Duncan, Todd

Variant names
Birth 1903-02-12
Death 1998-02-28

Biographical notes:

Robert Todd Duncan was born February 12, 1903, in Danville, Kentucky to John and Lettie Duncan. Music was a part of his life from an early age. His mother, a music teacher, began giving him piano lessons when he was five. Duncan credited the discovery of his vocal talent to a later piano teacher and it eventually replaced piano as his instrument of choice. At the age of 17, Duncan attended a Roland Hayes concert in Louisville, Kentucky. According to Duncan, he was so moved by the performance that he decided to pursue a vocal career. He attended high school at Simmons State University and earned his bachelor's degree from Butler University in 1925 and a M.A. from Columbia University Teacher's College in 1930. Following graduation, he moved to Washington, D.C. in 1931 to begin teaching music at Howard University. In 1934, he married Gladys Jackson, a Washington, D.C. schoolteacher.

Duncan received an invitation from George Gershwin in 1935 to audition for the American folk opera Gershwin was writing called Porgy and Bess. Duncan was initially unsure he wanted to be involved as he preferred classical singing and he considered Gershwin to be something of a "Tin Pan Alley" composer. The audition was successful and Duncan, moved by the music and the story, signed on for the opera. It opened in 1935 and ran for 124 shows. Porgy was the role Duncan became best known for and he performed the role over 1800 times between the original 1935 run and its 1942-1944 revival. It was during the 1942-1944 run that Duncan famously led the cast's refusal to perform at the National Theatre in Washington, D.C. because the audience was to be segregated with African-Americans regulated to balcony seating. The theatre and managers threatened to sue for contract negation if the actors did not perform but ultimately the protest was successful. The performance was desegregated, although permanent desegregation at the theatre did not occurs until the mid-1950s.

His further acting productions include two films, Syncopation in 1941 and Unchained in 1955; for which the song Unchained Melody was originally produced. Duncan continued to perform on the stage as well and his other productions include The Sun Never Sets (1938) in London, Cabin in the Sky (1944), Lost in the Stars (1950), and Job (1972).

Duncan broke the race barrier in 1945 when he became the first African-American performer to perform at the Metropolitan Opera House. His role was that of Tonio in the opera I Pagliacci ; a traditionally Caucasian role. Duncan performed with the New York City Opera in several operas. Duncan also had a successful concert career and toured from 1940 until his retirement in 1965. During his 25 year career, he visited more than 850 U.S. cities and over 50 countries on European, South American, and Australian tours. A longtime citizen of Washington, D.C., Duncan performed at the White House for President Eisenhower and President Roosevelt. He was a featured performer at Lyndon Johnson's Inaugural Concert in 1965.

In 1964, Duncan semi-retired, and began giving full-time private vocal lessons. He was known for his fundamental technique and for honing the individual talents of his students rather than teaching rigid vocal theory and performance. Duncan was an active member of the community and the arts. He served as the first president of the Washington Performing Arts Society from 1967 to 1970. Washingtonian Magazine named him Washingtonian of the year in 1977. Duncan continued to give lessons well into his nineties. He passed away in Washington, DC on February 28, 1998.

From the guide to the Todd Duncan papers, 1912-1998, 1935-1973, (Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan)

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