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New England Conservatory Honors Alumna Mary Cardwell Dawson with Portrait Unveiling

February 15, 2023 | By Stephanie Janes

 New England Conservatory Honors Alumna Mary Cardwell Dawson with Portrait Unveiling

Dawson was a Pioneer in Classical Music who Founded the National Negro Opera Company and Fought Discrimination

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Photo: Executive Director of the National Opera House Jonnet Solomon with the portrait of Mary Cardwell Dawson. Credit NEC/Andrew Hurlbut

For Immediate Release (February 15, 2023—Boston, MA) —New England Conservatory (NEC) has unveiled a new portrait of alumna and trailblazing opera singer Mary Cardwell Dawson ‘25. The portrait by artist Iris Lee Marcus was unveiled at the NEC Blumenthal Family Library on Tuesday, February 14, where it will remain on permanent display. On display under the portrait is an album of new songs by musicians Dawn Carroll and Jon Butcher called “Songs for Mary.”

Mary Caldwell Dawson founded the National Negro Opera Company (NNOC) in Pittsburgh in 1941. She provided talented African American singers with opportunities denied them by unjust Jim Crow segregation. For twenty-one years she trained students in voice and classical music, and produced acclaimed opera performances in New York, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Washington. 

Monique Van Willingh, Director of Cultural Equity and Belonging at NEC, says, “At a time when racism towards African American singers was rife and very tangible in the opera world, Mary Cardwell Dawson had the tenacity and courage to build a Black opera company that would pave the way for African American composers and singers to perform, with a far reaching visionary approach of training Black youth to sing. Given the socio-cultural context of the time, this embodied the intersection of Black art, education, provocation, and activism at its best. Her company was the first Black independent company to rent out the Met, and was also described as a 'gathering space' for the artist community. 

This painting joins the Coretta Scott King bust in our library, and is a reminder of NEC's legacy of having one of the first Black women to complete their studies in instrumental performance, Florence Price. The portrait is welcomed as we celebrate Black artistry, stand in solidarity with Black suffering at the hands of institutional racism (past and present), and honor Black history and the women who've made it.”

Born in 1894 in Madison, North Carolina, and raised in Homestead, Pennsylvania, Mary enrolled in the New England Conservatory of Music as the only African American in her class, where she put herself through school with a job cleaning a dentist office. She graduated at age 31 in 1925 with a degree in piano. Aspiring to be an opera singer, she continued her studies at the Chicago Musical College and in New York. Realizing that there were no opportunities for African American opera singers she returned home to Pittsburgh in 1927 with her husband Walter Dawson and taught hundreds of young singers. From her students, Mary formed the Cardwell Dawson Choir that toured the country in the 1930s performing at the Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago and at the New York World’s Fair in 1939. With the success of her school and choirs Mary Cardwell Dawson was elected president of the National Association of Negro Musicians (NANM) in 1938. Returning to Pittsburgh, Mary Cardwell Dawson launched the National Negro Opera Company (NNOC), the first African American opera company, and first company to perform at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. In 1961 President Kennedy appointed Dawson to the National Music Committee. (Biography courtesy of Pittsburgh Music History).

Jonnet Solomon, a businesswoman and musician who is passionate about preserving the historic headquarters of the National Negro Opera Company (NNOC), acquired the National Opera House (NOH) in 2000 and created a nonprofit organization to restore and maintain the Queen Anne-style mansion. The NNOC building, located in Pittsburgh’s Homewood neighborhood, was placed on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s 2020 list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places, and is the subject of a massive rehabilitation effort. At the completion of the renovation, the three-floor structure will create a place for a museum, music lessons, and community.

NEC alumna, Ashleigh Gordon, who co-founded Castle of Our Skins, has assisted in raising funds for the restoration of the property by donating 100% of sales made during May 2022 from their “Black Composer Miniature Challenge Anthology Vol. 2”. Castle of Our Skins is a Black arts institution dedicated to fostering cultural curiosity and celebrating Black artistry through music. The digital anthology is a collection of writings of 30-second pieces for solo flute, alto flute, piccolo, harp and/or flute-harp duo. Read about the partnership here

Recently, Glimmerglass Festival commissioned and premiered “The Passion of Mary Cardwell Dawson” in 2021, and the work was performed again this year at the Washington National Opera. The play tells the story of her founding of the National Negro Opera Company, and the role of Mary Cardwell Dawson was played by another NEC alumna, Denyce Graves. The play and text for music were written by Sandra Seaton with original music by Carlos Simon. 

Read an interview with Denyce Graves about this role and Mary’s life story by ethnomusicologist Fredara Mareva Hadley here

In addition to the portrait unveiling at NEC, musicians Dawn Carroll and Jon Butcher have created a 15-song soundtrack called “Songs for Mary,” the story of Mary Dawson, of her life and times in reflection of our own. The powerful, evocative, and personal music project may be found here: https://dawnmcarroll.com/songs-for-mary/ 

About New England Conservatory (NEC)
Founded by Eben Tourjée in Boston, Massachusetts in 1867, the New England Conservatory (NEC) represents a new model of music school that combines the best of European tradition with American innovation. The school stands at the center of Boston’s rich cultural history and musical life, presenting concerts at the renowned Jordan Hall. Propelled by profound artistry, bold creativity and deep compassion, NEC seeks to amplify musicians’ impact on advancing our shared humanity, and empowers students to meet today’s changing world head-on, equipped with the tools and confidence to forge multidimensional lives of artistic depth and relevance.

As an independent, not-for-profit institution that educates and trains musicians of all ages from around the world, NEC is recognized internationally as a leader among music schools. It cultivates a diverse, dynamic community, providing music students of more than 40 countries with performance opportunities and high-caliber training from 225 internationally esteemed artist-teachers and scholars. NEC pushes the boundaries of music-making and teaching through college-level training in classical, jazz and contemporary improvisation. Through unique interdisciplinary programs such as Entrepreneurial Musicianship and Community Performances & Partnerships, it empowers students to create their own musical opportunities. As part of NEC’s mission to make lifelong music education available to everyone, the Preparatory School and School of Continuing Education delivers training and performance opportunities for children, pre-college students and adults.





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