She performed in opera performances as a mezzo-soprano on stages around the world to standing ovations. She was part of the first generation of Black opera singers, along with Marian Anderson to achieve wide success, breaking down racial barriers with her voice. She collaborated with the foremost American composers of her generation: Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland, Ned Rorem, and Virgil Thomson, among others. And it all began in the Mahoning Valley on the streets of Campbell.
She was born on March 17, 1927 to James and Dora Catherine Mitchell Allen. Her father, a graduate of Tuskegee Institute, had trained to be a math teacher but because of prejudice, could not find work. He came north and found work at Sheet & Tube. Her mother added to the family income by taking in laundry. She grew up in a Greek and Sicilian neighborhood and it was her she had her first exposure to opera. In 1999, she told The New York Times, “On Saturday, walking down the street, you could hear the Met broadcasts coming from the windows of everybody’s house. No one told them that opera and the arts were not for them, not for poor people, just for rich snobs.”
All seemed to be going well until her mother died of lung cancer when she was twelve. The loss resulted in her father sinking into depression, drinking heavily. Betty tried to keep up the house while becoming spelling bee champion at Gordon Ave. School for two years. One day, fed up with it all, she went to Judge Ford Agey and asked to have a real home like other children. The best that could be done at the time was a series of foster homes, some abusive.
At age 16, she moved into the YWCA, supporting herself by cleaning houses while finishing high school at The Rayen School in the top half of her class, excelling in Latin and German. A teacher, Dorothy Seeger, befriended her and helped her get a scholarship to attend Wilberforce College. One of her classmates was Leontyne Price. Her German teacher, Theodor Heimann, a former opera tenor, encouraged her to sing. She went from there on scholarship to Hartford School of Music in Connecticut.
In 1950, while studying at Tanglewood, she came to the attention of Leonard Bernstein who chose her to be the mezzo-soprano soloist in his Symphony No. 1, the “Jeremiah” Symphony. She debuted in her first opera the following year, Virgil Thomson’s Four Saints in Three Acts. In 1952, she won the Marian Anderson Award, a singing competition in Philadelphia. A series of opera roles followed throughout the 1950’s: Tin Pan Alley, Prince Orlofsky in Die Fledermaus, Queenie in Showboat with the New York City Opera among others. She made her recital hall debut in 1958 at Town Hall in New York City, performing a program that included Brahms and Faure.
She appeared with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic throughout the 1960’s and 1970’s. She performed on opera stages in New York, Boston, Santa Fe, San Francisco, Washington, Canada, Buenos Aires and Mexico City as well as concert performances in France, Italy, and North Africa. Two of her standout performances were as Jocasta in Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex with the Santa Fe Opera in 1964 and as Monisha in Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha with the Houston Grand Opera in 1975.
By the 1980’s she stopped singing, except for a handful of concerts, because of lung problems, which she attributed to growing up near the mills in Campbell. She devoted herself to vocal instruction as executive director of the Harlem School of the Arts, as well as serving on the faculty of the Manhattan School of Music, and adjudicated many vocal competitions. She died on June 22, 2009 in Valhalla, New York of complications of kidney disease at age 82.
Learning about Betty Allen’s story, I’m struck by both her personal drive, reflected in going to a Youngstown judge seeking a better home, supporting herself from age 16, and the influences of others from those Campbell neighbors who thought opera was for everyone to a high school teacher at The Rayen School who became a friend and mentor to a college professor who persuaded Betty to sing. Obviously, she used all her opportunities to hone her talents while benefiting from a once in a lifetime opportunity to perform works of Leonard Bernstein. Hers is yet another amazing Mahoning Valley story.
To give you an idea of the beauty and richness of her voice, I found this recording of her singing several classic spirituals.
To read other posts in the Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown series, just click “On Youngstown.” Enjoy!