Duncan, Todd

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Todd Duncan

Opera singer, educator, actor

One of Kentucky's great civil rights pioneers, noted teacher, opera singer, and actor Todd Duncan was inducted into the Kentucky Civil Rights Hall of Fame at Kentucky State University in Frankfort, Kentucky, in 2005. Duncan made significant contributions on a national level, and as a voice and music teacher he influenced generations of African American musicians and vocalists. He developed a system of teaching operatic singing known as the Duncan Technique. Because of Duncan, major changes in classical musical performance for African Americans began to take place in the United States.

Born Robert Todd Duncan in Danville, Kentucky, in 1903, Todd Duncan (as he was commonly called) moved to Somerset with his mother when he was quite young. While a young child he studied piano with his mother, Nettie Cooper Duncan. He attended the Davis Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church, singing in the choir. Duncan completed elementary school about 1916, then at the age of thirteen he moved to Louisville to attend the African American high school at Simmons University. There appears to be some disagreement on when the family moved to Indianapolis. Some sources indicated that his early education was completed in Louisville, Kentucky, and some mention that his early education was completed in Indianapolis. Sources that report that he attended high school in Indianapolis indicate that he was an industrious but not brilliant student.

Duncan continued his musical training at Butler University in Indiana, where evidence of his outstanding abilities began to manifest. He earned a bachelor of music degree in 1925. He also attended the College of Fine Arts in Indianapolis. His academic training continued with training in voice and theory at the College of Music and Fine Arts in Indianapolis.


Born in Danville, Kentucky on February 12; moves with his mother to Somerset, Kentucky
Completes elementary education
Receives B.A. from Butler University
Teaches at Louisville Municipal College for Negroes
Receives M.A. from Columbia University Teachers College
Appointed professor of voice at Howard University
Debuts in Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana
Performs the role Porgy in George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess
Has lead in the Sun Never Sets (London)
Gives concert at the White House for President and Mrs. Roosevelt
Appears in the film Cabin in the Sky
Appears in Syncopation
Appears in revival of Broadway musical Porgy and Bess
Retires from Howard University; opens his own voice studio; becomes the first African American male to sing with a major opera company, singing the role of Tonio in Leoncavallo's I Pagliacci; sings the role of Escamillio in Bizet's Carmen
Appears as Stephen Kumalo in Weill's Lost in the Stars
Appears in Unchained
Seventy-fifth birthday gala held by the Washington Performing Arts Society
Dies in Washington, D.C. on February 28
Posthumously inducted into the Kentucky Civil Rights Hall of Fame at Kentucky State University in Frankfort, Kentucky

Duncan later attended Columbia University Teachers College in New York, where he received a master's degree in music in 1930. He studied voice with Sara Lee, Edward Lippe, and Sidney Dietch in New York City. He received his L.H.D. from Valparaiso University in 1950 and the degree of Doctor of Music from Central State College in Ohio.

Success in Teaching

After earning his degree from Butler, Duncan accepted a teaching position in a local junior high school in Indianapolis. After this position he taught at Louisville Municipal College for Negroes, operated by the University of Louisville, from 1925 to 1930, as an instructor in English and music. His tenure there offered him an opportunity to gain experience directing operettas such as The Marriage of Nanette, The Chocolate Soldier, and other Gilbert and Sullivan works.

After graduating from Columbia University, in 1930, with an M.A., he was offered a teaching position at Howard University, in Washington, D.C. In 1931, he was appointed professor of voice at Howard University in Washington, D.C, a post he held until 1945. As a teacher at Howard, he was able to share his knowledge of classical European music with a mainly black student population. He taught special ways to present the music. These special ways became known as the Duncan Technique. Along with his teaching responsibilities at Howard, Duncan was also in charge of the public school music department in D.C.

In 1934, Duncan married Gladys Jackson, a teacher in the Washington, D.C. public school system. They had one son. Duncan was an avid tennis player and was often on the courts in Washington, D.C, where he made his home with his wife and son when he was not on tour.

