Episode 7. Janet Williams I. No Accidents

Episode 7. Janet Williams Interview, Part I. No Accidents

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I am particularly excited to present the first of a three-part interview with the distinguished American soprano and pedagogue Janet Williams, who also happens to be one of my dearest friends. We met when we were both apprentice artists at the Merola Opera Program of the San Francisco Opera. Since then Janet established herself as one of the premiere lyric coloratura sopranos of her generation and is now highly respected as a pedagogue, clinician, and mentor. In this portion of our discussion, we speak about Janet’s formative years in Detroit and how she found her way into the opera world, despite an early interest in gospel singing and the desire of becoming a backup singer à la The Supremes. Particular attention is paid to her tutelage under the distinguished African American soprano and civil rights icon Camilla Williams (as Janet points out, no relation!)

Just to embarrass Janet, I am going to quote from a review that Dietrich David Scholz gave to her most celebrated recording, Graun’s Cleopatra e Cesare. This recording was made following performances of the opera at the Berliner Staatsoper. “Die Sensation der Aufnahme (wie schon der Aufführung) ist allerdings Janet Williams als Cleopatra: eine sinnlich betörende, schwarze Venus. So wie ihre Cleopatra auf der Bühne als unwiderstehliche Sexbombe einschlägt, lehrt sie den Hörer der CD die betörende Erotik des Koloraturgesangs. Die Leichtigkeit, mit der sie die akrobatischsten Verzierungen, vogelgleich und augenzwinkernd, immer mit einem charmanten Lächeln in der Stimme, trällert, macht sie zum unvergleichlichen Koloraturwunder!” [The sensation of the recording (as in the production), however, is Janet Williams as Cleopatra: a sensual beguiling, black Venus. Just as her Cleopatra takes on the stage as an irresistible bombshell, she demonstrates to the listener of the CD the beguiling eroticism of coloratura singing. The lightness with which she sings the most acrobatic ornaments, birdlike and winking, always with a charming smile in her voice, makes her an incomparable coloratura wonder!]

(You might note that Europeans in general, have an apparent obsession with women of color as singers and entertainers and constantly draw attention to the race of the artist in question, as if this in itself were an exceptional accomplishment. We saw this with Shirley Verrett being referred to in the Italian press as “La nera Callas.” Witness also Grace Bumbry’s Bayreuth debut as Venus in the 1961 production of Tannhäuser, in which she was dubbed “Die schwarze Venus,” an appellation which has followed her in German-speaking Europe to this day (even on the event of her 80th birthday!), and which is directly referenced by Herr Scholz in his review of Janet’s recording of the Graun, above.)

Die schwarze Venus, Bayreuth 1961.

Please note that I have made the decision to seriously truncate the Show Notes page for the time being. I have been spending up to three days each week in the preparation of these pages, and I’m not sure anyone even reads them! I may eventually revive them on my Patreon page behind a firewell, but in the meantime, these pages will be limited to the publication of a few photos and a description of each recording used in the current podcast episode.

RECORDINGS FEATURED IN THIS EPISODE

Janet Williams, soprano: Tra le processe assorto (Cleopatra e Cesare; Carl Heinrich Graun). Live from the Berliner Staatsoper, 1992. A video of the complete performance can be seen HERE and HERE.

Janet Williams as Cleopatra in Cleopatra e Cesare by Carl Heinrich Graun, Staatsoper Berlin, 1994
(Photo by Archie Kent/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

The Supremes (Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, Florence Ballard): Baby Love (Eddie Holland) (Motown Records, M 1066, 1964)

Supremely and uniquely The Supremes!

Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky: I. Adagio – Allegro non troppo (Symphony No. 6 “Pathétique”). Yevgeny Mravinsky, Leningrad Philharmonic (Deutsche Grammophon Records, 138 659 SLPM, 1960)

Young hipster Pyotr (homo alert!)

Tierinii Jackson “Young Sister Singing Gospel Music”: Thank You, Jesus. Janet remarked how much this young woman on this recording sounds like Rita Jackson, whom she mentions on the podcast. BTW, since the time that recording was made, Tierinii Jackson has developed into quite an artist. With her sister Tikyra and Israeli-born bassist Ori Naftaly, she has formed the Memphis-based band, Southern Avenue. She is definitely worth checking out.

Kim Jordan

Kim Jordan: Improvisation. Janet’s friend and co-director of the children’s choir at her church has become a world-renowned jazz pianist. Lots of her work is available on YouTube.

Lewis Cass Technical High School Harp & Vocal Ensemble, directed by Lydia Cleaver: O Shenandoah (Traditional, arr. Ruth Eleain). On Metro Arts Detroit, Episode 407. Though this episode is from 2015, Janet remembers having sung this same arrangement. On this episode, Lydia Cleaver, the director of “Harp & Vocal” talks about the history of the ensemble, which that year was celebrating its 90th anniversary. Ms. Cleaver mentions Velma Froude, though not by name.

