Category Archives: Contraltos

ETTA MOTEN BARNETT, Contralto * 05 November 1901, Weimar, Texas, United States + 2 January 2004, Chicago, Illinois, United States;

African American singer and actress Etta Moten Barnett (1901–2004) was perhaps best known for her signature performance in the title role of George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. But her long and fascinating life was filled with other remarkable accomplishments, such as being the first African American performer to sing at the White House and breaking color barriers in Hollywood. She later became active in civic pursuits, represented U.S. presidents in Africa, and was a noted patron of the arts.

Sang Her Way Through School
Barnett was born on November 5, 1901, in Weimar, Texas. She was the only child of Ida Norman Moten and the Reverend Freeman F. Moten. Her father was an African Methodist Episcopal (AME) minister and her mother was a schoolteacher. Because young ministers were frequently transferred, Barnett went to various elementary and secondary schools in Texas, California, and Kansas. Her vocal talent evidenced itself early on, and she was singing in the church choir (as well as teaching Sunday school) by the age of ten. Barnett’s mother constructed a pink and white box so that her daughter would be tall enough to comfortably participate, and Barnett remembered it fondly in a 1942 interview cited by Jet. “To this day, I can’t remember anything quite so wonderful as standing on that box singing hymns out over the heads of people.”

Barnett continued to sing as a teenager, both in school and church choirs. During that time, she also made her professional debut with the Jackson Jubilee Singers. The group consisted of a pianist, four male singers, and two female vocalists, and traveled to small towns on the Chautauqua circuit in the summers. It was an excellent way for Barnett to develop her instrument and earn money for college simultaneously.

College, however, was put on hold, as Barnett married Curtis Brooks when she was just seventeen. The couple moved to Oklahoma and had four children (one died at birth) before Barnett spurned convention by divorcing her husband six years later. Even more astonishing for the time, she left her children with their doting grandparents in Kansas City and enrolled as one of only 150 African American students out of the 6,000–member student body at the University of Kansas at Lawrence.

In order to help finance her studies, Barnett reunited with the Jackson Jubilee Singers in the summers and conducted a church choir on the weekends back in Kansas City. At the university, she studied drama and voice, along with education (as a sort of insurance). She had her own radio program at school, and formed a vocal quartet. And despite the obstacles and racism that African Americans faced in those days, Barnett’s talents were encouraged and much admired. Her senior recital drew a crowd of 1,000 people and resulted in an invitation to join the prestigious Eva Jessye Choir in New York City. So after Barnett received her BFA in 1931 at the age of 30, she headed for the Big Apple.

Broke New Ground
On her way to New York, Barnett stopped in Chicago, Illinois. There, she met the founder of the Associated Negro Press, Claude Barnett. He had many connections through his work with the wire service, and was very helpful to her throughout her career. Barnett later recalled to the Hannibal Courier–Post, “My whole life has been about good friends, and being in the right place at the right time. And the newspapers were very good to me because Claude Barnett was a fine and very well–liked man. Wherever I went, I had letters of introduction to somebody.” The couple married in 1934.

Her future husband was not her sole admirer, however. Only two weeks after Barnett’s arrival in New York, Eva Jessye (the choir director) commended the young singer’s talents to Broadway. Barnett first appeared in the short–lived Fast and Furious, and then was cast in Zombie. Zombie ran for two months in New York before going on the road. The show closed in California in 1932, and Barnett was poised to make her mark in Hollywood.

Barnett began her Hollywood career dubbing vocals for such established actresses as Barbara Stanwyck and Ginger Rogers. Then, she made a splash with her groundbreaking appearance in Gold Diggers of 1933. Barnett was cast as an attractive war widow, rather than a domestic worker, an unprecedented event for a black actress of the time. (She did not initially receive screen credit for the role, however). Delighted to witness the toppling of a despised stereotype, black audiences lined up to see the picture and the African American press hailed Barnett as “The New Negro Woman.”

Barnett’s next movie was 1933’s Flying Down to Rio, in which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers appeared together for the first time. Barnett sang “The Carioca,” which was nominated for an Academy Award, and received her first screen credit. Indeed, her popularity was such that the studio often gave her top billing when the film was shown in African American neighborhoods. Both movies gave Barnett the prominence that earned her a place on the lecture circuit, and even attracted the attention of U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt. In 1934, she broke boundaries once again when she became the first African American woman to perform at the White House, singing “Forgotten Man” from Gold Diggers of 1933, at Roosevelt’s birthday party.

Courtesy: Encyclopedia of World Biography

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Porgy and Bess playbill dated November 1942. Opera starred Etta Moten Barnett and Todd Duncan and played at the Studebaker Theater in Chicago.

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Etta Moten and Claude Barnett posed in front of their private African art collection at their home in Chicago, 1960s.




