Williams, Denise 1958–
Denise Williams 1958–
Classical vocalist, educator
Antiguan-born Canadian soprano Denise Williams has been a musical bridge-builder. Along with other classical singers of African descent, Williams has worked to fuse the classical vocal tradition with the rich heritage of black music in the Western Hemisphere—spirituals, jazz, and in her case the folk music of her native Caribbean. Beyond that effort, however, Williams has participated in a wide variety of musical projects over her two-decade career. She became noted for a series of concerts exploring links in music and in wider experiences between the black and Jewish communities.
Williams was born in St. John’s, Antigua’s capital, on August 13, 1958, ten years to the day after African-American soprano Kathleen Battle, who became an important mentor to Williams. Her parents came to Canada when she was young; a relative had already settled in New York, and as part of the first big wave of Caribbean immigration to North America, the family made a successful transition to life in Canada. Williams was raised in the Anglican church with its sumptuous traditions of choral and vocal music. “My first love was oratorio [a semi-dramatic genre of classical religious music]—singing in front of an orchestra and singing with a choir,” Williams told Contemporary Black Biography (CBB).
Already an accomplished singer in high school, Williams attracted the attention of leading Toronto voice teachers. She won a prize that helped her pursue vocal studies at the University of Toronto but faced familial pressure to pursue a medical career, and she graduated with a bachelor of science degree in human physiology in 1981. After Williams made the decision to pursue a vocal career several years later, her father told her of a succession of her ancestors who had shown musical talent in the past, many of whom she hadn’t known about.
Juggling family and career responsibilities (she is a mother of two), Williams earned a second degree, this one in vocal performance, at Toronto’s Royal Conservatory of Music in 1991. Teachers advised her to add African-American spirituals to her recital programs, but Williams, who had been raised with traditional Anglo-Canadian church music, felt little affinity for them at first. “I was such a rebel,” she told CBB. “I thought yeah, right, just because Marian Anderson and Leontyne Price, and Barbara Hendricks, and Battle and [Jessye] Norman—just because they did it, I should do it, too? No, no, no; I’m different.”
After a series of personal trials that included the deaths of her parents and psychological abuse from her husband that led eventually to a divorce, Williams began to see things differently. Working through personal issues, Williams also immersed herself more deeply in black music. “I tied it all together, the music, the studying, the suffering,” Williams told CBB. Spirituals became so important to her musical personality that a New York operatic coach she had consulted advised her to begin each practice session with a spiritual as a way of infusing greater emotional power into her performances of classical arias.
At a Glance…
Born on August 13, 1958, in St. John’s, Antigua; divorced; two children. Education: University of Toronto, BS in human physiology, 1981; Royal Conservatory of Music, Toronto, ARCT degree in singing performance, 1991; teaching certificate in early childhood music education. Religion: Anglican.
Career: Recitalist and operatic soprano, early 1990s–; Toronto Jewish Folk Choir, soloist, 1990s; performed in synagogues, 1996; performed on CBC radio program Music Around Us, 1990s; Nathaniel Dett Chorale, soloist with Kathleen Battle, 1999; Toronto Symphony Orchestra, soloist, 2000s; Toronto concert series, soloist, 2000-01; African Sanctus, soloist, 2003.
Memberships: Board of Examiners, Royal Conservatory of Music.
Selected awards: Jack Overhold Prize, University of Toronto Faculty of Music; Four Seasons Festival Award, Jackman Foundation; Margaret Gardiner Laidman Scholarship for Voice, Royal Conservatory of Music.
Addresses: Agent —Ann Summers International, Box 188 Station A, Toronto M5W 1B2, Canada.
For several years, Williams lived the life of a young classical singer in Toronto, giving voice lessons and taking on paying singing engagements where she could find them. One of those engagements was a solo slot with the Toronto Jewish Folk Choir, an ensemble with a history of political activism that decades earlier had featured the legendary but controversial African-American singer Paul Robeson as a soloist. Williams initially took the job for financial reasons, but as she learned more about traditional Jewish music she found herself thinking about the similarities between the religious experiences of African-descended and Jewish peoples. In both musical traditions, ideas of bondage and freedom, of displacement and a return home, ran deep.