Velma Froude

Here is a little more about Velma Froude, which I found in a book entitled Horn Man: The Polish-American Musician in Twentieth-Century Detroit by Laurie A Gomulka Palazzolo, published 2003 by The American-Polish Music Society. “The harp program, which was established at Cass Tech in 1925, began with Clarence Byrne, who, according to Patricia Terry-Ross, the program’s current [in 2003] director, ‘wanted to teach every instrument known to man or woman.’ Velma Froude, who was a student at the time the program was initiated, later became the principal harp instructor. Music majors at Cass Tech had to learn several different instruments, and those wishing to fulfill a string or wind instrument requirement could substitute harp. Students received, and continue to receive, the same credit for harp as they receive for math and English. Velma Froude was a private instructor of Christa Grix, celebrated jazz harpist in the Detroit area today. In addition. noted jazz harpist Dorothy Ashby, now deceased, began her harp studies at Cass Tech. According to Terry-Ross, approximately 80 percent of the individuals who played harp in the metropolitan area came in contact with Velma Froude at some point. When Froude retired after forth-three years of teaching, she selected Terry-Ross to take over.” (p. 72).

Mahalia Jackson: How I Got Over (Clara Ward) (from Recorded Live in Europe During Her Last Concert Tour, Columbia Records, CL 1726, 1962).

Mahalia: one of my favorite singers of any genre, any time.

Diana Ross and The Supremes: The Happening (Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier, Eddie Holland, Frank DeVol). Live from the Concertgebouw, 6 June 1967.

Top Motown soul pop group Diana Ross and the Supremes,
L-R, Mary Wilson, Diana Ross and Cindy Birdsong, 1968. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

Diana Ross: Theme from Mahogany [Do You Know Where You’re Going To?] (Gerry Goffin, Michael Masser) (from The Original Soundtrack of Mahogany, Motown Records M6-858S1, 1974)

Geri Allen with Marcus Belgrave: Nancy Joe (Geri Allen) (From Grand River Crossings: Motown and Motor City Inspirations, Motéma Records, MTM-128, 2013).

Geri Allen, the late, great innovator.
Solange Michel, Carmen on the Cluytens recording. One of the best Carmens ever!

André Cluytens. Mais nous ne voyons pas la Carmencita (Carmen; Georges Bizet). André Cluytens conducting the Orchestra and Chorus of the Opéra Comique, Paris; the cast features Solange Michel, Raoul Jobin, Martha Angelici, and Michel Dens. Originally issued on Columbia 33 FCX 101-103, reissued on Naxos Historical 8.110238-39.

Florence Foster Jenkins: Queen of the Night Aria. With Cosme McMoon, pianist. Originally released on the Melotone Recording Studio label, ca. 1941. Most widely collected in The Glory (????) of the Human Voice, RCA Victor Records, LM-2597.

Madame Jenkins “entertaining” guests in her home, 1937. Photo by Margaret Bourke-White.
Moffo as Carmen. Whoever thought this was a good idea??

Lorin Maazel. Votre toast, je peux vous le rendre (Carmen; Georges Bizet). Lorin Maazel conducting the Orchester und Chor der Deutschen Oper Berlin; the cast includes Anna Moffo, Helen Donath, Franco Corelli, Piero Cappuccilli, José van Dam, Barry McDaniel, Jane Berbié, and Arleen Augér as Frasquita! Originally released on Eurodisc Records 300 720-435 (1973; recorded 1970); reissued on CD on RCA Victor 74321 25792 6.

Leontyne Price: Pace, pace, mio dio (La forza del destino; Giuseppe Verdi). Originally released on the complete Forza recording on RCA Victor on LSC-6413, 1965. Thomas Schippers conducts the RCA Italiana Orchestra and Chorus; the cast includes Richard Tucker, Robert Merrill, Shirley Verrett, Giorgio Tozzi, and Ezio Flagello.

Miss Price as Leonora in La forza del destino

Leontyne Price: O patria mia (Aida; Giuseppe Verdi). Live from the Met, 25 February 1967. Thomas Schippers conducts the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus; the cast includes Carlo Bergonzi, Grace Bumbry, Robert Merrill, and Jerome Hines. The recording has been issued by Sony Classics in its deluxe limited edition boxesVerdi at The Met box (2013) and The Inaugural Season: Extraordinary Met Performances from 1966-67 (2016).

Joan Sutherland: Tornami a vagheggiar (Alcina; George Frideric Handel). Richard Bonynge conducts the London Symphony Orchestra. From Joan Sutherland Sings Handel, Decca Records, LXT 6191, 1965).

Joan Sutherland and Beverly Sills: Together again for the first time
Dennis Collins

Dennis Collins: Something to Talk About (Shirley Eikhard). Live performance at Ashford and Simpson’s Sugar Bar, 22 January 2019. Available via his Facebook professional page,

Dennis Collins and Roberta Flack: Back Together Again (Roberta Flack, Donny Hathaway). Dennis Collins is Janet’s friend who has had a long and successful career as a back-up (and solo!) singer. Roberta Flack was a particular mentor of his. Here he joins her in a live performance of this famous duet recorded in Nagoya, Japan for the television program WoWoW.

