Your recent column about the Reach at the Kennedy Center rang a bell for me. I believe that Mary Cardwell Dawson’s National Negro Opera Company staged several performances on that Water Gate barge. I’m not sure if Lillian Evanti sang in those performances or not.
On Aug. 28, 1943, a crowd of 8,000 settled onto the stone steps overlooking the Potomac just west of the Lincoln Memorial. Dozens more bobbed in canoes and rowboats on the river. It was an integrated audience, drawn by a love of opera and an affection for a native daughter: lyric soprano Lillian Evanti.
Evanti was singing the role of Violetta in “La Traviata,” a role she would play more than 50 times in her career. This performance was with the National Negro Opera Company, founded in 1941 in Pittsburgh by Mary Cardwell Dawson. Evanti not only sang the female lead, she had provided the English text, finding other translations poorly metered when compared with the original Italian.
“Her voice is brilliant with ringing high tones and a sparkling smoothness in florid passages,” wrote a critic for the Evening Star. Wrote another critic: “The future of the Negro in opera seems assured.”
Perhaps, but as Jennifer Morris, archivist at the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum, which houses a collection of Evanti material, put it: “She was really instrumental in making her own dreams come true — to sing grand opera — however, she had to go abroad to really succeed, due to limited opportunities here.”
Evanti was born Annie Lillian Evans in 1890. Her paternal grandfather was active with the Underground Railroad in Oberlin, Ohio. A great uncle had been involved in John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry. Her father, Wilson Bruce Evans, trained as a doctor at Howard University but chose a career as an educator, becoming the first principal of the District’s Armstrong Manual Training School. Her mother, Annie Brooks, was also a teacher.
Music was a fixture in the Evans home. Lillian gave her first public performance at age 4, in a charity benefit at Friendship, the home of Washington Post owner Edward B. McLean. In her unpublished memoir, Evanti wrote: “I simply burst forth into song. I curtseyed and grinned back at them, not realizing I was learning one of the tricks of winning an audience.”
After high school at Armstrong, Evanti went to Miner Teachers College. She then entered Howard’s music school, earning tuition by teaching kindergarten and giving private music lessons.
Among her music teachers at Howard was Roy Wilfred Tibbs. They married in 1918. Tibbs had studied in Paris and it was Lillian’s understanding that he desired her to do the same. (Her long solo sojourns in Europe were to eventually strain the marriage.)
Lillian left for the Continent in 1924. Her American name didn’t strike Lillian as suitable for the diva she wanted to be. Gathered with friends at a party in Paris, she said she wanted a more euphonious-sounding name.
“I came up with Tivani,” she wrote, a conjunction of Tibbs and Evans, her married and maiden names. But her friend Jessie Fauset, novelist and literary editor of the Crisis, thought that could be improved. Fauset crossed out “Tivani” and wrote “Evanti.”
Wrote Lillian in her memoir: “ ‘That’s just it,’ I cried. So we uncorked a bottle of champagne, and I have been Evanti ever since.”
Evanti studied and performed throughout Europe. Her first lead was the title role in Léo Delibes’s “Lakmé” in both Nice and Paris. She returned regularly to the States, where she earned plaudits for a bill that mixed arias and spirituals. A 1932 recital at Washington’s Belsaco Theater “exemplified the true Evanti vogue current in Europe,” wrote one critic.
As Eric Ledell Smith noted in the journal Washington History in 1999: “As was true with so many African American artists, Evanti needed European acclaim before white American critics took her seriously.”
Critics took her seriously, but New York City opera gatekeepers weren’t so welcoming. Evanti first auditioned with the Metropolitan Opera in 1932, singing both for its director, Giulio Gatti-Casazza, and the panel of judges with whom the final decision rested. She thought it went well but was not offered a contract.
Evanti auditioned regularly over the years but never landed a role. In 1955, Marian Anderson became the first African American soloist at the Met. “I was a few years too soon,” Evanti wrote.
After settling back in Washington, Evanti taught music, directed choirs and served as a goodwill ambassador for the State Department.
She was also a composer. In 1953, Evanti wrote the music to “Hail to Fair Washington,” an ode to D.C. voting rights. The lyrics, by Georgia D. Johnson, included: “We want to vote, home rule to promote, in the seat of this democratic nation./ Why should we wait, why hesitate? Yes, we want representation.”
Evanti died in 1967. Her house at 1910 Vermont Ave. NW is on the National Register of Historic Places.
In 1935, Evanti testified before Congress urging lawmakers to fund an opera house in the capital. An opera house, a Temple of Arts, she called it, would do more than just entertain audiences.
“Who are the happiest people?” Evanti asked. “The people who think the most interesting thoughts. Enjoyment of the arts gives one the relaxation as well as the inner-soul nourishment essential to healthy thinking.”
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.