Black opera companies in the United States got its roots from the African-American church. Learning to sing in her family’s church in Pittsburgh, Mary Cardwell Dawson left home to enter the New England Conservatory of Music, one of the nation’s most prestigious musical colleges. After graduating college Mary Cardwell Dawson returned to Pittsburgh and realized that the doors opened to black performers in opera were very limited. So, she began to direct a number of black choirs that often sang classical pieces. She directed a large ensemble of 500 singers, who won national awards in 1935 and 1937.
The group then went on to perform at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Dawson was elected president of the National Association of Negro Musicians, which during that time was the most prominent organization of African-American musicians. Returning home, she founded the National Negro Opera Company (NNOC), one of the first black opera companies in the nation. Featuring several prominent soloists and choir members from many of Pittsburgh’s black churches, the company won critical rave reviews.
Later in 1941, Dawson’s husband took a job in Washington, D.C. and she moved the opera company there. For the next twenty years, Dawson worked tirelessly to promote African-American participation in and appreciation of opera. Among the original works she produced by black composers were R. Nathaniel Dett’s “The Ordering of Moses” and Clarence Cameron White’s “Ouanga, Ouanga.”