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JULY 6, 1926 - OCTOBER 23, 1975

Leonora Lafayette, born and raised in Baton Rouge, was the daughter of a brick mason who had attended Tuskegee Institute, and a teacher/seamstress. She graduated from Fisk University, where she studied with Dr. Denton Russell who cast her in several productions at the university. She then tried to enroll at Louisiana State University to pursue her Master’s degree but was denied admission because of her race. She instead took advantage of a funding program established by the state of Louisiana that awarded funds to students of color to pursue professional study elsewhere. She used her funds to study for a year at the Juilliard Conservatory under Dusolina Giannini and, while in New York, was cast as the understudy to Murial Rahn in a production of The Barrier by Jo Meyerowitz (based on the Langston Hughes poem “The Mulatto”). She later performed the same role at a drama festival at the University of Michigan (Mattawilda Dobbs was also in the cast).

Unable to find roles in the United States, she won a John Hayes Whitney Fellowship to study in Europe and was in Paris by 1951. She went to Basel shortly afterward, and the city became her permanent home. She tied for second place in the Concourse de Genéve and debuted in Aïda in Basel in 1951; shortly afterward she became the first African American singer to star at the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden (as a last-minute replacement for an ailing singer). Her career included appearances with opera houses throughout Germany, Austria, and Eastern Europe. She also performed in the Czech Republic, South Africa and South America. She was known not only for the roles of Madama Butterfly and Aïda, but also Mimi in La Bohéme and Gilda in Rigoletto. She performed numerous solo recitals and as a soloist in oratorios. After 1949 her career unfolded completely outside the United States.


Video Credit: opertutto

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DGF is focused on the intersection of social justice, American history, and the arts. Deeply inspired by the achievements of America’s hidden musical figures, the foundation is invested in doing research and educating the public about their remarkable stories of courage and persistence. From enriching our musical heritage to preparing the diverse pool of tomorrow’s vocal stars, DGF will positively impact how artists are valued in this nation, encouraging inclusive opportunity, access, and advocacy for the next generation. Join our change-making efforts by supporting DGF with a donation today.

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