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Posted by on December 12, 2017 in Contraltos


MARGUERITE D’ ALVAREZ, Contralto * 1883, Liverpool, England + 18 October 1953, Alassio, Italy;

Marguerite d’Alvarez (c. 1883 – 18 October 1953) was an English contralto.

d’Alvarez was born in Bootle, her father was Peruvian and her mother French. She studied at the Brussels conservatoire, and made her debut in Rouen in 1907, singing Delilah.[1] After further studies in Paris she made her first American appearances with the Manhattan Opera Company in 1909[1] as Fidès in Giacomo Meyerbeer’s Le prophète. Following her season in New York City, she went to London to help Oscar Hammerstein inaugurate his London Opera in 1911; that year, she scored great successes in French roles.

d’Alvarez subsequently appeared at leading European opera houses such as Covent Garden, and also sang in Chicago and Boston.

She made several acoustic recordings in New York in 1920-21, including arias from her operatic repertoire and Spanish songs by Falla, Chapi and Tabuyo.

She made three films, Till We Meet Again, in 1944, An Angel Comes to Brooklyn (1945) and Affair in Monte Carlo (1953); her autobiography, Forsaken Altars, was published in 1954, after her death in Alassio, Italy.

Courtesy: Wikipedia


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Photo courtesy: Old Curmudgeon On Life website

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Posted by on December 11, 2017 in Contraltos


IRA MALANIUK, Contralto * 29 January 1919, Ivano-Frankivsk, Ukraine + 25 February 2009, Zirl, Tyrol, Austria;

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Ira Malaniuk (Ukrainian: Ірина Маланюк; Iryna Malanyuk; 29 January 1919 – 25 February 2009) was an Austrian operatic contralto of Ukrainian descent, who sang a wide range of roles from Mozart to contemporary works.

Malaniuk was born in Stanyslaviv. She studied first in Lviv with Adam Didur, and later in Vienna with Anna Bahr-Mildenburg. She made her stage debut in Graz in 1945. She joined the Zurich Opera in 1947, where she took part in the creation of Willy Burkhard’s Die schwarze Spinne and sang in the local premiere of Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress.

In 1952, she began appearing at the Munich State Opera and the Vienna State Opera, her roles there included; Gluck’s Orfeo, Verdi’s Lady Macbeth, and Judith in Béla Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle.

Malaniuk appeared at La Scala in Milan, in the Ring Cycle under Wilhelm Furtwängler. She also made guest appearances at the Royal Opera House in London, the Paris Opéra, the Monte Carlo Opera, at the Salzburg Festival, the Bayreuth Festival in roles such as Magdalene, Fricka, Brangäne, Waltraute, Adelaide and Marina.

Malaniuk also enjoyed success in Italian roles such as Dorabella, Vittelia, Azucena, Amneris, she was also active in concert and oratorios, often singing the alto parts in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and Mozart’s Requiem.

Malaniuk retired from the stage in 1971, and taught at the Graz Music Conservatory. She died, aged 90, at Zirl, Tyrol (Austria).

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Ira Malaniuk as Eboli in Don Carlo

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Ira Malaniuk as Fricka

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Posted by on December 8, 2017 in Contraltos


RUBY HELDER, Contralto * 03 March 1890, Bristol, United Kingdom + 21 November 1938, Hollywood, Los Angeles, California, United States;

Ruby Helder.jpg

Ruby Helder (March 3, 1890 – November 21, 1938) was a British opera singer known for her powerful contralto voice.

Early life and family
Helder was born Emma Jane Holder in 1890 in the Easton district of Bristol. Her father, Thomas, a dairyman at the time, became landlord of a nearby public house where a young Helder would sing to entertain the regulars. Helder’s musical range—from C3 to C5—attracted attention from an early age. She soon began formal music lessons, at which point she changed her name to avoid confusion with a classmate. Her aunt, who was housekeeper to the music hall star Harry Lauder, made arrangements for Helder to train at the Guildhall School of Music with Charles Tinney. Helder also later trained with Charles Santley.

Santley described her voice as a “natural, pure tenor voice of great beauty and power.”

Singing career and later life
By 1908, Helder was recording for Pathé, and in 1909 made her first appearance in an opera at the Queen’s Hall, London In 1911, she signed a recording contract with HMV, and by 1913 her international fame was such that she is said to have travelled to the United States in order to sing at a millionaire’s private party. She sang at venues across the United States, and between 1916 and 1917 pursued music studies at Grinnell College. Helder later toured the United States and Canada with John Philip Sousa and his band.

