Gloria Davy was 20 in 1951 when she won the coveted Marian Anderson Award. Perhaps that was a propitious omen that one day she would follow in the esteemed footsteps of operatic great Anderson, which she did, with a similar voice of marvelous distinction. Davy, 81, died on Nov. 28 in Geneva, Switzerland.
Her death, after a long illness, was confirmed by her friend and noted opera singer Martina Arroyo.
In several of the published accounts of her remarkable career, Davy is hailed as the first African American singer to perform in the leading role of “Aida” at the Metropolitan Opera in 1958. Ordinarily, this role of the Ethiopian princess was performed by a white singer, but Davy brought the character closer to her African heritage while providing it with a singular magnificence of interpretation, according to several reviewers.
“Davy warmed up as the evening progressed,” Time magazine wrote of this moment, “sang her low tones with a throaty richness, her upper ones with limpid, free-flowing clarity. Her ‘Patria mia’ was a triumph of yearning beauty…she matched the acting of the veteran cast with a touchingly natural performance. All in all, soprano Davy proved that the Met is where she belongs.”
(A similar performance of this aria, which she did in 1961 in Berlin, can be found on YouTube.)
Along with this pioneering breakthrough, she was also the fourth African American to appear on stage at the Met. But her star turn in Verdi’s “Aida” was just one of many memorable feature roles in opera, including Pamina in Mozart’s “Magic Flute,” Leonore in “Il Travatore,” and Nedda in “Pagliacci.”
In each of these roles she often appeared opposite such incomparable singers as Leonard Warren, Giulio Gari, and William Pearson, in which her Bess was a powerful counterpart to his Porgy.
Born March 28 or 29, 1931 in Brooklyn, Davy was the daughter of immigrants from St. Vincent. After graduating from the High School of Music and Art in Manhattan she earned a bachelor’s degree at The Juilliard School.
No more schooling was necessary for this talented singer, and with a number of prizes in her possession she was soon appearing at Town Hall, enthralling audiences with a vivacious rendering of Benjamin Britten’s “Les Illuminations,” a song cycle noted for its challenging contours.
In 1954, she replaced the great Leontyne Price as Bess and once more demonstrated her versatility and prowess in a lighter brand of opera.
But it was in the realm of classical opera that she excelled and was often compared with the other highly acclaimed African American singers. “I feel that those of us who were there, at the Met,” said Shirley Verrett, “the females and the males—Simon Estes, George Shirley, [Robert] McFerrin—we started it—Marian Anderson, Leontyne Price, Gloria Davy, and Grace Bumbry.”
Davy clearly figures prominently with the pantheon of Black opera giants, a honor supremely confirmed by her astonishing appearances and recordings that include: Gershwin: Porgy and Bess (featuring baritone William Pearson with the Nürnberg Symphoniker; Franz Allers), Mascagni: Cavalleria Rusticana (Sándor Kónya, Walter Berry; Deutsche Oper Berlin Orchester, Janos Kulka; Deutsche Grammophon), Verdi: Il Trovatore (Sándor Kónya, Svetka Ahlin, Raymond Wolansky; Deutsche Oper Berlin Orchester, Janos Kulka; Deutsche Grammophon), Aida (Gloria Davy, Svetka Ahlin, Sándor Kónya, Hans Hotter, Paul Schöffler; Staatliches Wiener Volksopernorchester, Argeo Quadri; 1970), Stockhausen: Momente (Gloria Davy; Chor des WDR; Deutsche Grammophon, 1975).