Todd Duncan (1903-1998)
by Randye Jones
“If the modern singer is truly ambitious–and versatile–he can travel just about anywhere he wants to… from grand opera to the musical comedy stage and back again, with the pleasant likelihood of a highly profitable stopover in Hollywood… for today the World of Music is most decidedly One World!”1
Baritone Todd Duncan’s statement certainly encapsulated his own career as a singer. From his operatic debut in 1934, to his groundbreaking creation of the male title character in George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess the following year, to critically acclaimed performance in Kurt Weill’s Lost in the Stars and other Broadway productions in the 1940s, and finally appearances in motion pictures until 1955, Duncan traversed those different musical worlds with great success.
Robert Todd Duncan was born February 12, 1903, in Danville, Kentucky. He was the only child of John C. Duncan, a farmer, and Letitia Cooper Duncan, a piano teacher and church musician. When Todd was four, the family moved to Indianapolis, Indiana, where his father worked as a chauffeur and butler while his mother continued to teach.
The boy regularly heard music in the home. Not only were there a number of students who studied piano, but his mother often accompanied his father’s voice. At age five, Todd began taking piano lessons from his mother. At her urging, he developed many of the skills as a disciplined musician that would influence him throughout his career. In a 1995 interview, Duncan was asked about his relationship with his mother and his love of singing spirituals. He stated:
My mother and spirituals are so deep inside of me, it’s difficult for me to find words that are meaningful. Spirituals are a part of whatever I am. When I sing them my being sings them, not my throat. When I think of my mother, I think of when she caressed me, when she loved me, when she was teaching me at the piano, when she was giving me a whipping, when she was bathing me, when she was putting me to bed, and when she was kissing me good night. It is very difficult for me to put into words something that is at the bottom of my very being. My mother and spirituals both belong there.2
When Todd’s parents divorced, the young boy and his mother moved into the home of his maternal grandfather, (Robert) Owsley Cooper, in Somerset, Kentucky. Todd Duncan attended local public schools, completing his high school studies at the Simmons University, Louisville, Kentucky. He was very active in school music and sports programs and completed his high school studies in 1922. He majored in Music at the College of Music and Fine Arts and in English at Butler College, both in Indianapolis. Duncan taught both subjects at the Municipal College for Negroes in Louisville while working on his master’s degree at Teacher’s College, Columbia University.
Duncan described the person who gave him the “singing disease,” influencing his decision to seek a professional career:
I heard Roland Hayes in Louisville, Kentucky, when I was seventeen years old. It was on a Sunday afternoon at the Brown Hotel Theatre, and that was the day I made up my mind to be a singer. He did it for me. For a week or two I imitated him. I walked like him. I held my hands like him I practiced singing tenor like him. I think God spoke to me that day, and I’ve followed that star ever since.3
The Road to “Porgy”
Duncan joined the faculty at Howard University as a voice teacher in 1930. He had become exposed to opera as a director during his studies at Louisville, and he continued performing on stage in addition to teaching. He met Nancy Gladys Jackson, a local elementary school teacher, at a church choir rehearsal in the 1930s. They were married in 1934, and Duncan adopted her son, Charles, from a previous marriage.
In 1934, he made his professional operatic debut with the Aeolian Negro Opera Company in the role of Alfio in Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana. His performance garnered the attention of Olin Downes, who was a music critic for the New York Times. Downes recommended Duncan to composer George Gershwin, who was seeking singers for his new opera, Porgy and Bess. The baritone, who had returned to Washington to again take up his teaching duties, was invited back to New York to meet with the composer.