On July 12, 1920, Helder married the American architect and artist Chesley Bonestell. The married couple then undertook a tour of Italy. At this point, however, Helder’s popularity was in decline, and there were no recordings made of her after 1921. They returned to the United States in 1927, settling in Berkeley, California. She worked there as a music teacher for some years. Helder retired from singing in 1935, and died on November 21, 1938, aged just 48, at the Highland Hotel, Hollywood, after a long battle with alcoholism.

In June 2001 a commemorative plaque was unveiled at Helder’s birthplace by Bristol’s Lord Mayor.

Girl Tenor. 2003. Pearl Records.
Lily of Killarney. 1913. Columbia 5534. Columbia Records.

Ruby helder

Portrait of Ruby Helder as a young woman, ca. 1900s

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Posted by on December 5, 2017 in Contraltos


SIEGLINDE WARNER, Contralto * 21 April 1921, Linz, Austria + 31 December 2003, Berlin, Germany;

Sieglinde Wagner, photo Archiv der Deutschen Oper Berlin

Sieglinde Wagner (21 April 1921 – 31 December 2003) was an Austrian operatic contralto, who could also sing mezzo-soprano roles.

Wagner was born in Linz, and studied in Linz and Munich. In 1947, she made her debut at the Vienna State Opera. Two years later, she was hired by Wilhelm Furtwängler to sing in The Magic Flute at the Salzburg Festival. After this successful collaboration, Furtwängler signed her to sing Floßhilde and Grimgerde in Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen at La Scala. This was the beginning of a career that included many of Wagner’s alto roles (she and the composer were not related).

In 1950, Sieglinde Wagner sang as a contralto, as Orlovsky, a blase young nobleman in Die Fledermaus.

In 1952, she made her first appearance at the Städtischen Oper in Berlin as Maddalena in Rigoletto. She sang Carmen there in December of the same year. This was the start of a 34-year relationship.

Sieglinde Wagner had a very wide repertoire, including Clairon in Richard Strauss’s Capriccio, Annina in Der Rosenkavalier, Magdalena in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Fenena in Nabucco, the mother in Hansel and Gretel and Mary in The Flying Dutchman.

In 1963, she was awarded the title of Kammersänger by the senate of Berlin. She was active for many years at the festivals in Bayreuth, Edinburgh, Glyndebourne, and Salzburg under conductors such as Otto Klemperer, Wilhelm Furtwängler, Clemens Krauss, Fritz Busch, Karl Böhm, Herbert von Karajan, and Wolfgang Sawallisch.

She made numerous recordings with illustrious casts, including The Magic Flute with Karl Böhm, Fritz Wunderlich, Roberta Peters, and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.

She retired from singing in 1986. She died in a Berlin hospital in 2003, at the age of 82.

Sieglinde Wagner dans ''L'Amour de Danaé'' de Richard Strauss, 1952

Sieglinde Wagner in “L’Amour de Danaé”
by Richard Strauss, 1952

Sieglinde Wagner dans ''Cosi fan tutte'' (Dorabella) de Mozart

Sieglinde Wagner in “Cosi fan tutte” (Dorabella) by Mozart

Photo credit: Bach Cantatas Webdite

Photo credit: Bach Cantatas Webdite

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Posted by on December 5, 2017 in Contraltos


HERMINE KITTEL, Contralto * 02 December 1879, Vienna, Austria + 07 April 1948, Vienna, Austria;

Hermine Kittel (December 2, 1879 – April 7, 1948) was an Austrian contralto from Vienna. She studied singing with Amalie Materna in Vienna. She made her operatic debut in 1897 in Ljubljana. Kittle first sang under Gustav Mahler at the Vienna Hofoper (Vienna State Opera) and later premiered in a revision of Ariadne auf Naxos. She sang at the Bayreuth Festival in 1902 and 1908, where she sang Erda in Der Ring des Nibelungen. She also sang at the Salzburg Festival, where she often played Marcellina in The Marriage of Figaro.

She was married to opera singer Alexander Haydter, her brother Karl Kittel was a conductor.

Hermine Kittel in 1902

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Posted by on December 1, 2017 in Contraltos


PORTIA WHITE, Contralto * 24 June 1911, Truro, Canada + 13 February 1968, Toronto, Canada;

Portia White

Portia May White, contralto, teacher (born 24 June 1911 in Truro, NS; died 13 February 1968 in Toronto, ON). Portia White broke through the colour barrier to become the first Black Canadian concert singer to win international acclaim. Considered one of the best classical singers of the 20th century, her voice was described by one critic as “a gift from heaven,” and she was often compared to the celebrated African American contralto Marian Anderson. White was named a “person of national historic significance” by the Government of Canada in 1995.

