First Lady of Opera

In photographs made at home and abroad, Lillian Evanti emits elegance in costumes from the two dozen opera roles that eventually entered her repertoire, including Violetta in La Traviata, Rosina in The Barber of Seville, and the titular Lakmé. Like the accessories in the photos, costume jewelry, and hair pins hint at a sparkling spectrum hidden in black-and-white. Through the lenses of her opera glasses, imagine witnessing a performance of the National Negro Opera Company, which she helped to found. Programs from the Company’s productions showcase Evanti and brim with enthusiastic supporters in the Washington, DC community and beyond.

Evanti referred to herself as the “First Lady of Opera in her race.” In 1924, the lyric soprano ventured to Europe to launch her musical career due to limitations imposed by racism in the United States. The native Washingtonian became the first African American to sing with a professional European opera company in 1926. She enjoyed much critical acclaim abroad and, eventually, at home. Although her long-held dream of singing at the Metropolitan Opera went unrealized, contralto Marian Anderson and soprano Mattiwilda Dobbs, credited Evanti’s efforts as they became the first African American women to reach that goal in the 1950s.

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