Baritone opera singer Todd Duncan made history by becoming the first African-American to sing with a major American opera company, and the first to perform with an all-white cast. Duncan was also a music professor at Howard University during a period where his career was just beginning to take off.
Born Robert Todd Duncan on February 12, 1903, the Kentucky native was classically trained at Butler University in Indiana, then obtained his master’s degree from Teachers College at Columbia University.
In 1934, Duncan made his operatic debut for the all-Black Aeolian Opera in Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana. It was around this time when Duncan was teaching voice at Howard, but was still training his own voice with a series of instructors. In 1935, Duncan’s big break came when George Gershwin was looking to cast the lead in his Porgy and Bess opera.
According to a personal account, Duncan initially scoffed at the role and thought Gershwin’s music to be inferior to the classical styles he was more accustomed to. However, Duncan became Gershwin’s first Porgy and made improvements upon the character. Duncan traveled to South Carolina to learn the southern accent that was better suited to the role.
Despite Duncan’s critical acclaim and world-class talent, racism was the order of the day and many theaters refused to sell tickets to Black patrons where Porgy and Bess toured. Duncan and the rest of his cast protested the segregation at Washington, D.C.’s National Theatre and refused to play until they offered tickets to all, which they eventually did.
In 1945, Duncan made his debut with the New York City Opera in the role of Tonio in Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci opera. It was also the first time a Black performer worked alongside a white cast, so Duncan is largely credited for desegregation within the genre.
Duncan continued to teach voice at Howard and across Washington, along with working at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Duncan taught the craft well into his 90’s before finally retiring. Duncan has won several awards, including recognition from the NAACP and the George Peabody Medal of Music, along with honors.
Duncan passed in his Washington home in 1998 at the age of 95. He and his wife, Gladys Duncan, had one son, Charles Duncan.