Moves to Concert, Stage, and Film

Duncan's training prepared him to break ground where African Americans were practically unknown. African Americans are known for their jazz but not for writing or performing classical music. This was one of Duncan's contributions. Despite teaching being his main vocation, the stage performance often caused him to spend a great amount of time away for the university.

In addition to teaching, Duncan sang in several operas with all black performers. In 1933, Duncan debuted in Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana, singing Alfio at the Mecca Temple in New York with the Aeolian Opera, an all black opera company. This performance was witnessed by New York Times critic Olin Downes, who told George Gershwin of Duncan's talent after Gershwin had auditioned and rejected around one hundred baritones for the role of Porgy for Porgy and Bess. Duncan was already an established baritone and was teaching voice at Howard University when Gershwin heard of him.

According to the Encyclopedia of Popular Music, on their first meeting, after Duncan had sung only twelve measures of an Italian aria, Gershwin asked, "Will you be my Porgy?" Duncan, replied, "Well, Mr. Gershwin, I've gotta hear your music first." He did not know that Gershwin was such a successful composer. He also thought Gershwin wrote only popular music. Duncan almost always had sung classical works by composers such as Brahms and Schumann, and he was not sure that he wanted to sing for a popular musician such as Gershwin.

Jerilyn Watson reports in Voice of America that after accepting the part of Porgy, Duncan said that he found it difficult to perform because Porgy has a bad leg and cannot walk which means the person playing this part spends most of the opera on his knees. Duncan used his special methods to get enough breath to produce beautiful sound. He was able to do this even in the difficult positions demanded by the part.

Duncan was the first to perform the role of Porgy in George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, which opened on Broadway on October 10,1935. Duncan played the role more than 1,800 times. In 1935, Duncan led a strike of the cast of Porgy and Bess at the National Theater in Washington, D.C. He refused to perform at a theater where he himself could not purchase a ticket. Although the management of the National Theater attempted to offer such things as separate all-black performances, Duncan refused. The ultimate integration of the National Theatre was not accomplished until 1947, twelve years later, by American theatre icon Helen Hayes.

While continuing to work as an educator between performances, Duncan gave concerts around the world. In 1939, Duncan gave a concert at the White House for President and Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt. He considered himself an opera singer, with a repertoire of hundreds of German Lieder and French and Italian songs, and preferred the concert stage more than the theater. Quoted in the Encyclopedia of Popular Music, Duncan said: "In the theatre, you have grease paint, sets and lights, action and people. On the concert platform it is the song alone that matters; it is a drama, a message straight from the singer to the audience. It is more personal and more concentrated than a play can ever be. There is nothing that ever quite matches the thrill of holding an audience even on your faintest note the way a violinist stroke keeps his listeners silent even on the thin last stroke of the bow they can hardly hear."

Duncan went to London in 1939 to play the leading role in the Sun Never Sets, at the Drury Lane Theatre. Regular concert tours took him to Europe, South America, Australia, and New Zealand. He starred in the Kurt Weill musical adaptation of Alan Paton's Cry, the Beloved Country, which was given the title Lost in the Stars. He was also the first performer for the role of Stephen Khumalo in Lost in the Stars. American writer Maxwell Anderson wrote the words for the music by German composer Kurt Weill.

In 1942, Cheryl Crawford's revival of Porgy and Bess found Duncan back in the role of Porgy. Many critics thought that this simpler version was understood by more people than the original version. Theodore Strauss wrote in the New York Times in 1942: "After seven years Mr. Duncan has re-created one of the winning and pathetic figures of the modern theatre. Crawling about the stage on Porgy's useless legs, he is the easiest and most relaxed figure in the play. Out of Porgy's affliction and innocent mind he has kindled a sunnily haphazard disposition that warms the stage and radiates through the reaches of the house." Another Times critic commented that "with the passing years Todd Duncan has grown in the part of Porgy, and his cripple has an added dignity and spiritual strength." The critic continued, "Keeping himself in good voice throughout this saga of the poor cripple and his love for wayward Bess was a hard job, for Duncan sings the entire role on his knees."