Janet Williams: Der Hirt auf dem Felsen (Franz Schubert). Live recording ca. 1989 provided by the artist.

Maria Callas: Casta diva (Norma; Vincenzo Bellini). Live recording from the Opéra de Paris, 19 December 1958. Included on Warner Classics DVD/BluRay Maria Callas Toujours, 4 92502 9. Georges Sébastian conducts the Orchestre et [notoriously wayward] Chœur du Thèâtre National de l’Opéra de París.

The look on Maria’s face when she hears that the chorus has fucked up…

Beverly Sills: N’est-ce plus ma main (Manon; Jules Massenet). Originally released on the complete Manon recording on ABC/Audio Treasury Records, ATS-20007/4, 1970. Julius Rudel conducts the New Philharmonia Orchestra and the Ambrosian Opera Chorus; the cast also includes Nicolai Gedda, Gérard Souzay, and Gabriel Bacquier. The recording has been rereleased countless times, most recently on Deutsche Grammophon 474 950-2.

Beverly Sills as Manon

Camilla Williams: Ritorna vincitor (Aida; Giuseppe Verdi). Recording of excerpts from Aida , MGM Records MGM E554, ca. 1951. Laszlo Halasz conducts the New York City Opera Orchestra; the cast also includes Lydia Ibarrondo, Giulio Gari, and Lawrence Winters.

Camilla Williams photographed by Carl Van Vechten.

Camilla Williams: The Star-Spangled Banner (Francis Scott Key, John Stafford Smith). Live performance from the March on Washington, 28 August 1963. George Malloy is her accompanist.

Camilla Williams and her husband, the distinguished civil rights attorney, Charles T. Beavers.
The legendary 1951 Goddard Lieberson-produced Porgy recording on Columbia Records

Camilla Williams: What You Want with Bess; and Summertime (Porgy and Bess; George Gershwin) From the complete Porgy recording on Columbia Records, OSL-162, 1951. Lehman Engel conducts a cast which also includes Lawrence Winters, Inez Matthews, Avon Long, June McMechen, Warren Coleman.

Janet Williams: Myself I Shall Adore (Semele; George Frideric Handel). Live 1993 performance from the Staatsoper Berlin.

An unnamed mezzo: O don fatale (Don Carlo; Giuseppe Verdi). To preserve your health and my integrity, I will reveal nothing more about this artist. Hold on to your hats.

Janet Williams: Alleluia (Exsultate, jubilate; Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart). Live recording ca. 1989 provided by the artist.

Camilla Williams: Beau soir (Claude Debussy). Boris Bazala, pianist. From A Camilla Williams Recital, MGM Records, E140, 1952.

Camilla Williams: Oh, What a Beautiful City (Traditional Spiritual). Boris Bazala, pianist. From Camilla Williams Sings Spirituals, MGM Records E156, ca. 1953. Can be heard on the background in this 2009 tribute to Camilla Williams.

Janet Williams: Mein Herr Marquis (Die Fledermaus; Johann Strauss II). Live performance, December 1995. Hermann Michael conducting the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus. Recording provided by the artist.

Janet Williams
Anna Moffo (pre-nosejob) as Nanetta in Falstaff.

Anna Moffo: Sul fil d’un soffio etesio (Falstaff, Giuseppe Verdi). From the complete Falstaff recording originally released on Angel Records S-3552, 1956. Herbert von Karajan conducts the Philharmonia Orchestra; the cast also includes Tito Gobbi, the recently deceased Rolando Panerai, Fedora Barbieri, Nan Merriman, and Luigi Alva.

The superb Angel Blue

Angel Blue: Al pensar en el dueno del mis amores (Las hijas del Zebedeo; Ruperto Chapí y Lorente) Karel Mark Chichon conducting the Deutsche Radio Philharmonie. Live recording from the Congresshalle Saarbrücken, 9 December 2016.

Janet Williams: Quando m’en vo (La Bohème; Giacomo Puccini). As heard in the film In the Shadow of the Stars, directed by Allie Light and Irving Saraf, 1991.

Camilla Williams and Janet Williams

4 thoughts on “Episode 7. Janet Williams I. No Accidents”

  1. I am so grateful you added the following comment below the review of Janet Williams’ Cleopatra: “(You might note that Europeans in general, have an apparent obsession with women of color as singers and entertainers and constantly draw attention to the race of the artist in question, as if this in itself were an exceptional accomplishment.” I was fuming when I read the review, and I thought I was gonna have to write in MYSELF. But then I saw you had taken care of it. THANK YOU!

    1. Yes, Kristina, I am currently researching a number of African American singers who, due to insufficient work in the US, came over to the German-speaking European countries. I am talking about artists like Kenneth Spencer, Gloria Davy, and Lawrence Winters (who was Porgy to Camilla Williams’s Bess on the first semi-complete recording of Porgy in 1951). Artists like Reri Grist, Felicia Weathers and others were able to sustain active careers primarily in Germany and Austria. But racism lives on in Germany relatively unexamined even today.

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