Williams worked, beginning in 1993, with a Jewish accompanist and vocal coach, Royal Conservatory faculty member Brahm Goldhammer, and the two found that they shared many of the same ideas. What spurred them to action was the flaring of black-Jewish tensions occasioned by the Canadian premiere of a revival of the classic U.S. musical Show Boat, a 1920s work with music composed by Jewish-American songwriter Jerome Kern; the show reflected the stereotypes of its day, and its producers were accused of racism by Canadian protesters. Hoping to do their part in healing the divide, Williams and Goldhammer put together a varied recital of music by black and Jewish composers, pointing to the commonalities between the two traditions.
The event was unique at the time. “How many events in Toronto reflect a half-black, half-Jewish sensibility? We’re probably the only thing …” Goldhammer told Canadian Jewish News. But the pair experienced success with the concert program, performing it at prestigious venues such as the Ford Center and the Glenn Gould Studio. Williams delved deeper into Jewish music, studying Yiddish and impressing audiences during a series of 1996 performances in synagogues with her command of the language. She performed in a “Three Sopranos”-type concert to raise money for a local Jewish community center, and finally she assembled a program of her own that melded black and Jewish influences, Walk Together Children, which she performed on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s Music Around Us program and later released as a compact disc.
In the meantime, Williams was active on various other fronts. She appeared on the soundtrack of the film Pavilion of Women, which was set in China and incorporated musical influences from that culture. She performed solos with the Toronto Men’s Chorus. She produced innovative operatic productions for (and starring) young people, including a version of the Christmastime classic Amahl and the Night Visitors, and she earned a teaching certificate in early childhood music education and conducted workshops for music teachers on the roles music plays in psychological development. Williams judged vocal competitions and became a member of the Royal Conservatory’s board of music examiners.
Most importantly, her operatic career developed with a series of appearances in local productions, and she evolved into what is known as a coloratura soprano—a singer with a wide vocal range specializing in sprightly comic parts such as the roles for young women in the operas of Mozart. In this evolution Williams was influenced by Kathleen Battle, with whom she appeared as a soloist with the Nathaniel Dett Chorale in 1999. Those concerts, along with Battle’s praise for and encouragement of her abilities, raised Williams’s profile, and she garnered appearances at some of Canada’s top classical venues.
She was a featured soloist (along with Battle) in a Toronto Symphony Orchestra program devoted to music on African-American themes, sang with the Toronto Sinfonietta and other groups, and performed a new recital program, Music in a Time of Conflict, at Toronto’s Roy Thomson Hall. That program compared the music of German composers Richard Strauss and Kurt Weill, examining the distinct influences in the Jewish-born Weill’s work. Capable of concerts that blended classical, jazz, and popular styles, Williams fit easily into the “crossover” trend that appeared as classical presenters sought new audiences.
Known for her recital performances that fused diverse musical traditions under the umbrella label “Sophisticated Soul” (a phrase she registered as a trademark), Williams planned an even more unusual merging of styles as part of a group called Classical Steel that joined the classics to the music of the Caribbean steel pan ensemble. She released several CDs in addition to Walk Together Children: Forth in Thy Name was a collection of hymns, and on Night Lights Williams performed lullabies from around the world, accompanied by piano, harp, and African drums. In 2003 Williams appeared in the United States, in a series of four Pennsylvania performances of a work called African Sanctus, by composer David Fanshawe. Her career seemed to be growing in scope, ambition, and idealism.
Forth in Thy Name.
Walk Together Children.
Canadian Jewish News, February 15, 1996, p. 34.
Toronto Star, May 31, 1997, p. A8.
Toronto Sun, June 6, 1995, p. 51.
“Conrad Popo—Center Stage,” Tracksounds, www.tracksounds.com/reviews/pavilionwomen.htm (June 9, 2003).
“Denise Williams, Soprano,” Ann Summers International, www.sumarts.com/roster/williams.htm (June 9, 2003).
Additional information for this profile was obtained from an interview with Contemporary Black Biography on June 13, 2003.
—James M. Manheim
"Williams, Denise 1958–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (March 16, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/williams-denise-1958
"Williams, Denise 1958–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Retrieved March 16, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/williams-denise-1958
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