Gloria Davy, First African-American to Sing Aida at the Met, Dies at 81

Gloria Davy as Nedda in Leoncavallo’s “Pagliacci.”


Published: December 10, 2012

Gloria Davy, a Brooklyn-born soprano who was the first African-American to sing Aida with the Metropolitan Opera, died on Nov. 28 in Geneva. She was 81.

Her death, after a long illness, was confirmed by the soprano Martina Arroyo, a longtime friend.

A lirico-spinto (the term denotes a high voice that is darker and more forceful than a lyric soprano’s), Ms. Davy performed mainly in Europe from the 1960s onward. She was equally, if not better, known as a recitalist.

In particular, she was an interpreter of 20th-century music, including the work of Richard Strauss, Benjamin Britten and Paul Hindemith.

Though she was praised by critics for the beauty of her voice, the sensitivity of her musicianship and the perfection of her pianissimos — the elusive art of attaining maximum audibility at minimum volume — Ms. Davy sang with the Met just 15 times over four seasons, from her debut in the title role of Verdi’s “Aida,” opposite Leonard Warren, in 1958 to her final performance, as Leonora in Verdi’s “Trovatore,” opposite Giulio Gari, in 1961. She also sang Pamina in Mozart’s “Magic Flute” and Nedda in Leoncavallo’s “Pagliacci” with the company. In concert, she appeared with the New York Philharmonic and at Carnegie Hall and Town Hall in New York.

The daughter of parents who had come to the United States from St. Vincent, in the Windward Islands, Gloria Davy was born on March 29, 1931. Her father, according to a 1959 article about her in Ebony magazine, worked as a token clerk in the New York City subway system.

Ms. Davy as Pamina in Mozart’s “Magic Flute” in 1958.


She graduated from the High School of Music and Art in Manhattan and in 1951 and 1952 received the Marian Anderson Award. The prize, for young singers, was established in 1943 by Ms. Anderson, the first black singer to appear at the Met.

After receiving a bachelor’s degree in 1953 from the Juilliard School, where she studied with Belle Julie Soudent, Ms. Davy embarked on a career as a concert singer.

In January 1954, as a prize for having won a vocal competition sponsored by the Music Education League, Ms. Davy appeared at Town Hall with the Little Orchestra Society, singing Britten’s song cycle “Les Illuminations,” a rigorous undertaking for even a seasoned singer.

Reviewing the concert in The New York Times, Ross Parmenter wrote: “The ease with which she negotiated it immediately stamped her as a singer of unusual technical skill. And skillful accuracy was only the beginning of her story, for she has a voice of wide range that is soft, fresh, clear and warm.”

That May, Ms. Davy replaced Leontyne Price as Bess in an international tour of “Porgy and Bess,” providing her with her first significant stage experience.

When the tour reached Milan, the conductor Victor de Sabata suggested Ms. Davy learn the role of Aida for a forthcoming production at La Scala. Though she was unable to sing it there — political turbulence in Italy caused the performance to be canceled — she made her debut in the role in Nice, France, in 1957 and later sang it elsewhere in Europe.

When Ms. Davy first sang at the Met, she was only the fourth African-American to appear there, after Ms. Anderson, a contralto, and Robert McFerrin, a baritone, both of whom made their debuts in 1955, and the soprano Mattiwilda Dobbs, who first sang there the next year. (The African-American soprano Camilla Williams, who died this year, had made her debut with the New York City Opera in 1946.)

Before Ms. Davy was cast in the role, Aida, an Ethiopian princess, was perennially sung by white singers in dark makeup.

Ms. Davy’s other opera work includes appearances with the American Opera Society, a midcentury ensemble in New York, with which she sang the title role in Donizetti’s “Anna Bolena.” In Europe, she appeared at the Vienna Staatsoper and at Covent Garden in London.

For decades Ms. Davy had made her home in Geneva, returning to the United States periodically to perform and teach: she was on the faculty of the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University from 1984 to 1997.

Ms. Davy was married several times. Survivors include a son, Jean-Marc Penningsfeld.

Among her recordings are albums of music by Paul Bowles and Karlheinz Stockhausen, and an album of spirituals.

Though she had planned to be a concert singer, Ms. Davy took unhesitatingly to the operatic life. “For sheer joy of singing,” she said in an interview with Opera News in 1958, “there’s nothing like opera.”

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