Opera Carolina presents a musical tale of the North Carolina-born founder of one of America’s first Black opera companies.
by Michael J. Solender
This month, Charlotte hosts acclaimed mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves performing with Opera Carolina in the title role of the contemporary play with music, The Passion of Mary Cardwell Dawson. The performance makes its North Carolina debut and showcases the backstory of the founder of the National Negro Opera Company — one of the first and the most successful Black opera companies in the U.S.
Cardwell Dawson, born in the town of Madison, just north of Greensboro, experienced the transformative power of music as a child and made it her life’s work to musically educate and train Black youth. She saw opera as an inspirational vehicle with appeal far beyond elite urbanites. For more than two decades, beginning with her company’s founding in 1941, Cardwell Dawson brought opera to integrated and economically diverse rural and urban audiences alike.
“There are two threads going through the story that exhibit Cardwell Dawson’s passion for developing artists of color,” says James Meena, general director at Opera Carolina. “These artists had few opportunities, and the biases of the era created obstacles to success. These are among the many challenges Madame Dawson worked to overcome for her company.”
The Passion of Mary Cardwell Dawson was first performed at the Glimmerglass Festival in New York in 2021. Emmy and Grammy winner Graves, through her Denyce Graves Foundation, is working to amplify the voice of Cardwell Dawson and other historic classical Black performers whose stories have been untold. She’s recreating the lead role she played in her 2023 performance at Washington D.C.’s Kennedy Center.
The performance is in collaboration with The Charlotte Museum of History, whose forthcoming exhibit, Open Wide the Door – The story of Mary Cardwell Dawson and the National Negro Opera Company, opens in March.
Performances are Feb. 15-17 at Central Piedmont Community College’s New Theater, 1201 Elizabeth Ave. Tickets start at $50. operacarolina.org