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Opera opera trailblazer honored at NEC

Celina Colby
Celina Colby is an arts and travel reporter with a fondness for Russian novels.... VIEW BIO
Opera opera trailblazer honored at NEC
Portrait of Mary Cardwell Dawson by Iris Lee Marcus. PHOTO: ANDREW HURLBUT

The New England Conservatory honors alumna Mary Cardwell Dawson, a trailblazing Black opera singer, in a new portrait by Iris Lee Marcus that will be permanently displayed in NEC’s Blumenthal Family Library. Open to view by the public and the students, the portrait highlights the diverse and often overlooked history of the conservatory.

Dawson graduated from NEC in 1925 with a degree in piano — she was the only Black student at the time — and went on to form the National Negro Opera Company (NNOC) in Pittsburgh in 1941. In addition to training students in voice and classical music, she created opportunities for Black musicians to study and perform during the rigid segregation of the Jim Crow era.

Artist Iris Lee Marcus, NOH Executive Director Jonnet Solomon and musician Dawn Carroll. PHOTO: ANDREW HURLBUT

“At a time when racism towards African American singers was rife and very tangible in the opera world, Mary Cardwell Dawson had the tenacity and courage to build a Black opera company that would pave the way for African American composers and singers to perform, with a far reaching visionary approach of training Black youth to sing,” says Monique Van Willingh, director of cultural equity and belonging at NEC.

Dawson’s work lives on. Currently undergoing a significant restoration effort, the original historic building of the NNOC in Pittsburgh will once again be a space for music lessons, a museum and the community upon its completion.

“Given the socio-cultural context of the time, this embodied the intersection of Black art, education, provocation and activism at its best,” says Van Willingh. “Her company was the first Black independent company to rent out the Met, and it was also described as a ‘gathering space’ for the artist community.”

Dawson isn’t the only significant BIPOC alumna of NEC. Florence Price, one of the first Black women to complete formal studies in instrumental performance and a talented composer, also attended the conservatory, as did Coretta Scott King.

As an additional celebration of the new portrait and Dawson’s legacy, musicians Dawn Carroll and Jon Butcher created a 15-song soundtrack titled “Songs for Mary,” reflecting the story and emotions of Dawson’s life. The soundtrack CD and information about the music are displayed underneath Dawson’s portrait.

Van Willingh says, “The portrait is welcomed as we celebrate Black artistry, stand in solidarity with Black suffering at the hands of institutional racism past and present, and honor Black history and the women who’ve made it.”