Historical Markers
National Negro Opera Company Historical Marker
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National Negro Opera Company

Pittsburgh Region


Marker Location:
7101 Apple Street, Homewood

Dedication Date:
September 25, 1994

Behind the Marker

Black and white photograph of an African-American woman holding a program. She is wearing a large veiled hat and a dress.
Mary Cardwell Dawson
Music has always been a part of African-American life. It has been a key method of expression in both secular and everyday situations, and in African-American religious life. The secular gave rise to blues, work songs, folk songs, minstrel songs and other forms of popular music. The religious experience gave rise to spirituals, hymns, and performance styles ranging from a soloist with single piano accompaniment to large choirs shaking the rafters of small churches.

The black church has always been an important training ground for young African-American musicians who would later cross over into other genres. Pop artists Aretha Franklin, Patti LaBelle, Luther Vandross, and Whitney Houston all sang in church as children, as did classical singers Leontyne Price and Marian Anderson. The first black opera company in the United States also had its roots in the African-American church. Learning to sing in her family's church in Pittsburgh, Mary Cardwell Dawson left home to enter the New England Conservatory of Music, one of the nation's most prestigious musical colleges.
Group photograph
National Negro Opera Company; the Cardwell Dawson Choir. Right: Mary Cardwell...
Marian Anderson in costume in front of a curtain on stage.
Marian Anderson dressed for a performance at the Metropolitan Opera, New York,...

After graduating she returned to Pittsburgh and soon realized that opportunities for black performers in the rarefied world of white opera production were few. So Dawson began to direct a number of black choirs that sang classical pieces. She directed a huge ensemble of 500 singers, who won national awards in 1935 and 1937, and then went on to perform at the 1939 New York World's Fair. In 1938, Dawson was elected president of the National Association of Negro Musicians (NANM), the most prominent organization of African-American musicians. Public acclaim for her production of Verdi's "Aida", at the 1941 annual meeting of the NANM, convinced Dawson that African-American singers needed a company that would provide them the opportunities deprived them by segregation.  

Returning home, she founded the National Negro Opera Company (NNOC), the first black opera company in the nation. Featuring several prominent soloists and choir members from many of Pittsburgh's black churches, the company won critical rave reviews. "[W]e have rarely heard," wrote the music critic for the Pittsburgh Sun-Telegram, "so impressive a chorus in all [our] opera experience."

Later in 1941, Dawson's husband took a job in Washington, D.C. and she moved the opera company there. For the next twenty years, Dawson worked tirelessly to promote African-American participation in and appreciation of opera. Among the original works she produced by black composers were R. Nathaniel Dett's "The Ordering of Moses" and Clarence Cameron White's "Ouanga, Ouanga."

In 1955 internationally renowned contralto markerMarian Anderson became the first African American to sing at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Shortly thereafter, one of Mary Cardwell Dawson's protégés, Robert McFerrin, Sr., became the first permanent African-American member of the Metropolitan cast.

Like many other large performing arts and production companies, the NNOC had difficulty meeting its expenses. Dawson and her husband often paid the bills out of their own pockets. Mary Cardwell Dawson died in 1962. Without an endowment or major government foundation, or private sponsors, the National Negro Opera Company folded soon after her death.
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