Life in Progress: A weblog by Heidi Price
8/28/2006

An opera house



















On Sunday morning, my lazy gene(s) kicked in. After a nearly 12-hour sleep, I moved downstairs to the living room couch where I spent the next three hours watching "Cool Hand Luke."

"Do you want to go for a bike ride?" he asked as the day closed in on 2 p.m. I was still in my pajamas. "Cool Hand Luke" was well over and I hadn't moved from the couch.

He told me he wanted to try to find a building in Homewood that used to house the National Negro Opera Company, a conservatory started in 1941 that for 21 years trained young opera singers who traveled all over the country to perform. He had seen the building about a year ago, during an organized bike tour of Pittsburgh.

Before we could go anywhere, he pulled out his paper map, unfolding it across the dining room table to find the destination. Then he cross referenced that map with Google Earth and Yahoo maps on the Internet. Then we set off.

Once in Homewood, we parked our car and set off on our bikes. We pedaled across the neighborhood's main thoroughfare and up a hill on the other side. It turned out to be the wrong hill so we turned around, went back down that hill and up another one.

We reached a straightaway and, for a while, rode past apartments on one side of the street and nothing on the other. He tried to call me back saying he didn't think this was the street, but I kept pedaling. I had spotted something magestic looking jutting out of the weeds ahead and I wanted to check it out.

Turns out it was the street, Apple Street. And the building I had seen buried in the weeds was in fact the site of the National Negro Opera Company.

For a while, we just stood on the street and stared. I tried to imagine what it must have been like in the '40s and '50s, for passersby to stand in this same spot and hear opera singing drifting out through the windows. The historical marker, itself almost covered by weeds, states that the school was started in 1941 by Mary Cardwell Dawson. "Known for its musical genius" the conservatory for 21 years produced students who performed in Pittsburgh, Washington and New York City.

He said it was a shame somebody didn't try to restore the building. I did some research and it turns out they have. This article in the Pittsburgh Courier published last week details the efforts of the Madame Mary Cardwell Dawson Branch of the National Association of Negro Musicians to preserve the site and restore the building.

3 Comments:

Paul said...

You have to wonder how communities let institutions like this just fade away.

10:17 AM  
Anonymous said...

Sometimes nothin' is a pretty cool hand... No man can eat 50 eggs!

9:03 AM  
Just a Scholar said...

Glad you got to see the house on Apple Avenue. It is actually located in the East Liberty neighborhood of Pittsburgh. Mrs. Dawson rented the house from a local businessman,Woogie Harris. The Mary Cardwell Dawson Music School was based in the house. One of her most famous piano students is the jazz pianist Ahmad Jamal. The school had lessons inpiano, voice, violin, dance and organ, among others. Mrs. Dawson graduated from the New England Conservatory of Music. She was a trained singer, pianist and conductor. During the Great Depression she founded the Caldwell Dawson Choir which won many awards during choral competitions in Pittsburgh and other cities.
Mrs. Dawson had a mission: to show that African-Americans had the God given talents to sing classical choral music and opera.
Both Mrs. Dawson and her husband, Walter, fought discrimination and segregation; she in the arts and he in the electrical trade unions. Folks seem to forget that opera in the US was highly segregated.
The Dawsons left Pittsburgh in 1942. Mr. Dawson accepted a position with the US Govt in Washington, DC. Mrs. Dawson continued her music school, concerts and the opera company in Washington, DC.
She returned to Pittsburgh to stage operas. "Aida" in the 1950s featured one Robert McFerrin, Sr. (Bobby's dad).
Mrs. Dawson was a dynamic woman.
The house remained in the Harris Family. I had heard that it had been bought in 2004. As for its status today..?
The memorial marker was dedicated in 1994. Technically, the state of Pennsylvania is supposed to keep it maintained.
The National Negro Opera Company closed down with Mrs. Dawson's death in 1962 (heart attack). Her papers are in the Library of Congress.
Just wanted to fill in the blanks.
For the record, the first African-American opera company performed in Washington, DC in 1873.

4:55 PM  

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