In an interview conducted February 20, 1980, Duncan described his audition with Gershwin:
George Gershwin all that year had been traveling and had gone.., .far.., .down South;… and according to him he had auditioned more than 100 baritones. But he couldn’t find what he wanted. So I went, and I sang. I sang just one song, one third of a song, in fact. The paradox is that I sang an old Italian song, “Lungi del caro bene,” by Secchi. Now I say paradox because here was a Negro singing for a Jew and singing an old Italian aria of the eighteenth century, auditioning for an opera whose site was to be in South Carolina. So that is paradoxical. He used to love to tell the story because he said that every Negro that would sing for him would sing some Negro spiritual (e.g., “Deep River, Glory Road”) or the famous tune “Old Man River.” He said here comes this Negro singing an old Italian aria and a very classical (not even Verdi or Puccini but a very classical aria) selection displaying his repertoire without flaunting his race or background. I sang about ten bars, and he was pulling for me. He said, “You stand right in front of me; I want to look into your face as you sing. Would you sing that again?” I said, “Yes,” and I looked right at him, without blinking, while singing, and he looked at me and said, “Would you be my Porgy? You are exactly what I want.”4
After a test-run in Boston, where Gershwin made numerous revisions to Porgy and Bess, the opera opened at Broadway’s Alvin Theatre on October 10, 1935. The reviews of the opera as a whole were mixed, but they were typically positive about the performers. Olin Downes’ review of the opera complimented the performances of the lead characters: “The Porgy, Todd Duncan, has a manly and resonant voice, which he uses with eloquent effect. The fresh tone, admirably competent technic, and dramatic delivery of Anne Brown as Bess was a high point of interpretation.”5
Seven years after the premiere, Duncan discussed the challenges of performing the operatic role for which he is best known:
Whatever acting I do pours out of the songs and it is a fact that whenever I am in poor voice, my performance and the whole scene falls to pieces. In “Porgy” it is especially difficult because I am on my knees all the time and I’m thrown about the stage in all sorts of postures. But I studied the problem very scientifically. The audience hardly knows it, but no matter what position I’m in I always keep the torso completely straight so that I breathe perfectly.6
The production played on Broadway for 124 shows, then Duncan, Anne Brown as Bess, John Bubbles as Sportin’ Life, Ruby Elzy as Serena, and the rest of the cast took the opera on a three-month tour around the United States. One notable event from the tour occurred on the final stop in Washington, D. C., in early March, 1936. Duncan recounted the situation:
On tour with Porgy I refused to perform at Washington’s National Theatre if no Negroes were allowed to come and hear me sing. I wrote letters to everybody, including Mrs. Roosevelt. I was in Chicago, and the union was calling me from New York two or three times a day. They were going to fine me ten thousand dollars and bar me from the theater for five years. It made me so angry. They called me and said, “Well, what if Negroes come to the Wednesday and Saturday matinees?” “No,” I replied. “No, that’s not enough. Why can’t they come at night? Negroes go out at night too.” Then they called me the next day saying the board had met and offered to seat Negroes in the balcony. “Well,” I said, “I have too many friends at Howard University who take baths every day and are clean. They don’t smell, and they are very intelligent, and they can sit beside anybody.” To make the story short, we won. Negroes came, and they sat everywhere at every performance. The manager of the theater came to me in the middle of the second week and said, “Mr. Duncan, I want to thank you for what you’ve done. We haven’t had one person come back and ask to return their tickets. Not one. We haven’t had one complaint, not one situation.7
(Note: The National Theatre returned to its segregated audience policies immediately after Porgy and Bess left. It took a boycott by Actors Equity to end the policy permanently in 1952.)
After completing the tour, Duncan gave several recitals, then he returned to his professorial duties at Howard until 1938, when he was engaged for, first, an attempted revival of Porgy and Bess, then for an extended stay in England. He concertized and performed in the London productions of Edgar Wallace’s The Sun Never Sets. The approach of World War II forced him to abandon plans to travel to Scandinavia and to return, instead, to the United States, where he briefly resumed his teaching duties at Howard.
Despite the onset of war, Duncan’s performing career was at its heights in the 1940s. In 1940, he played the Lawd’s General opposite Ethel Waters in the Broadway production of Cabin in the Sky. He was involved in an extended revival of Porgy and Bess in 1942, this time with Etta Moten as Bess, and he made his first appearance in a motion picture, Syncopation. Also that year, Duncan, Brown, and assorted members of the original cast of Porgy and Bess recorded selections from the opera for Decca–the album was selected by the Recording Academy for induction to its Grammy Hall of Fame in 1990. He gave his Town Hall debut in March 1944, followed by an international concert tour.
