Vincentian American Opera Singer Passes On

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Gloria Davy gives autographs following a performance of Aida at Zagreb Opera. (Opera News image)
News Americas, Brooklyn, NY, Fri. Dec. 7, 2012: Gloria Davy, the first black opera singer to sing “Aida” at the Met and the daughter of immigrant parents from Saint Vincent, has died at the age of 81, according to Opera News.

The soprano singer was twice a Marian Anderson Award winner and received the top prize of the National Music Education League.

In April 1954, while doing a post-graduate year’s special study in opera at Juilliard, Davy appeared as Countess Madeleine in the U.S. premiere run of Richard Strauss’s Capriccio.

Davy had one of her first big successes as Gershwin’s Bess. In 1954, Davy replaced Price as Bess in an international tour of Porgy and Bess, which performed throughout North America and Europe. When the tour hit Milan, conductor Victor de Sabata was so impressed with Davy that he recommended she study the role of Aida for a future engagement at La Scala. Davy stayed in Italy for fifteen months, working on the role, and began to make a name for herself as a concert singer, with engagements in South America as well as in Europe. The scheduled La Scala Aida was canceled “because of a political upheaval,” as Davy explained in a 1958 OPERA NEWS interview, but the role served for her professional opera debut, in Nice, in January 1957, and for her opera debuts in Italy (Bologna) and Yugoslavia (Zagreb).

In July 1957, Davy won favorable reviews in a New York Philharmonic concert of Aida excerpts at Lewisohn Stadium in Manhattan, with Thomas Scherman conducting. In October of the same year, Davy sang Anna Bolena to the Giovanna Seymour of Giulietta Simionato in the American Opera Society’s concert presentation of Donizetti’s opera, paced by Arnold Gamson, at Manhattan’s Town Hall. A few months later, Davy made her Metropolitan Opera debut, on February 12, 1958, as Aida. Although other African–American artists had appeared with the Met before Davy’s debut — chief among them Marian Anderson and Robert McFerrin, who both made Met debuts in 1955 — Davy was the first artist of her race to sing the role of Aida, an Ethiopian princess, with the company.

Davy married Swiss stockbroker Herman Penningsfield, in 1959 and chose to base her professional activities in Europe, where she had important engagements in Berlin, Aachen, Geneva, Vienna, London, Strasbourg, Mannheim and Milan in the early 1960s. She continued to make notable U.S. appearances: in October 1960, Davy sang the title role in a concert performance of Strauss’s Daphne with Thomas Scherman’s Little Orchestra Society at Town Hall and was the soprano soloist in an international telecast of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony relayed from the United Nations and conducted by Eugene Ormandy.

Davy’s linguistic and musical skills made her a valuable interpreter of twentieth-century works. In 1957, she sang the world premiere of Hans Werner Henze’s Nachtstücke und Arien, and in 1972, she sang the first performance of Stockhausen’s revision of Momente, which was recorded by Deutsche Grammophon. After Davy stopped performing, she taught voice. Following her retirement from Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music, where she served on the voice faculty for more than a decade (1984–97), Davy made her home in Geneva. She died there after a long illness on November 28, 2012.

She was educated at P.S. 129 in Brooklyn, the High School of Music and Art and the Juilliard School, where she studied with Belle Julie Soudant.