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An irrepressible voice

Mary Cardwell Dawson launched generations of classically trained Pittsburghers when she founded the National Negro Opera Co. here in 1941

Sunday, August 01, 1999

By Diana Nelson Jones, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Every February at Hill House, a small, sturdy woman turns up in photos in the Black History Month display. When the curious children ask, "Who's that?" the music teacher tells them the story of Mary Cardwell Dawson.

  Mary Cardwell Dawson, pictured, founded the National Negro Opera Co., first in Pittsburgh then in four other cities during the 1940s. She created a legacy of classical music training for African-Americans. Her niece, Barbara Lee of Munhall, saved a body of historical memorabilia that is now in safe-keeping a the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. (Bob Donaldson, Post-Gazette)

Under-known among people of all hues in her adopted hometown of Pittsburgh, Dawson's story begins with a Southern birth, a mill-worker father, a Munhall childhood and a gift of music. It unfolds further at the New England Conservatory, where she graduates with degrees in piano and voice in 1925. She is 31, the only Negro in her class. She has put herself through school cleaning a Boston dentist's office.

Mary Cardwell aspires to the stage, as an opera singer, but after further study in Chicago and New York, she realizes there will be no opportunities. A notable smattering of Negro opera stars will dot the future, but she will not be among them.

Barely 5 feet in high heels, with upswept hair and a soldier's posture, she comes home in 1927 with the man she has just married, a master electrician named Walter Dawson.

Here, a new dream begins to emerge. Pittsburgh soon will bear witness to a passion that will make Mary Cardwell Dawson every bit as luminous as an opera star.

She opens the Cardwell Dawson School of Music above Walter's electrical service shop on Frankstown Avenue in Homewood. For 14 years, she trains hundreds of African-Americans to sing operatically. She recruits many from churches. They are elevator operators, laborers, domestics, drivers, janitors, school children. Some come to her door, asking to be considered. Some barter for lessons. One woman irons for her. A man offers to drive her wherever she needs to go.

By 1939, the Cardwell Dawson Choir has been nationally recognized and is invited to perform at the World's Fair in New York City. In Pittsburgh, her choirs are praised in the Courier, complimented in The Press.

Dawson has spent years traveling and networking, campaigning tirelessly to raise money for her choirs. She's the kind of person who seems to know everyone. The National Organization of Negro Musicians elects her as its president.

As Dawson's esteem grows, the next level beckons. It is a mission that seems Sisyphean to almost everyone around her. But Dawson's personal power cannot be overemphasized: In 1941, she wrestles the National Negro Opera Co. into being. Its first performance coincides with the convention of the National Association of Negro Musicians in Pittsburgh in August.

She has suddenly created a venue for hundreds of marginalized citizens to perform music's most elite form. With devoted trainees and against odds that are almost wholly financial, Dawson keeps the company alive for the next 21 years, until she dies in 1962.

O'Labrice Beckom coaches Jasmine Mangual, 7, during the youngster's weekly voice lesson at Hill House in the Hill District. Mangual is in her third year of training with Beckom, who, as a teenager, got her start in the ranks of the National Negro Opera Co. (Martha Rial, Post-Gazette) 

The debut performance of "Aida" at the Syria Mosque in October 1941 is not the first time African-Americans have ever taken an opera stage en masse. Several companies were formed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in New York City, but none had the breadth or longevity of the National Negro Opera Co.

In 1941, no one can foresee the future of Dawson's company, but a buzz stirs from the mainstream. Nearly every newspaper comments on the admirable audacity of Dawson's ambition.

Ralph Lewando, a critic for The Pittsburgh Press, lauds the company for "worthy aims" in the face of great expense. The Chicago Herald-American writes, "Opera has a nasty habit of running into big deficits no matter how much you skimp and save."

A production today can cost well over $1 million, which is average for The Pittsburgh Opera. Dawson's first "Aida" cost the equivalent of $100,000 in today's money.

Writing in the Pittsburgh Courier, P.L. Prattis describes the $9,000 production of amateurs in an unfamiliar milieu as "a tenuous and tangled skein of Negro talent." But he is overcome by the quality: "It wasn't simply 'good for Negroes' opera. It was a show that might have roused Verdi himself." He pleads with his readers: "Tickets at the door did not pay for all of this. Donations from all over the land helped to pay. We must continue to pay. You must see and hear this opera. It is a stunning retort to your critics."