In 1944, Duncan made his debut at New York's Town Hall as a concert baritone; the following two decades he toured widely in the United States, giving solo recitals and appearing with symphony orchestras. His longtime accompanist was William Duncan Allen.

His fame as Porgy helped him to get the part of Tonio in I Pagliacci with the New York City Opera Company in 1945. Duncan became the first African American male to sing with a major opera company that had no other black performers. Watson of Voice of America writes that "no one was sure how he would be received, but the people in the theater offered loud, warm approval of his performance."

The most amazing aspect of this performance was that Duncan did not sing a black role. He portrayed and sang a role traditionally performed by a white man. This historic performance took place ten years before black singer Marian Anderson performed at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Watson reports, "Todd Duncan opened doors for other black musicians when he appeared in I Pagliacci; and until that night, black singers of classical music had almost no chance of performing in major American opera houses and theaters."

In the same year he sang as Escamillio in Bizet's Carmen with the New York City Opera Company. One of Duncan's most memorable concerts was his rendition of the baritone part in Beethoven's Ninth Symphony with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in 1946.

Duncan appeared in a number of Broadway musicals and films, including The Sun Never Sets (London production, 1938); Cabin in the Sky (1940); revival of Porgy and Bess (1942–43); and Lost in the Stars (1949–50). His performance in Lost in the Stars won him the Donaldson and New York Drama Critics awards. He also appeared in the films Syncopation (1942) and Unchained (1955). In the movie Unchained Duncan introduced the song "Unchained Melody" for the first time. The song, which later became a rock and roll standard, earned an Academy Award nomination for Duncan.

Resumes Teaching Career

After a twenty-five-year career on Broadway, in films, and with more than two-thousand recitals in fifty-six countries, Duncan resumed his career as a teacher. He retired from Howard University in 1945 and opened his own voice studio teaching privately and giving periodic recitals. In 1978, the Washington Performing Arts Society presented his seventy-fifth birthday gala. Duncan died upstairs at his home on February 28, 1998. He taught hundreds of students over the years, and some musicians say they can recognize his students because they demonstrate his special method of singing.

Todd Duncan was inducted into the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame. Duncan's achievements in the world of classical music were highlighted in Kentucky after the former chair of the music department of Bethune-Cookman College in Florida went to Kentucky to visit the places she had written about in her dissertation on his life. After her visit, the Duncan Celebration Team was formed to revive his memory in the state of Kentucky.

In 2003, the theater in the Center for Rural Development paid a musical tribute to the life of Todd Duncan and raised over $1,500 toward the Dunbar High School Alumni Scholarship fund. Dunbar was the former all-black high school in Somerset, Kentucky where Duncan spent his early years. He was also awarded an NAACP award for his contribution to the theater (1945), the president of Haiti's Medal of Honor and Merit (1945), and the Donaldson and the Critics Awards for his performances in musicals (1950).



Altman, Susan. The Encyclopedia of African American Heritage. New York: Facts on File, Inc., 1997.

"Duncan, Robert Todd." In The African American Almanac. Eds. Jessie Carney Smith and Joseph M. Palmisano. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Gale Group, 2000.

"Duncan, Robert Todd." In International Library of Negro Life and History: Historical Negro Biographies. Ed. Wilhelmena S. Robinson. New York: Publishers Company, Inc., 1968.

Southern, Eileen. Biographical Dictionary of Afro-American and African Musicians. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1982.

―――――. The Music of Black Americans: A History. 3rd ed. New York: Norton, 1997.


"'Unchained': Todd Duncan makes return to screen in Hollywood film on honor prison." Ebony (November 1954): 107-10.


"Duncan, Todd." Encyclopedia of Popular Music, Muze UK, Ltd, 2005. http://www.keepmedia.com/pubs/ Muze (Accessed 22 November 2005).

Watson, Jerilyn. "People in America—March 3, 2002: Todd Duncan." Voice of America. http://www.voanews.com/specialenglish/archive/2002-03-01-2-1.cfm?CFID=18 (Accessed 7 November 2005).

                                  Mattie McHollin

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