of NANM, Inc.

The Pittsburgh Branch is named in her honor. 

In addition to being an opera singer, coach and conductor, she was the piano teacher of many outstanding students including Pittsburgh native Ahmad Jamal. 

For the Love of Music

Barbara Wright-Pryor

Former Music Critic: -Chicago Crusader Newspaper

Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association 
  Planning Committee;
-The League of The CSOA;
-The African American Network of The CSOA

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