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November 15, 2021

MSM’s Alexa Smith receives 2022 Sphinx Venture Fund award to develop a new voice competition with MSM and New York City Opera for Black and Latinx emerging singers

The $97.5K grant is awarded to Alexa Smith, Manhattan School of Music Chief of Staff and Assistant Vice President for Special Initiatives, who will develop the Duncan-Williams Voice Competition with partners MSM and New York City Opera (NYCO)

“We at MSM are absolutely thrilled to be launching this important initiative with New York City Opera,” says Alexa. “This will provide a much-needed platform and amplification for highly talented Black and Latinx performers, giving them a big assist as they work to launch their careers.”

The Sphinx Organization is a social justice group dedicated to transforming lives through the power of diversity in the arts. The Sphinx Venture Fund was launched in 2020 with initiatives designed to solve a challenge or an issue related to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in classical music.

About the Duncan-Williams Voice Competition

The new competition will have no entry fee and will offer monetary audition support to successful applicants to ensure that financial barriers are removed for participating entrants.

The competition will award cash prizes, performance contracts with NYCO, and mentorship. It will have two divisions: a Young Artist Division for ages 18-24, and a Professional Division for ages 25-40.

Finalists will perform at a competition culmination concert at MSM’s 626-seat Neidorff-Karpati Hall that will be open to the public with competition performances reaching a global audience using MSM’s Orto Center livestreaming capabilities.

About Todd Duncan and Camilla Williams

The competition is named for barrier-breaking Black opera singers baritone Todd Duncan (1903-1998) and soprano Camilla Williams (1919-2012) who both made history at New York City Opera in the 1940s.

In 1945 Todd Duncan was the first African American to sing with a major US opera company when he performed the role of Tonio in Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci with New York City Opera, the only person of color in an all-white cast.

Todd Duncan

Camilla Williams was the first African American to receive a regular contract with a major American opera company, making her debut with New York City Opera in 1946 in the title role of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. Her performance was hailed by The New York Times as “an instant and pronounced success.” During her time at NYCO she performed Nedda in Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, Mimi in Puccini’s La bohème, Marguerite in Gounod’s Faust, Micaëla in Bizet’s Carmen, and the title role in Verdi’s Aida.


Camilla Williams (left in photo)

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