Communique: Opera Wilmington Explores Caterina Jarboro, Wilmington's First Opera Diva

Feb 21, 2018


Opera Wilmington presents Celebrating Caterina Jarboro: Wilmington's First Operatic Diva. Free symposium sessions begin Friday morning and continue Saturday, with a performance in Beckwith Recital Hall on Friday evening at 7:30 pm. 

Caterina Jarboro (who changed her name from Katherine Yarborough when she went to Italy) is not only Wilmington's first Diva--she is the first black American to perform with an all-white opera company.

Tickets are not required for the symposium sessions-which include historical conversations about Jarboro, her repertoire, and racial equality in American opera-but a ticket is required for Friday's performance. Soprano Jameesa Yarborough (who may be a relative of Caterina) and Marva Robinson will be joined by the Williston Alumni Choir and more for the performance. Find tickets at the bottom of this page

Listen to Opera Wilmington Artistic Director Nancy King and Soprano Tori Thomas above; see our extended conversation below.

Tori Thomas (L) and Nancy King
Credit WHQR/gg

Nancy:   This is our third symposium. The first year we based it on our production of Cosi fan tutte and in the second year we decided to do it on Carmen because that was our production for the summer and this year it's a bit of a departure because, even though we've officially announced Die Fledermaus as our production for next summer, we thought it was important to highlight Wilmington's first diva, Caterina Jarboro. So the whole symposium is focused on this one person.

Gina:     And it's someone that people may not know about because first of all, it's operatic, so everyone doesn't know about that, and it's an interesting segment of our history.

Nancy:   That's right. So actually, it was a confluence of several things. I was standing out behind the Cotton Exchange and saw a brick on the Walk of Fame and it said Caterina Jarboro, Opera Singer. I'm embarrassed to say that I had never heard of her before. So I googled it and realized that she was born here in Wilmington in 1898, a time that was laden with a lot of political strife and racial strife and I thought, this is a conversation we need to be having, not just about Jarboro as an artist and coming up through that time period of strife, but also to celebrate her great achievements as an operatic singer. So it just seemed to be the right idea at the right time. We decided Opera Wilmington's symposium this year should really focus on her. 

Gina:     That is so cool. What can you tell me about Caterina?

Nancy:   Well, I think her story growing up is kind of interesting. They identified her as a talent early on and so she ended up going to New York to study singing. She also had this interesting intersection at the beginning of her career between sort of Broadway theater singing. She was in Shuffle Along and then decided to make a turn towards a standard operatic repertoire and moved on to Europe from then. So I think her rise to fame really happened in Europe and the reason for that was she had more acceptance over there. She did return to the United States in the early thirties and was the first African American woman to sing with an all white company. That's part of the reason why we're celebrating her for this historic achievement. She's sang Aida at the Hippodrome. So to celebrate that accomplishment is really important. The fascinating thing was that her career didn't take off in the United States after that. It was limited again, and so she returned to Europe and then subsequently, because of World War II, she returned back to the United States and was a translator for awhile and then retired from the operatic stage.

Gina:     What kind of documents are there from her life or what kind of things can someone find researching her?

Caterina Jarboro, "Aida"

Nancy:   Well, actually, it's interesting because my colleague and partner in crime in all of this, Dr Helena Spencer has already been tracking down this kind of stuff. She went to the New York Public Library which houses the largest collection of Jarboro's papers and her recital programs, correspondence. Dr. Spencer has actually put her eyes on these original materials. Some of what you'll see in the symposium is an outcropping of that trip to New York City to. We also have a few local people who are contributing. Marva Robinson, who's going to sing in the recital on Friday night, is going to offer reflections of her experiences meeting Jarboro and the Cape Fear Museum is sending over some jewelry and some papers that Jarboro had. Tony Rivenbark is going to come and talk. And then maybe what's the most interesting connection we have is that Jarboro's great nephew, Richard Jarboro, who is a professor in English and African American Studies at UCLA, is coming in for Saturday morning to give a keynote address and talk specifically about what life was like with Aunt Katherine and he's going to bring along some photos and some personal correspondence that he has from his family's own personal archives.

Gina:     And then she has a relative or a descendent?