Early Years and Education

Portia White was the third of 13 children born to William A. White, whose parents had been slaves in Virginia, and Izie Dora White, who was descended from black Loyalists in Nova Scotia. The second black Canadian admitted to Acadia University, William White graduated in 1903 with a degree in Theology and later became the first black Canadian to receive a Doctorate of Divinity from Acadia University. Following his service as the only black chaplain in the British army during the First World War, he moved the family to Halifax, where he became pastor of the Cornwallis Street Baptist Church.
Portia began singing in the church choir under her mother’s direction at age six. By the age of eight, she was singing the soprano parts from the opera Lucia de Lammermoor, and was so determined to become a professional singer that she walked 10 miles a week for music lessons. She started her teacher training at Dalhousie University in 1929 and after graduating, became a schoolteacher in black Nova Scotian communities, such as Africville and Lucasville.

Voice Training and Professional Performances

In the 1930s, White took voice lessons as a mezzo-soprano with Bertha Cruikshanks at the Halifax Conservatory of Music and sang on devotional radio broadcasts hosted by her father. She competed in the Halifax Music Festival, where her extraordinary voice won the Helen Kennedy Silver Cup in 1935, 1937 and 1938. The Halifax Ladies’ Musical Club provided a scholarship for White to study with Ernesto Vinci at the Halifax Conservatory of Music in 1939. Under Vinci, she began to sing as a contralto.
After giving a handful of recitals at Acadia University and Mount Allison University in 1940, White made her formal debut at age 30 at Toronto’s Eaton Auditorium on 7 November 1941. Reviewing her performance in the Globe and Mail, Hector Charlesworth stated that she sings “with pungent expression and beauty of utterance.” Writing in the Evening Telegram, Edward Wodson said White had a “coloured and beautifully shaded contralto… It is a natural voice, a gift from heaven.”
White resigned her teaching position in 1941 and continued to give concerts in Canada. After many difficulties obtaining bookings because of her race, she reached the high point of her career with a widely acclaimed recital at New York’s Town Hall on 13 March 1944. She was the first Canadian to perform there. The Nova Scotia Talent Trust was established in 1944 specifically to enable White to concentrate on her professional career. Two more Town Hall concerts followed in 1944 and 1945, and that year White signed with Columbia Concerts Incorporated, the largest artist agency in North America.
Later Career and Teaching
White toured North America with Columbia Concerts, but following a tour of Central and South America in 1946, she began experiencing vocal difficulties as well as problems with her management. In 1948, she toured the Maritimes, and sang in Switzerland and France, but soon after retired from public performance. In 1952, she moved to Toronto to undertake further studies with Gina Cigna and Irene Jessner at the Royal Conservatory of Music.

White herself began teaching voice in Toronto, both privately and at Branksome Hall, a school for girls. Her private students over the years included Dinah Christie, Anne Marie Moss, Lorne Greene, Don Francks and Robert Goulet. By the mid-1950s she resumed her singing career, although sporadically, singing only a few concerts in the 1950s and 1960s, one of which was before Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip at Charlottetown’s Confederation Centre of the Arts on 6 October 1964. White’s final public performance took place in July 1967 at the World Baptist Federation in Ottawa.

Recordings and Tributes

White did not make any studio recordings, but her voice can be heard in several concert recordings, including a song recital titled Think on Me (1968). Library and Archives Canada acquired from the White family audio recordings of her performances in New York and in Moncton, NB, in 1944 and 1945. From these, Analekta released two songs on Great Voices of Canada, Volume 5 (1994), and White’s nephew, award-winning folk musician Chris White, released the CD First You Dream (1999). A documentary by Sylvia Hamilton, Portia White: Think on Me, was broadcast on CBC TV in 2001.
In 1995, White was named a “person of national historic significance” by the Government of Canada. A millennial stamp bearing her image was issued in 1999, and a life-sized sculpture of her was carved from a tree in front of Truro’s Zion Baptist Church in 2004. The Portia White Prize is awarded each year by the Nova Scotia Arts Council to an outstanding Nova Scotian in the arts. The inaugural recipient of the award in 1998 was her great-nephew, the writer George Elliott Clarke. The Nova Scotia Talent Trust presents the Portia White Scholarship Award to exceptional vocalists, and also named its annual gala concert in her honour.At the East Coast Music Awards in 2007, White was posthumously awarded the Dr. Helen Creighton Lifetime Achievement Award.
Family Connections

In addition to Clarke and Chris White, Portia White had several other notable family members. Her brother, Bill White, was a composer and social activist who became the first black Canadian to run for federal office, representing the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) in the Toronto constituency of Spadina in 1949. He was made an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1970. Portia’s brother, Jack White, was a noted labour union leader and one of the first black Canadians to run for provincial office in Ontario; and her niece, Sheila White, is a noted political consultant and commentator.

A version of this entry originally appeared in the Encyclopedia of Music in Canada.

Portia White

Photo courtesy: Encyclopedia of Music in Canada.

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Posted by on December 1, 2017 in Contraltos

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