UNCW to Host Symposium Celebrating Opera Singer Caterina Jarboro

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Before the voice of African-American contralto Marian Anderson was celebrated, there was Wilmington’s Caterina Jarboro. Jarboro was the first female singer to break the color barrier in American opera, 22 years before Anderson's debut at the Metropolitan Opera.

Opera Wilmington, UNCW’s company in residence, will celebrate the legacy of “Wilmington’s first diva” at its third annual Opera Symposium Feb. 23-24 at the Cultural Arts Building on the UNCW campus. The event begins Feb. 23 at 11:30 a.m.

The two-day symposium, “Exploring Opera: Celebrating Caterina Jarboro (1898–1986), Wilmington’s First Operatic Diva,” will include presentations, music and an exhibit. A special recital will feature soprano Jemeesa Yarborough, who will perform some of Jarboro’s repertoire; soprano Marva Robinson with the Williston Alumni Choir; and the Snipes Academy of Arts and Design Chorus directed by Christa Faison. The recital is Feb. 23 at 7:30 p.m. in Beckwith Recital Hall.

“This symposium is intended to promote learning for university and community members of all ages. This year’s topic explores the life experiences and legacy of an extraordinary woman of color through a variety of disciplinary perspectives: history, art, music, dance, theatre and African American studies,” said Helena Spencer, assistant professor of music at UNCW and member of the Opera Wilmington Board of Directors. “In the spirit of Jarboro’s dedication to community engagement, we wanted the symposium to give performing opportunities to young musicians.”

Several presentations will focus on racial politics in Wilmington during Jarboro’s early years and racial equality in the American opera. Jarboro was born July 24, 1898, a few months before the attack on Wilmington’s African American community by a heavily armed white mob. Her father, a successful Wilmington barber, chose to remain in Wilmington, and was involved in the black community’s recovery efforts in the aftermath.

Keynote speaker Richard Yarborough, professor of English and African American Studies at UCLA and Jarboro’s great-nephew, will share his research into the intersection between the Yarborough family history and the history of the Wilmington Massacre.

In 1929, Jarboro made her opera debut in Milan, Italy, portraying the Ethiopian slave in Verdi’s Aida. She became the first black woman to perform in a U.S. opera house in 1933 as part of the Chicago Opera Company at Manhattan’s Hippodrome. Despite her triumph in Aida, Jarboro was not hired by any other American opera companies. She enjoyed a successful European career from 1935–39, but it was cut short by the outbreak of World War II.

“Opera is often thought of as an upper class, white European art form, but there is a rich history of black opera performers, composers, producers and audiences,” said Spencer. “I hope people will be inspired to celebrate more lost, forgotten, and under-sung stories of the black past and present.”

As part of its partnership with UNCW, Opera Wilmington provides performance and research opportunities to students and faculty. UNCW students will perform during a masterclass, and present research posters related to Jarboro’s career and legacy.

The symposium is free and open to the public. Tickets for the recital are $25 for the public, $15 for UNCW faculty and staff and $6 for students with valid UNCW ID. Tickets can be purchased online or at the UNCW Box Office in Kenan Auditorium.

The symposium will conclude Feb. 24 with Met Live broadcast of Puccini’s La Bohème in Lumina Theatre, sponsored by UNCW’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. Tickets are $20 for OLLI members, $24 for non-members.

The two-day event is sponsored by Opera Wilmington, UNCW Department of Music, Office of the Arts, Office of Community Engagement, Osher Lifelong Learning Institute and the Women’s Studies and Resource Center.

-- Venita Jenkins