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Fri, 09.02.1910

Dorothy Maynor, beautiful voice, generous heart

Dorothy Maynor

*Dorothy Leigh Maynor was born on this date in 1910. She was an African American opera singer and educator.

From Norfolk, Virginia, her home was constantly filled with music. Her sister played piano and young Dorothy sang as a child in her father's church. At the age of 14, she enrolled in the college-preparatory program at Hampton Institute (now Hampton University) and began singing in its choir. R. Nathaniel Dett, the school's famed chorus-master, noticed her talent and encouraged her to become a soloist. After her graduation from Hampton in 1933, Maynor attended Westminster Choir College in Princeton, New Jersey. In 1936, she moved to New York to study privately and led a church choir in Brooklyn.

At the 1939 Berkshire Festival in Tanglewood, Massachusetts, she sang for Serge Koussevitzky, conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. He arranged for her to give a performance at a picnic, which led to a rave review in The New York Times. "Her voice is a miracle," the conductor declared, "a musical revelation that the world must hear." Most of the critics echoed Koussevitzky's comments after Maynor's New York debut in November 1939, and she was soon "a fixture in the selected group of Black artists that included Marian Anderson, Roland Hayes and Paul Robeson. Maynor remained a concert artist though in her day, few opera companies would employ a black singer. Additionally, her appearance, a plump, angelic figure standing less than five feet tall, also worked against her being cast in the romantic lead roles usually sung by sopranos. She nonetheless learned arias from dozens of operas and featured them in her concerts. One, Depuis le jour, from Charpentier's "Louise," became her signature piece, guaranteed to provoke standing ovations.

At the peak of her career, Maynor performed with most of the major American orchestra and was one of the most sought-after and highly paid singers in the concert world. Her recordings were bestsellers and she was regularly heard on popular radio shows. In 1942, Maynor married the Rev. Shelby Rooks, pastor of St. James Presbyterian Church in Harlem. When her husband became ill, she retired from performing to care for him and became active in church affairs. She founded a school for young Black artists. The Harlem School of the Arts began in 1963 with Maynor teaching piano to 12 youngsters in a church annex. By 1979, when she retired from direction of the school, it occupied a $2 million, 37,000-square-foot facility and enrolled more than 1,000 students in college preparatory programs in performing and visual arts.

In 1975, Maynor, never able to sing at New York's Metropolitan Opera, became the first African-American to join its board of directors. She spent her last years out of the limelight, living with her husband in a small town in Pennsylvania. Dorothy Maynor died in 1996.

Reference:

City of Norfolk
810 Union Street,
Norfolk, VA. 23510
757-664-4000

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