• Fri. Oct 22nd, 2021

Carmen Balthrop, Soprano Known for Joplin Opera Role, Dies at 73

Sep 22, 2021

The soprano Carmen Balthrop made her Metropolitan Opera debut on April 6, 1977. Thirteen days later she made an entirely different sort of debut, in a hearing room of the United States Senate.

That day Ms. Balthrop, still early in a career that would take her to opera and concert stages all over the world, was one of a number of people testifying at a meeting of a Senate Appropriations subcommittee in support of funding for the arts.

It was a dreary and underattended meeting, with Senator Mark O. Hatfield, Republican of Oregon and the subcommittee chairman, the only member of the panel present. Dreary, that is, until Senator Hatfield, skeptical of the funding request, challenged Ms. Balthrop’s assertion that opera singers were a disciplined and hard-working lot.

“He said, ‘Come on, are you really that disciplined?’” she told Knight-Ridder afterward. “And he said he’d like to hear some of the results. I said, ‘Why, certainly.’”

She stood up and sang “Signore, ascolta” from Puccini’s “Turandot.”

“He was delighted and declared a recess,” she said, “and later on, we got the money.”

Ms. Balthrop, a noted Black star when opera was still early in its efforts to become more diverse, died on Sept. 5 at her home in Mitchellville, Md. She was 73.

Her husband, Patrick A. Delaney, said the cause was cancer.

Two years before that impromptu Senate performance, Ms. Balthrop’s career took off after she wowed audiences at the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions in April 1975, winning that competition. During the finals, she had sung that same “Turandot” excerpt, as well as “Che sento? O Dio!” from Handel’s “Julius Caesar,” performances that had been broadcast live on National Public Radio.

“The announcement of Miss Balthrop’s victory brought cheers from the audience, which had clearly approved of her singing,” The New York Times reported.

Later that year she landed perhaps her most prominent role, the title character in “Treemonisha,” Scott Joplin’s folk opera about an 18-year-old Black girl who is trying to lead her people to a better life. The opera, written before World War I, was not produced in Joplin’s lifetime, but in 1972 a version of it was staged in Atlanta, and three years later the Houston Grand Opera mounted a production with Ms. Balthrop in the lead.

The opera was performed in Houston seven times as part of a free opera series, with thousands attending. At the final performance, the opera’s finale, “A Real Slow Drag,” was reprised three times for the enthusiastic crowd.

That production moved to Broadway. At the time, Elizabeth McCann was managing director of Nederlander Productions, which brought the show to New York. (Ms. McCann died this month.) She told The Times that the ability of Ms. Balthrop, who was then 27, to portray a teenager was a large part of the reason.

“Carmen Balthrop, who plays the title role, is just tremendous,” she said. “The part needs an enchanting and innocent girl with strength. How often do you get a combination like that?”

Carmen Arlene Balthrop was born on May 14, 1948, in Washington. Her father, John, worked in the printing office of the Department of Justice, and her mother, Clementine (Jordan) Balthrop, was a homemaker.

As Ms. Balthrop often told the story, she set her career goal early — when she was 8. Her father had a hobby: In the basement of the family home, he would tinker with radios and televisions. She had an assigned Saturday chore: to clean the house while her mother went to the market.

“One Saturday I was running the vacuum cleaner, and I turned it off because I heard something very unusual coming from the basement,” where her father was testing a radio and speakers, she told “The Opera Diva Series,” a web interview program, in 2011.

“I went to the top of the steps and I called out,” she recalled. “I said, ‘Daddy, what’s that?’ He said, ‘That’s opera.’”

Specifically, it was the voice of Leontyne Price, the groundbreaking Black soprano.

“Something was awakened in me,” Ms. Balthrop said, “and I began from that moment on to try to re-create that sound myself.”

She graduated from Theodore Roosevelt High School in Washington in 1967 and earned a bachelor’s degree at the University of Maryland in 1971. The next year she received a master’s degree in music at the Catholic University of America.

Her Met debut in 1977 was in “Die Zauberflöte,” in which she sang the role of Pamina. She performed with numerous other opera companies and symphonies, including Washington Opera, Deutsche Oper of Berlin and Opera Columbus in Ohio, where in 1999 she performed the title role in the world premiere of “Vanqui,” an opera about the travels of the souls of two slaves composed by Leslie Burrs and with a libretto by John A. Williams.

Ms. Balthrop began a career as a teacher at the University of Maryland in 1985. She also filled administrative roles there, including coordinator of the voice and opera division.

A marriage to Dorceal Duckens ended in divorce. In addition to Mr. Delaney, whom she married in 1985, Ms. Balthrop is survived by a daughter from her first marriage, Nicole Mosley; her daughter with Mr. Delaney, Camille Delaney-McNeil; and three grandchildren.

In a blog entry on the University of Maryland website, Ms. Balthrop once wrote of being surprised by Ms. Price, who turned up unexpectedly at a rehearsal when Ms. Balthrop was preparing to perform in San Francisco.

“There was no one in the hall,” she wrote of their encounter. “I was standing there with the voice that inspired me to sing. Every time I think about it, I just well up, because I don’t think people get to meet their idols very often.”

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