Todd Duncan: Pathbreaking Opera Singer

How convenient for us that the birthday of African American singer and actor Todd Duncan (1903-1998) falls in the middle of Black History Month (and on Lincoln’s birthday, no less). Duncan had scarcely begun his professional career when his place was assured in the history books. Graduating with an M.A. from Columbia, the Kentucky native had debuted with the all-black Aeolian Opera in Cavalleria rusticana in 1934. Straightaway George Gershwin selected him for the role of Porgy in the original production of Porgy and Bess (1935). Duncan was to reprise the role in revivals in 1942 and 1943 and to star also in the original productions of Cabin in the Sky (1940), and Lost in the Stars (1949-50). In 1938, he was in the West End show The Sun Never Sets with Adelaide Hall, and Stewart Granger, Edna Best, and Leslie Banks. In 1945 he became the first African American to appear with a major opera opera company, and the first to lead an integrated cast, when he appeared in New York City Opera’s productions of Pagliacci and Carmen. 

Duncan appeared in only two films: Syncopation (1942), with Adolphe Menjou, Jackie Cooper, Bonita Granville, Connee Boswell, Robert Benchley, and Walter Catlett; and the B movie Unchained (1955), with Chester Morris, Barbara Hale, and football player Elroy “Crazylegs” Hirsch, in which he debuted the title song, better known as “Unchained Melody”, later popularized by the Righteous Brothers a decade later. When not performing himself, Duncan taught voice production to other singers.