Phillips, Helen L.
Helen L. Phillips
Opera singer, teacher
During the 1940s and 1950s Helen L. Phillips, a lyric-dramatic soprano, broke the color barrier at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City and at musical events elsewhere in the United States and abroad. She became the first black American to be hired by the Metropolitan Opera when she sang five performances of Cavalleria Rusticana during the Met's 1947-48 season. Phillips went on to a successful solo career that included tours of Austria and Germany for the U.S. State Department, as well as concert performances throughout the United States, Europe, Africa, and South America during the 1950s. Phillips drew international acclaim for her interpretations of black spirituals and German lieder.
Helen L. Phillips was born in 1919 and raised on Cottage Avenue in St. Louis, Missouri. Her father, the Reverend James Phillips, was a Baptist minister in neighboring Edwardsville, Illinois, and her mother, Julia Phillips, worked as a laundress. In 2005 Mary Tabor Engel, Phillips's last vocal student as well as a former reporter for the New York Times, Boston Globe, and Christian Science Monitor, told John M. McGuire of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that John and Ruth Haskell and Ruth Haskell's brother, Robert Hanna, all of St. Louis, were primarily responsible for launching Phillips's career: "They knew Helen because her mother was Haskell's laundress, and Helen's sister, Lettie May Boys, was their cook."
Phillips's first public notice came at the age of 14 when she was chosen as a soloist for the dedication of Kiel Auditorium in St. Louis. At Sumner High School in St. Louis, Phillips was encouraged by the music director Wirt Waltor. She graduated from Lincoln University, a historically black school in Jefferson City, Missouri. She later pursued graduate studies in sociology and music at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. Although raised as a Baptist, as an adult Phillips became a Christian Scientist.
Seven years before Marian Anderson's historic debut with the Metropolitan Opera in the role of Ulrica in Verdi's A Masked Ball in January of 1955, Phillips broke the Met's unofficial color barrier for opera singers. She later recalled that her hiring was an apparent accident. The stage manager had called her agent and requested his best soprano because several members of the Met's chorus were absent. When Phillips arrived at the Met, the manager looked twice and then told her to hurry on backstage. Phillips was quoted in the New York Times as having told friends, "I just slipped in. Then after the performance, I slipped back out again." From December of 1947 through February of 1948 Phillips sang in the chorus for five performances of Pietro Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana. Although a troupe of black dancers had performed with the Met in 1933, Phillips was the first black chorister to perform with the opera. In 1962 Elinor Harper became the first black singer to sign a full-time contract with the Met chorus.
Phillips was fluent in German and, following World War II, she performed more than 500 concerts over a three-year period as part of a U.S. State Department tour of Austria and the former West Germany. During the 1940s and 1950s Phillips was the first black soloist to perform with Dr. Edwin Franko Goldman's Band, singing in summer concerts in Central Park in New York City. An article about Phillips in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1950 described her as a singer of the same stature as Marian Anderson and Todd Duncan.
Phillips embarked on a successful solo career during the 1950s. She debuted at Manhattan's Town Hall in 1953 and performed as a soloist with a symphony orchestra in Madrid, Spain. In 1954 she sang the part of Queenie in a production of Show Boat at New York's City Center. In 1955 she soloed with the St. Louis Symphony at Kiel Opera House. She also sang with the St. Louis Opera.
In a St. Louis Post-Dispatch article from 1955 she recounted traveling on the Orient Express railroad with her accompanist Richard Chamberlain. Two Russian soldiers passed by: "Noticing that we were Negroes, they entered [our compartment] and started deriding the United States and talking about the plight of Negroes in this country. During the course of the conversation, one took my glasses and refused to give them back. Then he tried to get fresh, and I slapped him good and hard."
Phillips never married. She later became a school teacher and, for the last 30 years of her life, worked as a voice teacher and vocal coach in New York City. Phillips died of heart failure on July 27, 2005, at the Isabella Geriatric Center in New York City. She left no immediate survivors. She was buried alongside her parents in Valhalla Cemetery in north St. Louis County. Engel told the Post-Dispatch: "Helen very quietly broke through racial barriers at a time when it was difficult for blacks to do so…When she went to a nursing home in Manhattan's Washington Heights, I would go see her, and she had pictures of her mother and father, an American flag and George W. Bush. She was an ardent Republican and a very genuine, spirited person. But she was feisty."
At a Glance …
Born Helen L. Phillips in 1919 in St. Louis, MO; died on July 27, 2005, in New York City. Education: Lincoln University, BA; Fisk University, graduate studies in music and sociology. Religion: Christian Scientist. Politics: Republican.
Career: Singer, Metropolitan Opera chorus, 1947-48; U.S. State Department, concert tour of Austria and Germany, late 1940s; soloist with Dr. Edwin Franko Goldman's Band, New York City, 1940s-50s; Town Hall, New York City, debut, 1953; City Center, New York City, "Queenie" in Show Boat, 1954; St. Louis Symphony, soloist, 1955; symphony orchestra, Madrid, Spain, soloist; New York City, school teacher, voice teacher, vocal coach, 1960-2000(?).
Los Angeles Times, August 9, 2005, B11.
New York Times, August 12, 2005, p. A17.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 9, 2005, p. B1.
Washington Post, August 15, 2005, p. B5.
"News & Notes: Helen Phillips, First Black Soprano at the Met," National Public Radio, August 10, 2005, www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4793728 (August 16, 2007).
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