Past Times

Wilmington soprano was an opera pioneer

Caterina Jarboro talks to well-wishers during a visit to Wilmington in the early 1980s.
Caterina Jarboro talks to well-wishers during a visit to Wilmington in the early 1980s. Courtesy of New Hanover County Public Library

Born Katherine Yarborough in Wilmington, soprano Caterina Jarboro went on to become the first black female to have a starring role with a white opera company in the United States. In 1933, the Associated Press interviewed the singer as she prepared to perform at the New York Hippodrome.

Caterina Jarboro, of Wilmington, N.C., stepped on the stage of the Hippodrome tonight to be the first Negro prima donna of American Grand Opera.

“Nervous?” she repeated today. “There’s too much to lose to be nervous. There are too many eyes on me. Besides, my teachers will be waiting for me to make good.”

She has had many teachers in America and abroad for voice and piano, but the teachers to whom she referred were the Franciscan sisters at St. Thomas’ Catholic school in Wilmington. They educated her from kindergarten to high school and encouraged her to cultivate her voice.

Born on July 24, 1903, her first musical instruction came form Nellie Chestnut Taylor, of Wilmington. It was carried on by the Franciscan sisters until 1916, when she went to Brooklyn to live with an aunt.

After her aunt’s death in 1921 she joined the ensemble of “Shuffle Along,” a Broadway hit, and used her salary to pay for voice and piano lessons. Later she was in “Running Wild” and in the spring of 1926 she withdrew her savings and journeyed to Paris.

She studied there until 1928, and began to attract attention for her singing in French churches, in Latin.

After two years of study in Italy and under Nino Campinno she made her debut in Aida at the Puccini theater in May 1930.

Throughout her career, she said, she has paid her own way. She thinks too many incipient artists expect the world to drop aid “in their laps.”

“I want to be an example,” she said, “of a person who works first and achieves next.”

Her three brothers and sisters will be at the Hippodrome to hear her tonight, but she will not allow them to visit her backstage.

She said she never has been and never intends to be married, in commenting on printed reports that she was married. A little later she altered this statement to:

“Well, if I could find the right type of man – one who would be interested in studying with me, then maybe yes.” The N&O July 23, 1933

In November 1934, Jarboro received an “enthusiastic reception” at Memorial Auditorium as she performed her first recital in Raleigh. She retired in 1955 and made her home in Manhattan, where she died in 1986. In 1999, she was given a star on the Wilmington Walk of Fame.

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