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Pioneering African American soprano Camilla Williams was born in Virginia on 18 October 1919. Her parents and grandparents were self-taught musicians, and they all sang. Camilla trained at Virginia State College and then privately in New York. She received Marian Anderson fellowships in 1943 and 1944, and her career began in 1944, performing on RCA radio.
In 1946 she was probably the first African American to sing with a major American opera company, making her debut as Cio-Cio San in Madama Butterfly for New York City Opera. She began to sing throughout the USA and Europe, and in 1951 sang Bess alongside Lawrence Winters as Porgy in the first complete recording of Gershwin's opera. Three years later, again in the title role of Madama Butterfly, she became the first African American to sing a major role with Vienna State Opera. She also sang in several African and Asia-Pacific countries.
Camilla Williams was also involved in the civil rights movement. Other pioneering activities included being the first African American instructor at Beijing's Central Conservatory of Music.
She continued to sing until 1971, continued to teach until 1997 and died, aged 92, at home in Bloomington, Indiana on 29 January 2012.