The Founder of This Trailblazing Opera Company Put Black Singers at Center Stage

Mary Cardwell Dawson created unprecedented opportunities for aspiring Black musicians

Members of the National Negro Opera Company pose backstage during a 1941 performance of Aida.
Members of the National Negro Opera Company pose backstage during a 1941 performance of Aida. Charles "Teenie" Harris / Courtesy of the Carnegie Museum of Art

In the mid-20th century, Mary Cardwell Dawson broke barriers for Black musicians and performers as a vocal proponent of musical education and the founder of the National Negro Opera Company (NNOC), one of the first professional organizations of its kind in the United States.

Dawson’s multi-decade career eventually led her to the White House, where first lady Eleanor Roosevelt was so impressed by her efforts that she wrote a personal check in support of her work. Years later, in 1961, President John F. Kennedy appointed Dawson to his national music commission.

“Dawson’s entire purpose was to create opportunities for those who had none otherwise,” says Karen M. Bryan, a music historian who is working on a biography of the impresario and activist. “It was not easy for a woman to run a company like that at that time, and to do so with all the impediments she faced. She was incredibly brave and determined.”

Mary Cardwell Dawson at age 31
Mary Cardwell Dawson at age 31 Library of Congress

Many of the more than 1,800 people Dawson worked with at the NNOC went on to perform, teach and support the arts in communities across the country, Bryan adds. While Dawson’s achievements have long been overlooked, interest in celebrating her legacy has surged in recent years. Fueling this renaissance are a push to preserve the Pittsburgh-area house that served as the NNOC’s early headquarters, a new play titled The Passion of Mary Cardwell Dawson, and research conducted by Bryan and other scholars who are shedding new light on her contributions.

The roots of Dawson’s passion for music

Dawson was born Mary Lucinda Cardwell on Valentine’s Day in 1894. She was 7 years old when her family moved from North Carolina to Munhall, Pennsylvania, a steel mill town outside of Pittsburgh. Her father and uncle had previously moved to the area in search of work as part of the Great Migration.

The Cardwell family purchased a house in nearby Homestead, which became the center of Dawson’s musical life. She sang in the church choir alongside her father and siblings. Her cousin Jester Hairston, who also lived in town, later became a noted composer, arranger, singer and actor. Dawson received early training in classical voice, including operatic arias, which nurtured her interest in the field.

Madame Dawson's Opera Company

From her earliest days at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, where she studied voice and piano, Dawson experienced the slights and inequities often faced by Black Americans. As a student, she frequently attended performances at the Boston Opera House. One of the first operas she saw there was Aida, a show set in Egypt that centers on the eponymous Ethiopian princess, which did not feature a single African American actor in a cast of almost 200 people.

“During intermission, [Dawson] often went backstage to really observe for herself, hoping eventually to find one of her people there,” noted a 1957 NNOC souvenir brochure. “She was only to be discouraged, disappointed and finally made to wonder why the omission. … She thus began to wonder why even she had chosen this field for her life’s work.”

Steeled to find constant barriers, Dawson remained determined to advance the cause of bringing music lessons to the Black community. She saw such study as a gateway to higher art and culture. In 2009, Dawson’s late niece, Barbara Lee, recalled one of her aunt’s favorite sayings: “The richest child is poor without a musical education.”

An undated photo of Dawson
An undated photo of Dawson Library of Congress

Following her graduation from the conservatory in 1925 as the only African American student in her class, Dawson undertook further studies in Chicago and New York City. In 1927, after marrying electrician Walter Dawson, she returned to Pittsburgh. There, she established the Cardwell Dawson School of Music, offering classes in music theory, history, recitation and deportment, as well as vocal and instrumental lessons.

One of Dawson’s pupils was 7-year-old Ahmad Jamal, who would go on to become an award-winning jazz composer and musician. Samuel W. Black, director of African American programs at the Heinz History Center, a Pittsburgh-based Smithsonian Affiliate that houses much of Dawson’s correspondence, in addition to a collection of NNOC costumes, says, “Jamal learned to play piano working with Dawson into his teens, and he held great affection for her.”

When Jamal learned of Dawson’s death due to a heart attack in 1962, he reached out to Lee to express his heartbreak, inquire about the piano he learned to play on as a child and share memories of his time with her aunt. “Jamal’s memories of Dawson’s influence speak to me about the impact she had on so many talented performers,” says Black. “I put her in the same category as Duke Ellington. Their musical creativity and being the springboard to others was second to none.”

As part of her educational offerings, Dawson established the Cardwell Dawson Choir, which quickly grew in acclaim. The choral group frequently performed at regional festivals and concerts held at local venues like Carnegie Music Hall and the John Wesley AME Zion Church. Its members were so accomplished that they even performed at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York.

Dawson and the National Negro Opera Company

Dawson’s years of leadership with the National Association of Negro Musicians (NANM), a preservationist and advocacy group for Black American music, inspired her eventual formation of the NNOC. She founded NANM’s Pittsburgh branch in 1932 and served as the group’s president from 1939 to 1941. That same year, she established her barrier-breaking opera company.

The NNOC debuted its first show, Aida, during the annual NANM meeting at Pittsburgh’s Syria Mosque in August 1941. The venture revealed the depth of Dawson’s administrative, organizational and promotional savvy.

