Black History Moment: Lillian Evanti; 1st African American To Perform In Major European Opera Company

By Jueseppi B.



0324110540451_thumb_med_Evanti-portrait-oil-562Madame Lillian Evanti, a 1940 painting by Lois Mailou JonesCredit: National Portrait Gallery, Washington, DC.



Lillian Evanti (August 12, 1890 – December 6, 1967), was an African American opera singer. Evanti, a soprano, debuted in 1927 in Delibes‘s Lakmé at Nice, France. She graduated from Howard University with a Bachelor’s Degree in music and studied in France and Italy. As an opera singer and concert artist, she toured throughout Europe and South America. She received acclaim as Violetta in Verdi‘s La traviata as produced by the National Negro Opera Company in 1945. Evanti is most famous for being the first African-American female professional opera singer.




Lillian Evanti in France in 1926




Lillian Evanti (1890-1967)


Lyric soprano Lillian Evanti was the first African American to perform with a major European opera company, but she also maintained deep ties to her native Washington, D.C. Born Lillian Evans in 1890, she graduated from Howard University in 1907, and thirteen years later, moved to Europe, where her professional opportunities were not as limited by discrimination.


She made her professional debut in Nice, France in 1924, and while abroad, adopted the stage name Evanti, a more European-sounding combination of her last name and that of her husband, Roy Tibbs.


Evanti returned to Washington periodically and performed on Lafayette Square several times in the 1920’s and 1930’s, at both the Belasco Theater, one of the few venues in Washington where African Americans could perform before a desegregated audience, and the Roosevelt White House. In 1926, she sang at the Belasco with Marian Anderson as a part of the festivities surrounding the football game between Howard University and Lincoln University. Four years later, the Washington Post called her solo performance at the Belasco a “home-coming triumph.”


The portrait of Lillian Evanti displayed here depicts her in costume as Rosina in Rossini’s Barber of Seville. It is one of the most highly-regarded works by Lois Mailou Jones, who knew Evanti well and once described her final moments of work on this painting:

“A very unusual thing happened while I was doing the finishing touches. The Barber of Seville, the opera, came on over the radio. Of course, when the music came on, Lillian began to sing. There was the sparkle in her eyes and the gestures and everything. It was just what I needed to finish the portrait. I caught the spirit of her, which was just marvelous.”


Shortly after she sat for this painting, Evanti made her most acclaimed performance in the capital, portraying Violetta in the National Negro Opera Company’s La Traviata, which was staged on a barge floating in the Potomac River. Evanti, who was also a composer and a collector of works by African-American artists, died in 1967 in Washington, DC.





















6 replies »

  1. Reblogged this on Spirit In Action and commented:
    Thank you for sharing this Jueseppi! People often complain “Why do we need Black History month?” (Or Women’s history or any other thing like ethnic studies that brings focus to that which has been suppressed and ignored)
    THIS is why! I bet no one reading this read about this wonderfully talented musician in school. In my generation at least, we grew up being sold a story of the world that was more holes than story. How many times did you read about what Jefferson and Washington did? Every darn year-and they were so BORING.
    Why didn’t we get to learn about the beautiful, creative and amazing things and people that happened before we were born?
    Well, if little girls, little non-white girls especially, grew up knowing their lives could look like *THIS* how many would fall for the sort of menial, depressing future the powers-that-were have been trying to sell them for so long?
    Being told we could aspire to be a wife, or a maid, work at McDonald’s or maybe if we were really good a department store-and if we were special, smart and work super hard maybe we could become a Nurse! (Nothing wrong with being a Nurse-but it shouldn’t be the highest point a child is allowed to aim for!)
    Luckily for us all in society, plenty of little girls didn’t buy the nonsense and aimed a lot higher, discovered stories like this one on their own or with the help of Moms, Dads, Aunts and Grandma’s who having lived and seen things were not so fooled.
    I am so glad we have Black History month, and every other similar time to focus on what is usually not celebrated and noticed as it should be. The younger generations now do not have so much hidden from them-all we need to do is make sure the environment they grow up in provides the support and structure they need to excel and they can aim as high as they can imagine;-)


    • You are absolutely correct, or as i like to say when asked why a Black History Month is necessary…..

      “When the day arrives that racism and hatred of skin color that is NOT caucasian colored….when Black Americans can TRUST caucasians to teach true factual history…..when the southern states are NO LONGER attempting to erase slavery from American history…..then there will be no need for a Black History Month, because American History will be the history of ALL Americans…..including Black America, Native America, Hawaiian America, LGBTQ America, Latin America, European America.”


Reply At Your Own Risk. Leave The Dumbfuckery At The Door.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s