Dawson mails appeals for angels. To be a "Friend" of the company costs $2. The company has many more friends than patrons. "Opera is no longer a luxury," she writes, hopefully. "Opera is a vital necessity. It belongs to the people." She signs her letters, "Yours in the cause of good music," and in a note to a colleague in 1959, she writes, "We all must move and keep moving."

Still an accomplished singer herself, she holds solo concerts to raise money. Her singers sell tickets to their shows. Their children sell tickets. They perform fund-raising concerts in churches and community halls. They present fashion shows. Audiences are charged anywhere from a quarter to 50 cents for these small shows. Operas cost 75 cents.

In every photo, Dawson offers an uptilted chin and radiant smile. She wears high, high heels to defy her stature. If her confidence ever flags, it is not apparent to anyone. She is evangelical in her zeal to bring her people to stages for broader appreciation. When she moves to Washington, D.C., in 1943 -- Walter has been recruited to work for the government as a master electrician -- she establishes another chapter of the National Negro Opera Co.

The Washington and the Pittsburgh companies perform in tandem, with support of opera guilds and the interchange of musicians and singers. Within the next few years, Dawson will organize opera guilds in Chicago, Cleveland and New York. The repertoire includes "Aida," "La Traviata," "Il Travatore," "Carmen," "Ouanga," "Faust," and "The Ordering of Moses."

Production is not prolific, but regular. How often, and where, depends on which guild has raised enough money and on the availability of stages. The company performs in stadiums, theaters, a Baptist church, Carnegie Hall, the Met, Madison Square Garden, the Watergate, the Syria Mosque.

While the Pittsburgh chapter performs about every other year, the Washington chapter has a string of yearly performances, sometimes two in one year. Clark Griffith, who owns the Washington Senators Baseball Club, grants the company use of Griffith Stadium free of charge for nine straight years. The newspapers don't say why. He may be a beneficent man, ahead of his time. Or he may think Dawson is too remarkable not to help her.

But not everyone is so gracious. After two rainouts on stages along the Potomac, several patrons drive Cadillacs to Dawson's home for their 75-cent refunds.

Though she responds with equanimity, she is quietly stung by this, especially in light of the devastating losses the rains have caused. She redeems nothing for the wages she has paid, the costs of her musicians' travel, staging and stage construction costs, costume rentals.

And when trade-union representatives push onto the stage in the middle of a performance to demand that Dawson pay her musicians professional scale, she forks over money she cannot afford to give. She never pays herself.

Meanwhile, Walter is cleaning fans for the government. It recruited him without knowing his race.

On the side, he creates the Dawson Electric Co. and operates it in the evenings and on weekends. It soon affords him employees. He devotes his comfortable living to Mary. He also is known to sell opera tickets and post placards advertising upcoming performances. (Some 20 years later, the master electrician will win a back-pay settlement from the government in one of this country's earliest Equal Employment Opportunity test cases.)

While the opera company struggles to raise enough money to keep the productions coming, the Pittsburgh Courier opines: "How easy it would be for one of the many foundations in Pittsburgh to underwrite such an effort as hers with a yearly grant of $10,000. Such a grant would allow her to eradicate quickly all imperfections. This would be a cheap price to pay, for a few years, for what Mrs. Dawson can contribute to our cultural renaissance."

The National Negro Opera Co. is never touched by an angel. When Dawson dies, it dies, insolvent.

"She gave concerts on a shoestring," says Barbara Lee, Dawson's niece, who lives in the original Cardwell family home in Munhall. "She gave concerts to raise money to give concerts. She gave concerts to raise money to give grand operas. She gave all of herself.

"She was a disciple of culture."

Peggy Pierce Freeman, began her musical training with Mary Cardwell Dawson at age 9 and eventually accompanied the Negro Opera Co. on keyboard. Today, she performs in jazz ensembles and is a staff accompanist at the Saturday Center for the Musically Talented at Peabody High School. (Martha Rial, Post-Gazette) 

The repayment Mary Cardwell Dawson cared about, she got. From all those cities in all those years, she sprinkled the world with classically trained musicians, including Robert McFerrin, the first African-American man to sing with the Metropolitan Opera and father of jazz artist Bobby McFerrin, jazz pianist Ahmad Jamal and Napoleon Reed, who went from the Chicago stockyards to Broadway by way of the National Negro Opera Co.

