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Soprano who broke color barrier has died

Helen L. Phillips sang in handful of performances at Met
/ Source: The Associated Press

Helen L. Phillips, a soprano who broke the color barrier at the Metropolitan Opera seven years before Marian Anderson’s historic debut, has died at 86.

Phillips died of heart failure July 27 at New York’s Isabella Geriatric Center, her nurse there said.

Although the New York opera house had no formal policy barring singers of any race from appearing on its stage, Phillips became the first black chorister when she was hired as an extra for the 1947-48 season, said Met archivist Jeff McMillan.

She sang only a handful of performances, he said. In 1955, Anderson became the first black singer to perform a major role at the Met. Anderson, a contralto, portrayed Ulrica in Verdi’s “A Masked Ball.”

A native of St. Louis who graduated from Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Phillips went on to build a career as a soloist in the early 1950s. She sang at Manhattan’s Town Hall in 1953, and with orchestras in Madrid, Spain, and St. Louis, where she also sang with the opera company.

In 1954, Phillips sang the part of Queenie in a production of “Show Boat” at New York’s City Center.

She also performed more than 500 times as part of a State Department entertainment tour of Austria and West Germany.

Phillips later became a schoolteacher and vocal coach.

The first black singer to sign a full-time contract with the Met chorus was Elinor Harper, who made her debut in 1962.