Opera star Betty Allen, who grew up in Valley, dies at 82

The mezzo-soprano rose from humble origins in Campbell.


CAMPBELL — Elizabeth Louise “Betty” Allen, one of the first black American singers to achieve prominence on the international opera stage, died at age 82 Monday at a hospital in Valhalla, N.Y.

Allen, who was born in Campbell on March 17, 1927, and was a 1944 graduate of The Rayen School on Youngstown’s North Side, had complications from kidney disease.

If contralto Marian Anderson in the 1930s and 1940s represented the first generation of black opera stars, then Allen belonged to the second, along with sopranos Leontyne Price and Shirley Verrett and mezzo-soprano Grace Bumbry.

At the height of her vocal power from the 1950s through the 1970s, Allen “sang with a glory of sound that would honor any performance,” wrote Washington Post music critic Paul Hume. Even as a rookie performer in her 20s, she earned the respect of conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein, who invited her to sing in his “Jeremiah” symphony.

Allen was a mezzo-soprano, meaning her voice was lower than that of a soprano. While sopranos tend to play glamorous or delicate women, mezzos are often cast in evil or brooding roles, and Allen played those to their fullest.

In October 1960, she was the only American performer at a United Nations ambassadors’ ball, where she sang spirituals at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York.

She made her formal operatic debut in 1964 at the Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires as Jocasta in Stravinsky’s “Oedipus Rex”; Jocasta hangs herself at the end. She said Azucena, the raving gypsy in Giuseppe Verdi’s “Il Trovatore,” was her favorite role because “she’s absolutely nuts.”

With the Metropolitan Opera, she sang in “Four Saints in Three Acts,” an opera by Virgil Thomson and Gertrude Stein. Thomson, the highly respected composer and music critic, would later write music specifically for her.

Having performed all over the world, she sang at Town Hall and Carnegie Hall in New York and returned to Youngstown on many occasions between the 1950s and the 1980s to perform in Stambaugh and Powers auditoriums.

She appeared at Edward W. Powers Auditorium as a guest soloist with the Youngstown Symphony Orchestra in April 1982, announcing that she was retiring from the concert stage at the end of that season.

Off stage, Allen distinguished herself as a teacher and mentor. She was the executive director of the Harlem School of the Arts and taught at the Manhattan School of Music, among other places. She was particularly devoted to introducing classical music to children who, like her, had grown up in poverty.

Her father worked in the steel mills, her mother as a laundress with the two Maytag machines the family owned. Allen first heard opera arias as they floated from neighbors’ windows during the Met’s matinee radio broadcasts.

“The families on my street were mostly Sicilian and Greek,” she told the New York Times. “On Saturday, walking down the street, you could hear the ... broadcasts coming from the windows of everybody’s house. No one told them that opera and the arts were not for them, not for poor people, just for rich snobs.”

Allen grew up at a time when there was a clear color line in classical music. She was 12 when the Daughters of the American Revolution barred Marian Anderson from singing at Constitution Hall in Washington.

In response, first lady Eleanor Roosevelt helped arrange for Anderson to sing from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday in 1939. That performance, attended by 75,000 people and heard by countless others on the radio, was a turning point for civil rights in the United States and in Allen’s life.

Around this time, Allen lost her mother to cancer, and her father began drinking heavily. She left home one day, caught a bus to Youngstown and put herself up for adoption.

“That judge didn’t know what to do with me,” she told the Times. “In those days, there was no orphanage for black children. You either had to be put in a detention home or you were put in a foster home. I chose to be put in foster homes.”

A scholarship took her to Wilberforce College, a historically black school. She had planned to study languages and become a translator, but that all changed when a professor who had been an opera performer urged her to join the college chorus. There she became convinced that she could have a career as a singer. She later attended the Hartford School of Music in Connecticut and what is now the Tanglewood Music Center in Massachusetts.

Allen kept a low public profile compared to other leading black opera singers of her generation. She said that was how she liked it.

“Sweeties, let me tell you something,” she said in a 1973 interview with the Times. “I sing over 60 concerts a year. I do a lot of opera. I now teach, I have a husband, two children, a large house and a mother-in-law. I don’t really have time to figure out what the hell those ladies are doing. It’s about all I can do to figure out what Betty’s doing.”

Survivors include her husband, Ritten Edward Lee II of Bronxville, N.Y.; two children, Anthony Lee of Bronxville and Juliana Lee of the Bronx; and three grandchildren.