Pittsburgh is sprinkled with Dawson's legacy, too. Elderly women who were young women Dawson trained have since trained singers who have won Metropolitan Opera auditions. These same singers have trained and are training African-American high school and college singers, themselves hungry to study at places like the New England Conservatory.

But the situation suffers a curious resemblance to the one that motivated Dawson to begin her company. Operatically trained African-Americans in Pittsburgh for years have champed at the bit for roles.

The Pittsburgh Opera employs four African-Americans, two men and two women, in its chorus roster of 63. An estimated two to three dozen potential performers scattered throughout the metro area field requests for the occasional concert, festival or banquet, or they work in banks and other businesses, or they teach.

It's not that opportunities haven't existed. Demareus Cooper and Neal Huguley, both teachers now, have won Metropolitan Opera auditions here, Huguley in the '60s and Cooper in the '80s. The Met plucks one or two winners from each region like gold nuggets from a stream, and it culls and culls with further auditions.

Huguley's good fortune was to audition in New York: "You sang for 45 minutes in four different languages, and you didn't see a soul but the accompanist," he says. But he foresaw a brutal career. "I thought, 'This isn't what I want for my life.' I wanted to teach." Today, he teaches part time at the African-American Music Institute in Homewood.

With a different temperament, Cooper might have made a career in New York, but she wanted a life beyond opera. She recently finished her first year teaching at the High School for the Creative and Performing Arts (CAPA) in Homewood. "Opera doesn't consume me," she says. "But there are operas I'd love to perform and symphonies I'd love to sing with."

Such sentiments have pushed Thom Douglas, a 42-year-old tenor and Carnegie Mellon University voice instructor, to try to rejuvenate Dawson's dream. By year's end, he says, the Neighborhood Opera Co., his effort to give African-Americans a consistent stage, will perform, most likely at one of CMU's concert halls.

It is yet without underwriters or a board, but musicians on his list of potential performers say they believe he will wrestle it into being: "The seeds are waiting to sprout," says Robert Pruitt, a Pittsburgh Opera chorus tenor who teaches at CAPA and Point Park College.

David Jennings Smith, a tenor of more than 20 years with the Pittsburgh Opera chorus and 15 with the Civic Light Opera, says Neighborhood Opera will give the majority of African-American opera students something to come to when they graduate.

The way Leonard Bernstein re-set "Romeo and Juliet" as "West Side Story" -- in New York City, with Puerto Rican characters -- Douglas wants ultimately to re-set operas for the benefit of African-American children and to take productions into schools: "You have to teach kids from the beginning that theater is an option for them."

At CAPA last school year, as in most years, the 40-member choir was predominantly African-American. Of seven who graduated this summer, four are aspiring opera singers, says Pruitt, adding that CAPA students take field trips to the opera regularly: "Opera is not a heavy word for these students. There are a lot of dreams here."

The affinity between opera and African-American music traditions is both obvious and fascinating. African-American churches were key to Dawson's success in training so many amateur singers for the operatic stage. Both classical songs and spirituals are meant to be sung at the highest level of expression, and the raise-the-roof power of much singing in African-American churches parallels the need of opera singers to be heard over the symphony.

"A classically developed voice lifts the spiritual to its rightful plane," says Huguley, a bass-baritone whose father was a tent singer in the gospel quartet tradition. "That was the root of a lot of my early love of singing."

As both teachers and descendants of Dawson's legacy, Huguley and Cooper know why Dawson worked so exhaustively.

"I have this little story," Cooper says. "Before I went on stage in Huntington, W.Va., when I was performing there, a little fat girl was in attendance, and her brother was teasing her for being fat. When I went on stage, her eyes got big, she smiled and pointed, for the benefit of her brother, as if to say, 'See?'

"Here was this big woman singing for an audience. She was a little white girl, but she related to me.

"It does make a difference who people see on a stage."

  Barbara Lee, Mary Cardwell Dawson's niece, lives in the original Cardwell family home in Munhall. Of her aunt, Lee says: "She gave all of herself." (Bob Donaldson, Post-Gazette)

The music teacher at Hill House is O'Labrice Casson Beckom.

