Robert Todd Duncan

Robert Todd Duncan

 

Robert Todd Duncan (1903 - 1998) Robert Todd Duncan was an actor, musician, educator and pioneering civil rights activist who broke the color barrier in theater at a time when blacks had to use side entrances and sit in the balcony. This outstanding role model was born on Feb. 12, 1903, in Danville, Ky., and grew up in the town of Somerset. Duncan created the renowned role of “Porgy” in George and Ira Gershwin’s classic opera, Porgy and Bess, which opened on Broadway on Oct. 10, 1935. He performed in the role more than 1,800 times. He was already an established baritone and a voice professor at Howard University in Washington D.C., when Gershwin heard of him. Duncan was the first performer in the role of “Stephen Kumalo” in Kurt Weill's, Lost in the Stars (1949–50), which won him the Donaldson and New York Drama Critics awards in 1950. He made two films, Syncopation (1942) and Unchained (1955). In Unchained, Duncan introduced the song, "Unchained Melody." The song, which later became a rock and roll standard, earned an Academy Award nomination for Duncan. The star, who is more commonly known as Todd Duncan, obtained his musical training at Butler University in Indianapolis, Ind., with a Bachelor of Arts degree in music followed by a Master of Arts degree from Columbia University in New York. In 1933, he debuted in Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana at the Mecca Temple in New York with the Aeolian Opera, a black opera company. In 1945, he became the first African American to sing with a major opera company, performing the role of “Tonio” in Leoncavallo's I Pagliacci with the New York City Opera Company. That same year, he sang as “Escamillio” in Bizet's Carmen. During the Washington D.C. run of Porgy and Bess, Duncan led the cast in a strike to protest the National Theatre's segregation policy. The actors held out against offers by the theater to permit African-Americans to attend a "blacks only" performance. As spokesman for the cast, Duncan stated that he would never play in a theater that barred him from purchasing tickets to certain seats because of his race. Theater management gave in to this demand and for the first time an integrated audience attended the National Theater. He continued desegregation efforts during his returns to Kentucky for performances in the 1950s, when he refused to perform to segregated audiences in his home state. In Somerset, he insisted that black audiences, who had always been forced to the back of the theatre, sit in the front during his performance. He taught at Howard University for over 50 years, during which time he continued to tour as a soloist with concert pianist William Allen. He led a very successful career as a concert singer with over 2,000 performances in 56 countries. In 1978, the Washington Performing Arts Society presented his 75th birthday gala. In 1984, he was awarded the George Peabody Medal of Music from the Peabody Conservatory of Music of Johns Hopkins University. Other awards he received include a Medal of Honor from Haiti, an NAACP award, the Donaldson Award, the New York Drama Critics' Award, and honorary doctorates from Valparaiso University and Butler University. After retiring from Howard University, he opened his own voice studio, teaching privately and giving periodic recitals. He inspired other black vocal artists to walk through the doors that he had helped open to them. Today, many of the black stars of American opera, list themselves as among the “first generation,” “second generation,” or “third generation,” of vocalists who were taught by Robert Todd Duncan. Reportedly, there was a student downstairs waiting for a lesson when Duncan, 95, died upstairs at his Washington D.C. home on Feb. 28, 1998, of a heart ailment.
 
 
 
 
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