On May 15, 1946, an unknown singer named Camilla Williams took the stage at City Center in Manhattan as Cio-Cio-San, the doomed heroine of Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly.” Her performance would be the capstone of a night of glorious firsts. Miss Williams, a lyric soprano who began her career as a concert singer, had never been in an opera. The New York City Opera, the young upstart company with which she was making her debut, had never before staged “Madama Butterfly.”
But there was another, far more important first, though its significance has been largely forgotten over time: As Cio-Cio-San, Miss Williams, the daughter of a chauffeur and a domestic in the Jim Crow South, was the first black woman to secure a contract with a major United States opera company — a distinction widely ascribed in the public memory to the contralto Marian Anderson. Miss Williams’s performance that night, to rave reviews, came nearly a decade before Miss Anderson first sang at the Metropolitan Opera. As Miss Williams, who died on Sunday at 92, well knew, it was a beacon that lighted the way to American opera houses for other black women, Miss Anderson included.