Then, in 1945, he was engaged to sing the role of Tonio in the New York City Opera’s production of Leoncavallo’s I pagliacci, making him the first African American to sing with a major American opera company. He also sang Escamillo in the New York City Opera’s production of Bizet’s Carmen and in the title role in their production of Verdi’s Rigoletto.
By this time, his performance schedule caused the severance of teaching ties between Duncan and Howard University. He toured in 22 Latin American cities and, in 1946, became the first African American concert performer to sing in Australia and New Zealand. In a 1990 article, writer Mark Evans described some of the reactions to Duncan’s 12-city, 40-concert tour of the region:
In Sydney, a man sitting next to a local music critic applauded so hard that his watch works fell out. At Petty’s Hotel, where the musicians stayed, the management presented a rare protest: “It’s your Mr. Duncan. The guests complaining that they can’t hear you practice when your door is shut.” In New Zealand, audiences were so enthusiastic that management had to post a sign in the concert halls advising, “Do not stand in the seats. Please confine your demonstrations to applause.” The Christchurch, New Zealand, newspaper declared, “Wherever he goes, Todd Duncan is a true artistic ambassador of his country and one who gives great distinction to his race.”8
1946 also saw Duncan’s return to the title role in Porgy and Bess, this time with the Danish Royal Opera. The company had premiered the opera three years earlier with an all-white cast and, despite threats from the occupying Nazis to bomb the opera house unless they discontinued the wartime production, the banned opera performances had become a symbol of their resistance to Nazi rule. With that history, Duncan commented on the preparation of and reception to the later production:
I was proud to relearn the role and do it for them. I was learning it in Danish while they rehearsed it in Danish. For most of the rehearsals, though, I’d sing in English while they all sang in Danish. They gave me one more dress rehearsal with all these blondes in the cast. And that night, for the performance, when I went out onstage and saw all these Negroes, I couldn’t believe my eyes. They’d done something to make their noses broader, they were lovely dark shades from light brown to black. Up to high yellow Negroes, mulattos. All kinds of hair textures. Not only that but they had the Negro flavor. They were just so wonderful, I cried.
On the night of the opening, when we sang the duet “Bess, You Is My Woman Now,” I sang to Bess in Danish, and she sang to me in English. I thought I would die. It took my breath away when I heard her say, “Porgy, I’se your woman now.”
I stopped the show with “Plenty o’Nutin’.” They wouldn’t let me go on. I had to encore the song. That opera house was 300 years old, and that was only the third time that had happened. The first time was with Caruso, the second time was with Chaliapin, the basso from Russia. Caruso had to sing “I Pagliacci” twice, and Boris Godunov had to die twice. They said it would go down in history.9
Although Duncan had become a professional singer and actor with international acclaim, he did not escape the ravages of racial discrimination. In one case, he had been offered a recording contract with RCA, only to see it withdrawn by the company’s board of directors. Their reasoning was that the presence of one Negro concert singer–Marian Anderson–was as much as the market would bear. (Note: In addition to various recordings of excerpts from Porgy and Bess, Duncan also sang on the soundtrack for Lost in the Stars and recorded an album of Negro spirituals in 1957.)
Duncan, his wife, and his pianist, William Allen, were also denied housing at three different hotels in Caracas, Venezuela, during his visit in 1945. When the event made international news, it brought unpleasant publicity to a country that had previously touted itself as free of racial discrimination. Within a week, the Venezuela government passed legislation prohibiting any further discrimination.
Lost in the Stars and Beyond
In 1949, Duncan was offered the lead role of Rev. Stephen Kumalo in the musical, Lost in the Stars. The music was written by Kurt Weill, with book and lyrics by Maxwell Anderson. Based on Alan Paton’s novel, Cry, the Beloved Country, the story was set in the apartheid-governed South Africa of that era. A number of up-and-coming and established African American performers were also engaged for the production, including Robert McFerrin, William Marshall, and Inez Matthews.
The musical opened on Broadway on October 30, 1949, at the Music Box Theatre and ran for 281 performances, closing the following July. Duncan’s performance in the show, including singing the title song, “Lost in the Stars,” garnered both the Tony and New York Drama Critics awards in 1950.
