By Jueseppi B.
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.