Betty Allen; A great story!

Pianogirl passed this one along, and what a story!


Allen performing w/ Salem United Methodist Singers, early ’70s.
Photo:Chester Higgins, Jr.

MARGALIT FOX, NY TIMES: Betty Allen, an American mezzo-soprano who transcended a Dickensian girlhood to become an internationally known opera singer and later a prominent voice teacher and arts administrator, died on Monday in Valhalla, N.Y. She was 82.

An Ohio native who fell into opera by chance, Ms. Allen was part of the first great wave of African-American singers to appear on the world’s premier stages in the postwar years. Active from the 1950s to the 1970s, she performed with the New York City Opera, the Metropolitan Opera and the opera companies of Houston, Boston, San Francisco, Santa Fe, N.M., and Buenos Aires, among others.

Imagine having the sort of talent that allows you to fall into opera, “by chance”! But there’s more:

Elizabeth Louise Allen, known as Betty Lou, was born on March 17, 1927, in Campbell, Ohio, near Youngstown. Her father worked in the steel mills; her mother had a thriving business taking in laundry. Growing up, she was exposed to the opera that poured from neighbors’ radios.

“The families on my street were mostly Sicilian and Greek,” Ms. Allen told The Times in 1999. “On Saturday, walking down the street, you could hear the Met broadcasts coming from the windows of everybody’s house. No one told them that opera and the arts were not for them, not for poor people, just for rich snobs.”

When Betty was 12, her mother died of lung cancer. Her father, as she said in interviews afterward, began drinking heavily. Betty took over running the house and caring for him till, one day, fed up, she boarded a bus to Youngstown. At the courthouse there, she told a startled judge that she wanted somebody to adopt her.

“That judge didn’t know what to do with me,” Ms. Allen told The Times in 1973. “You see, in those days, there was no orphanage for black children. You either had to be put in a detention home or you were put in a foster home. I chose to be put in foster homes.”

Several turbulent years followed, first in the home of a white couple where the husband turned out to be “lecherous,” Ms. Allen recalled. Next came a white family who made her do all the cooking, cleaning, washing and ironing in exchange for $3 a week and a bed in the attic. After that, she lived with an elderly black woman.

“She was a mean old lady,” Ms. Allen told The Times. “You couldn’t play the piano on Sunday, you couldn’t play cards, you couldn’t go out, you couldn’t wear makeup.”

At 16, Betty moved into the Youngstown Y.W.C.A., supporting herself by cleaning houses. On a scholarship, she entered Wilberforce College in Wilberforce, Ohio. (A historically black institution, it is now Wilberforce University.) She had excelled in Latin and German in high school and hoped to become a translator.

There’s a lot more, and you’ll want to read it all; Allen is both spirited and poignant.

I confess, I am not familiar with this lady’s work,
and I’m sure that’s my loss, but what a story! When I finished reading this all I could think was, “what a film this would make! It could give exposure to some wonderful African American classical vocalists, and it could put Opera on display somewhere besides PBS!”

Lots of news today about the death of Farrah Fawcett and Michael Jackson. Ms. Fawcett had a long battle with cancer, and a personal life that did not always seem sunny. Mr. Jackson’s whole life seems like an epic tragedy, to me.

My sons are musicians, and while I want nothing but success for them, and I encourage their dreams, Jackson’s story gives a sense of the damage that can be wrought by too much adulation, power, money…all of it, and by high-pressure parenting. A life out of balance.

These sad deaths (and the media-hype of them) make Ms. Allen’s graceful living, quiet passing and spunky, artful story all the more heartening, today.

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • Hantchu

    Ms.Allen, may she rest in peace, had not only talent, but character and values. Nothing appears to have dissuaded her from holding herself to that standard, in bad times or good. It can still be done. “Lives of great men oft remind us, /We can make our lives sublime/And departing, leave behind us/Footprints on the sands of time

  • http://www.musicmasterstudios.com/pathetiquesonata.html Dan the Music Master

    An interesting take on tragic events. May they all rest in peace.

  • http://www.marchhareshouse.blogspot.com March Hare

    I loved the comment about opera pouring out of the windows of the homes in her neighborhood.

    In the Bay Area we have a classical music station, KDFC, that is not only a commercial station, but also very successful. How successful? Rated #1 FM radio station in the Bay Area. They also stream on-line (www.kdfc.com) and have listeners worldwide. Tuesday nights feature the SF Symphony live. They have offered free live simulcasts of the Opera on the Jumbotron at AT&T Park (imagine: opera at the ballpark! Or as we call it “Opera with garlic fries & beer!”) as well as on the radio. Sundays features “sacred music,” both instrumental & choral.

    I found them when I was looking for a radio station where I didn’t have to worry about what the lyrics or the DJs were going to say next when I had the kids in the car (and Radio Disney had more commercials than music). Consequently, my kids recognize several classical pieces and their composers “by accident” as well. I think it also has informed their choices in popular music as well–I find most of what they choose quite “listenable.” :)

  • Nancy Carmichael

    Hantchu, you are so right, and the quote is wonderful and true. I was lucky enough to have Betty Alllen in my life as a central feature in my life, having studied voice, lived with her family, and worked with her at the Harlem School of the Arts. She was both extraordinary and very human, an example of how to find personal reward in a career and yet still affect other people. A life well lived, and well loved. RIP Betty, and blessings on Edd, Anthony and Juju. XO

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