He made a second film appearance in the 1955 motion picture, Unchained. Although his role was a minor one, Duncan sang the movie’s Oscar-nominated theme song, “Unchained Melody,” which is reputed to be one of the most highly recorded songs of the 20th Century.
Through the 1950’s and early 1960’s, Duncan continued to tour, singing with orchestras such as the New York Philharmonic, and to teach voice. He sang at the inauguration of President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965. With that, he concluded his career as a singer and focused on teaching. He joined the music faculty at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and maintained a private studio in Washington.
As Porgy and Bess approached the 50th anniversary of its premiere, the opera finally debuted on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera in 1985 with Simon Estes and Grace Bumbry in the title roles. Duncan and Brown were special guests at the premiere.
Robert Todd Duncan died from a heart condition on February 28, 1998, in his Washington residence.
Duncan was a prolific singer, credited with over 2,000 recital performances in 56 countries, as well as over 1,000 performances in the role of Porgy. He received numerous awards and eight honorary doctorates. His professional successes were reflected in his lifestyle. In a 1942 New York Times article, reporter Theodore Strauss described it as:
Off stage, Mr. Duncan has a decidedly professional, even slightly frock-coat, manner. He is mindful of the proprieties and he is simple, even if it sometimes requires a bit of effort. In Washington, he likes to entertain rather formally in the heavily imposing five-story mansion of the Vanderbilt era which he maintains at 1600 T Street. Invited there for a reception during the tryout of “Porgy and Bess,” Mr. Wildberg is reported to have exclaimed: “If I’d known you had a home like this, I’d have gotten you to back the show and I would have worked for you.”10
His influence as a teacher was equally extensive. He worked with hundreds of students over his lifetime, teaching into his 90’s. Several students went on to successful singing careers themselves, and at least two–Philip Booth and Carmen Tencredi–contracted with the Metropolitan Opera. He gave his students this advice, “The greatest lesson to learn is honesty, integrity and deep commitment. Understand that if you want to be an artist, every hour in the day, every day in the week must be a testament to your inner desire.”11
His papers are held at the Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan.
1Todd Duncan, “‘To Sing, But Where? A Singer Who Believes There Is No Set Pattern for Success.’ Opera and Concert, August 1950,” in Autobiographical Reminiscences of African-American Classical Singers, 1853-Present, by Elizabeth Nash (Lewiston, NY: The Edwin Mellen Press, 2007), 153-158.
2Elizabeth and Patricia Turner, “The Master Singer: a pioneering performer looks back on a life in which he broke new ground not only as an artist but as a fighter for justice–An Interview with Todd Duncan.’ American Legacy, Fall 1998,” in Autobiographical Reminiscences of African-American Classical Singers, 1853-Present, by Elizabeth Nash (Lewiston, NY: The Edwin Mellen Press, 2007), 159-168.
4James A. Standifer, “Reminiscences of Black Musicians,” American Music, Summer 1986, 194-205.
5“Exotic Richness of Negro Music and Color of Charleston, S. C., Admirably Conveyed in Score of Catfish Row Tragedy,” New York Times, 11 October 1935, 30.
6Theodore Strauss, “Porgy, Off the Stage: Being a Note or Two on Todd Duncan, Teacher and Singer and a First Settler in Catfish Row.” New York Times, 26 April 1942, 11.
7James Standifer, “The Tumultuous Life of Porgy and Bess,” Humanities, November/December 1997. Accessed April 13, 2014.
8Mark Evans, “Todd Duncan: Trailblazer of the Concert Stage,” American Visions, October, 1990, 46.
9Bloom, Ken and Frank Vlastnik. Broadway Musicals: The 101 Greatest Shows of All Time. Rev. ed. New York: Black Dog & Leventhal, 2010.
The Spirituals Database is a searchable listing of compact discs, long-playing discs, 78 rpm, and audio cassette recordings by various vocalists, including this artist, of Negro Spirituals set for concert performance. Information is available about song selections spanning a century from Burleigh’s “Deep River” to the present day. To see the recordings by this artist currently represented in the database, please click on the image to the right.
To cite this page:
Afrocentric Voices in Classical Music. Created by Randye Jones. Created/Last modified: December 3, 2022. Accessed:. http://www.afrovoices.com/wp/todd-duncan-biography.