A photo of the NNOC's October 30, 1941, performance of Aida​​​​​​​
A photo of the NNOC's October 30, 1941, performance of Aida Charles "Teenie" Harris / Courtesy of the Carnegie Museum of Art

“[Aida’s] inclusion of characters of color, its subject of enslaved people making impossible choices and its wide popularity in opera houses during these decades made it a logical choice, but the performing forces needed were formidable,” Bryan says.

To fill the show’s ranks, Dawson tapped her vast network of NANM colleagues, in addition to recruiting talented singers, musicians and stagehands affiliated with performing arts organizations across the country. Her own Cardwell Dawson School choir and faculty, plus local church groups, were foundational to the production.

Headlined by opera star La Julia Rhea, the NNOC’s staging of Aida established an enterprise that became all-consuming for Dawson over the next two decades. She moved to Washington, D.C., centering the company’s activities there while maintaining offices in Pittsburgh. Dawson and her colleagues formed active opera guilds in Baltimore, Chicago, Cleveland, New York, Pittsburgh and Red Bank, New Jersey. These educational and outreach organizations helped promote local interest in opera and the NNOC’s performances.

Between 1941 and 1961, the NNOC produced about 110 performances, with a repertoire that included six operas and one oratorio, R. Nathaniel Dett’s The Ordering of Moses. Other featured works ranged from Carmen to Faust to La Traviata.

The company showcased its talents at prestigious venues such as the Civic Opera House in Chicago, Griffith Stadium in Washington and Madison Square Garden in New York. Performing at the Metropolitan Opera House, also in New York, in 1956 was a true high point for the NNOC. The production marked the first appearance of an opera written by a Black composer (Clarence Cameron White’s Ouanga) at the Met and the first time a Black company performed on its stage.

NNOC dancers in costume for the 1941 performance of Aida
NNOC dancers in costume for the 1941 performance of Aida Charles "Teenie" Harris / Courtesy of the Carnegie Museum of Art

But the Met imposed several restrictions on the NNOC, banning the company from utilizing house staff and facilities such as the box office. Instead of presenting a dramatized version (fully staged, with set pieces and acting) of the opera, the cast could only perform a static concert version, as mandated by strict rules that barred outside companies from performing operas on the Met’s stage. Dawson pushed the limits of what a concert constituted by costuming the company and incorporating dance and movement.

“Dawson understood the symbolic capital of a Black company performing at the Metropolitan Opera,” says Christi Jay Wells, a musicologist at Arizona State University. “She found a way to make that happen despite whatever systemic [racism that] was keeping Black opera companies and the works of Black opera composers from that stage.”

Among the noteworthy talents who appeared with the NNOC were Robert McFerrin Sr., the first Black man to sing with the Met and the father of contemporary pop star Bobby McFerrin; future Broadway star Napoleon Reed; and soprano Lillian Evanti.

Despite its artistic triumphs, the NNOC struggled to gain solid financial footing, never receiving government funding or sustained philanthropic support. The company was chronically plagued by union disputes, and it ceased operations following Dawson’s death in 1962.

Children wearing Egyptian costumes for the NNOC's 1941 performance of Aida
Children wearing Egyptian costumes for the NNOC's 1941 performance of Aida Charles "Teenie" Harris / Courtesy of the Carnegie Museum of Art

Preserving Dawson’s legacy

The National Opera House, a nonprofit that seeks to preserve the Pittsburgh building where the NNOC once rehearsed, has championed Dawson’s legacy for more than 20 years. Another key player in these efforts is Denyce Graves, one of America’s most prominent opera stars. In 2021, the Black mezzo-soprano founded the Denyce Graves Foundation, which aims to uplift singers at all career stages and pay tribute to the contributions of musical figures who came before them.

“There is no one who did what [Dawson] did,” Graves told the Women’s Song Forum in 2021. “And yet, she fell into obscurity.”

Graves added, “When I think about Mary Cardwell Dawson, my heart just bursts with gratitude. … I’m in awe of what this woman gave to the world.”

On Stage: The Passion of Mary Cardwell Dawson

In January 2023, Graves starred in the title role of the Washington National Opera’s production of The Passion of Mary Cardwell Dawson, a play with music that delivers a dramatic view of the celebrated impresario and the obstacles she faced. Following the closing performance at the Kennedy Center, Dawson received a posthumous Presidential Lifetime Achievement Award in recognition of her efforts to provide opportunities for gifted African American performers and challenge systemic racism.

Earlier this month, Graves reprised her role in Opera Carolina’s Charlotte, North Carolina, staging of the play. The performance was held in collaboration with the Charlotte Museum of History, which is slated to debut a special exhibition on Dawson and the NNOC this spring. The show will feature original costumes; rarely seen photos, including one of Rhea wearing her Aida costume; and reproductions of programs housed at the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum.

“[Dawson’s] mission and vision were clear: to offer opportunity to the [Black] singers and musicians in the field of grand opera, to develop the highest professional standards in all fields of higher art, and to establish the proper appreciation and cultural background that opera offers,” Bryan says. “Dawson’s philosophy is directly in line with that of self-determination, arguing … for education, awareness, excellence and above all respect.”

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