Madame Lilian Evanti - D.C. Native
Annie Lillian Evans, who would later become the famed classical singer Lillian Evanti, was by many accounts the first African American to sing grand opera professionally anywhere in the world. She was born in Washington, D.C. into a prominent, historically significant family. The Evans family claimed a Revolutionary War soldier, two abolitionists who took part in the Harper’s Ferry Raid, and the first African-American United States Senator among their ancestors. Evanti’s own parents were well educated and accomplished; both dedicated their lives to education, her mother as a music teacher, her father, Wilson Evans, was a medical doctor and teacher in the city. And, he was the founder and principal of Washington, D.C.’s Armstrong High School.
After graduating from her father’s school, although gifted in music, in 1908 Lillian entered Miner Teachers College for the education of black elementary school teachers and briefly taught kindergarten. She gave up teaching to study music at Howard University. She graduated from Howard University in with a Bachelor's Degree in music. At her commencement in May 1917 she sang French, German, English as well as American songs that brought her national attention by the black press such as the New York Age (being a woman of color, she was not discovered by white media for over a decade after this performance). After completing a bachelor of music degree in 1917, Evanti married one of her professors, Roy W. Tibbs. At the suggestion of poet and editor Jessie Fauset, she combined Evans and Tibbs to form the more elegant “Evanti,” the name she would use professionally thereafter.
In 1925, Evanti moved to France in hopes of breaking into the European opera scene. During the next few years she performed with the Nice and Paris opera companies throughout Europe. She debuted in 1925 in Delibes's Lakmé at Nice, France. Although she was receiving praise in Europe, only black newspapers were picking up her success in America. In an article by The Chicago Defender (national edition) on Sept 26,1925, Evanti goes into detail about the unknown color prejudice she experienced in France after her debut. “Distinguished Parisians understand us “ says Madame Evanti “there is no such thing as color prejudice, especially among the upper classes.” The article then goes into a story of her making her first public appearance in a joint recital with a violinist at the home of the distinguished Salmon family “ I feel that Mme.Salmon understands very thoroughly the race question in America. She has made a special study of it and is very much interested in the general progress of the Negro.”
She remained in France until the outbreak of World War II, at which time she returned to the United States. She was well received by audiences in the United States, though she periodically faced racism in the opera community. In one instance, the director of the Metropolitan Opera invited Evanti to audition, but he was unable to convince racist board members to hire an African-American singer.
Evanti was one of the founders of the National Negro Opera Company, and one of its most popular performers. When she sang La Traviata with the company in New York, the interest was so great that additional shows had to be arranged to accommodate the demand for tickets. For this occasion, Evanti translated the opera, which she had performed many times in French and Italian, into English. When the company took the show to Evanti’s hometown, her interpretation of Violetta was highly praised: “She is a coloratura whose vocal gifts and attainments include all the resources of the lyric soprano. Her interpretation was, in consequence, both brilliant and sympathetic.”
In 1943, she performed with the Watergate Theater barge on the Potomac River. In 1944, she appeared at The Town Hall (New York City). She received acclaim as Violetta in Verdi's La traviata as produced by the National Negro Opera Company in 1945. In an article by The Chicago Defender (National edition) on August 14, 1943 “Miss Evanti expressed a desire to see more of her race become interested in opera. She explained that “La Traviata” is offering her an opportunity to translate the role of Violetta in English, in order that a better understanding will be afforded those witnessing the performance.”
Lillian continued to give concerts and recitals all over the country and in the 1940’s began to spend more time composing. In 1942 Evanti visited notorious blues composer W.C Handy and thus began a musical relationship between composer and publisher. The Handy Brothers published Lillian’s “The Mighty Rapture”, “The Twenty-third Psalm”, “Thank You Again and Again”, “Speak to Him Thou”, and “High Flight”. Eventually she published her own music as owner and founder of the Columbia Music Bureau in Washington.
In 1963, she walked with her friend Alma Thomas in the March on Washington. She is also a member of Zeta Phi Beta sorority.
In the post World War II era her life changed drastically when her husband, mother and brother died all within five years of each other. Her grief- and the decline of professional demands-gave Lillian the chance to grow closer with her son, his wife and her two grandchildren. Although she was no longer singing on grand opera stages, Evanti became involved in the music life within the D.C community and brought her love and passion to the “Evanti Chorale”. Lillian's prologue to her unpublished autobiography can be found at the Center for Black Music Research at Columbia College in ChicagoEvanti, who spoke (and sang) five languages, was a particularly versatile singer. She was known for her dynamic performances and her commanding presence on stage.
They lived at 1910 Vermont Avenue in the Shaw Neighborhood of Northwest, Washington, D.C., which is now known as the Evans-Tibbs House and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. They had a grandson, Thurlow E. Tibbs, Jr, born 1952.