On Feb. 28, New York City Opera and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, in coordination with the Harlem School of the Arts, paid tribute to Harlem’s great mezzo-soprano, teacher and patron Betty Allen. She left us on June 22, 2009, after a long, remarkable life.
Betty Allen was a true force in the world of music and a jewel of the Harlem community. She embodied dignity and hard work in everything she did. Nimat Habachy, of WQXR Radio, cited her brilliant roles in opera (Azucena, Mistress Quickly, Jocasta), oratorio, art song (where she was a favorite singer of Virgil Thomson, David Diamond and Ned Rorem), and on Broadway (Treemonisha). At home in New York City, she sat on the boards of Carnegie Hall, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, Manhattan School of Music and the Harlem School of the Arts. “I marvel at the variety–at the generosities of Betty Allen,” Habachy said.
Before the event, Bernard Phillips, flutist and lecturer at Medgar Evers College and former HSA music director, recalled Allen’s boardroom acumen. “Don’t let them intimidate you,” she told him.
Master class alumna Carolyn Sebron recalled, “Her position was, you don’t give up and you don’t concede defeat.”
George Steel, general manager and artistic director of New York City Opera, got it right. “We were lucky to live in a time when Betty lived.”
Born March 17, 1927, she proudly assumed the mantel of her mentor, pioneering African-American diva Dorothy Maynor. Allen debuted at the New York City Opera in 1954. In 2000, in recognition of her singular contributions to the company, the Betty Allen Prize was created there to award major mid-career singers. Soprano Lauren Flanigan, the first recipient, noted that Betty was a deeply caring and loyal supporter. “After everything I did, every debut, Betty would call.” To stay in touch, Flanigan regularly attended Allen’s Saturday master classes at HSA.
Those classes were famous all over town. One afternoon, painter Jacob Lawrence stopped to say a quick hello to Allen. He stayed to hear a little music. Violinist Isaac Stern was also known to drop by.
In his tribute, master-class alumnus Kevin Maynor spontaneously broke into a bit of basso recitative onstage. Once, Betty made him repeat that phrase 26 times. “She was a perfectionist, but she was particular about her perfection,” he laughed. “She would send you out to sing for people, but then she would back you up.”
NYCO mezzo-soprano Krysty Swann and pianist Kevin Murphy offered “Erbarme Dich” from Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion” and the exhilarating “Stride la vampa” from Verdi’s “Il Trovatore,” animating hits from Allen’s repertoire.
Young pianist and HSA student Kimani Emmanuel, playing “Romance” by Carl Czerny, brought the house down with the kind of musicality, solid technique and plucky energy that Miss Allen adored.
HSA student Busisiwe Zambia brought her high, light soprano to “Lascia ch’io pianga” by Handel, also singing the recitative, one of Allen’s signature lessons. Her teacher and accompanist, La-Rose Saxon, is a master voice class alumna. Brava, Busisiwe!
Throughout the evening, archival images showed Allen in performance, in private with family and friends, and in the trenches in her studio, surrounded by what seemed like every score ever written for the voice, painstakingly catalogued by her longtime student and assistant Young Joo Shin.
Former student Clarissa Sinceno once described Betty to me as “a touchable queen.” I knew exactly what she meant. It’s hard to overstate her reign. Allen dispensed Van Lier Fellowships, for which I am personally grateful. If Allen was your champion, the playing field was leveled–maybe even tipped in your favor for a moment. She insisted on diversity. She campaigned for funding. Year after year, she and WQXR’s Robert Sherman broadcast the “HSA Telethon.”
As opera legend George Shirley relates, “She was a powerhouse in the most positive sense of the term, a singer and intellect to be reckoned with, and a true friend.” We were blessed by her intellect, her candor, her warmth, her talent and her ferocious appetite for triumph.