Actually, she has a title -- arts program director -- but she is a teacher, a mentor. She remembers the order she made to Cooper's parents the first time she heard the girl singing in church: "I said, 'Bring that child to me.' "

Cooper's voice was so grand that her neighbors would tell her, on the rare occasion when it was true, "You didn't practice your songs today," she remembers, laughing. "People were very proprietary about Mrs. Beckom's reputation. She was highly respected for what she did.

"She is my mother of music."

Beckom might say the same of Mary Cardwell Dawson.

She was O'Labrice Casson at 16, a dramatic soprano giving full concerts in the early '40s. At an audition at the Pittsburgh Opera Co. in 1943, the doe-eyed teen-ager awed the judges.

"I remember one of the judges said, 'Boy, if we could just paint her white,' " Beckom says now.

The organist at the St. James AME Church where Casson sang was a friend of Dawson's. She took the girl to meet Dawson, and soon the teen-ager with the delicate face joined the ranks of the National Negro Opera chorus.

With church and high school singing experience, Emma Nichols of Brushton one day took a street car to the Cardwell School of Music, which was by then at 7101 Apple Ave., a huge Queen Anne house the Dawsons had moved to in Homewood in the '30s. "I talked with Madame Dawson, and she accepted me. I sang in her original choir."

Nichols, a contralto, worked at Horne's as an "extra girl," covering for workers on vacation. "I wanted music education, and there weren't any scholarships. By the time I paid for lessons and gave my mother something, I had about a dollar left. But that was the Depression, and you did the best you could."

Famed musician Ahmad Jamal, who began studying with Dawson in 1937, was invited to a ceremony for a state historical marker to be erected at the Apple Avenue site in 1994. He wrote to Barbara Lee: "It is very painful not being there with all of you. As you know, my studies began with your aunt when I was 7 years old. I can still hear her heels on the staircase coming down to give me my weekly lessons."

Dawson loved fine things and always dressed up. She loved to dance and entertain. Lee remembers many gatherings and gaiety around the piano at Apple Avenue. Any Negro musician who was anyone passed through the doorway.

"A very classy little lady who loved hats," says Peggy Pierce Freeman, who began studying with Dawson at age 9 and became an opera company accompanist. She is now a staff accompanist at the Saturday Center for the Musically Talented at Peabody High School. She calls herself a "longhair who loves jazz" and continues to perform in ensembles around the city.

The National Negro Opera Co. was just 2 years old in Pittsburgh when Dawson left for Washington. Her right hands were Freeman and Beckom, the local torchbearers of her memory now. Under her long-distance direction, they held the company together.

Beckom holds a particularly poignant memory of a tall, sober-faced man who worked in the mills and sang in church. She finds him in the back row of a photograph she has and taps his visage: "Walter Jackson, from Rankin. He was old enough to be my daddy." Dawson gave Jackson the role of a messenger in "Aida."

"Before he died," says Beckom, "that man got the chance to walk out on a stage and let that voice soar."

Joseph Lipscomb operated an elevator at Kaufmann's when Dawson found him singing in church. Soon he was singing for her.

"Every city she went into, the first thing she did was go to a church," says Lee, who also sang in the chorus and traveled extensively with her aunt. "That's where she found her singers. Even today, this is what you would do."

One of Dawson's greatest windfalls was Lillian Evanti, a coloratura soprano who, by 1943, had already established herself on European stages. Throughout the '30s, she auditioned repeatedly for the Metropolitan Opera and was always rejected. When the National Negro Opera Co. presented "La Traviata" on a floating stage near the Watergate in Washington in 1943, Evanti played the tragic heroine, Violetta.

Grace W. Tompkins, a Chicago critic, described that evening in 1943: "As the curtains parted on Violetta's drawing room, and Evanti made her entrance, wave after wave of thunderous applause rolled out over the listening Potomac." Metro police circled the barge as small boats of spectators bobbed on the water. The shore was packed with people.

"It should be of great significance to the thousands of young music students and concert aspirants all over the country that this new field, the field of grand opera, which was opened for the first time to Negro musicians on a large scale in 1941, should yield such gratifying results in its first attempts," Tompkins wrote.

"With successful performances in Pittsburgh and Chicago and Washington this fall season, the future of the Negro in opera seems assured."

Diana Nelson Jones is a Post-Gazette staff writer.

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