Nancy:   Well, we believe they might be related. The special guest artist who's also facilitating the masterclass for us in the afternoon on Friday, her name's Jemeesa Yarborough and she'll be working with our younger students in the afternoon and then presenting a recital that evening based on Jarboro's format for her recitals. Now Jemeesa thinks that maybe there's a distant relationship because her family is from just outside of Raleigh, and given that they share the same last name of Jarboro, it's very likely that they're connected.

Gina:     I note that session one is called The Making of a Diva from Katherine Yarborough, which is spelled with a “K” and “Y”.

Nancy:   Yes.

Gina:     To Caterina Jarboro, which is spelled with a “C” and a “J”.

Nancy:   When Jarboro went over to Italy to study, she took on this Italianette version of her name, so hence the Caterina Jarboro, the spelling that we're familiar with. So that was part of her persona as she took the stage.

Caterina Jarboro

Gina:     Also at that recital here you're going to have the Williston Alumni Choir and some Snipes Academy singers?

Nancy:   So, looking into the community and trying to bring together many groups was really important to us. Jarboro herself was philanthropic. She often would return to places including Wilmington to give recitals that would help support and raise money for different organizations, community organizations that were in need. She did do a recital at Williston High School. So I thought it was a fun idea to invite Marva Robinson and the gang from the Williston Community Alumni Choir and also we thought it was a good learning opportunity for some of the younger students at Snipes Academy of Art and Design to have the opportunity for them to join us on stage to do a musical number and also for them to fold Caterina Jarboro's life and experience into their curriculum. So they're learning all about her too.

Gina:     Did you say Tony Rivenbark met her?

Nancy:   He did, he did. I'm not going to get the dates right on this, but there was a week long festival at Thalian and I think he was the one who facilitated that in the 1980s. And Jarboro came and was the special guest. She was too old to perform at that juncture, but he facilitated that. So she had been already appreciated when she was alive. This is, I think, the first posthumous symposium that sort of focuses on her life.

Gina:     Tori, tell me about your involvement in this particular event and even with Opera Wilmington.

Tori:      I'm going to be performing a spiritual that was a part of Caterina's repertoire, My Lord, What a Mornin'. And Jemeesa Yarborough is going to help basically tweak it to make it just sound better and have a connection to it. I'm so excited about the feedback that she's going to give me and I'm just ready to really be a part of this because it's very, very important to me as an African American singer that someone so influential is basically right in my backyard.

Gina:     So what did you think when you first found out about Caterina Jarboro?

Tori:      I was aghast. I am a very research influenced person. I like to learn about the people who paved the way for me specifically being an African American singer. When I found out about Caterina Jarboro, and basically everything that she did at the specific time, it just was so inspiring because that's a lady that looks like me and dealt with things just like how I would be dealing with them now, but tenfold. She managed to make a name for herself and I almost felt like I'm so proud to be part of showing the light and lifting her up and having people know about her because she's so important. I can't believe that there are people who've met her and she is the person that has been so groundbreaking to the opera industry, the American opera industry.

Gina:     Yeah, people who've met her who are still alive.

Nancy:   It's amazing. Marva and Tony and her great nephew. It's remarkable that there's still a community, people who are living right now who know and understand and appreciate and can put her life in context for the rest of us who are just becoming acquainted with her.

Gina:     It shows you how close things are in the past.

Nancy:   Oh yeah.

Gina:     Tori, tell me about how you decided to become a singer and major in music.

Tori:      That story goes way, way back to when I was five years old and I started singing in church choir, like most. There was just something about connecting to people through music, no matter what language or what religious background- if it's something that truly comes from your soul or something that's beautiful, it will reach people. And I really didn't understand that until I started singing different languages in choir. I started dabbling in musical theater and I was like, "OK, well it seems like my life is leading me toward musical theater.” I graduated high school and I was taking a gap year because jumping into a music degree is something very scary and I decided I was going to go and learn my craft.

This is a craft and I want to be respected and I want prove to myself that I can take this from something that my hometown knows to something possibly and hopefully global. I basically just did it. I put the foot on the gas pedal, applied and I got in and I don't regret a thing. I actually have started looking more toward opera than musical theater. I never thought I would be doing that. It's just the craft and the technique paired with the same emotion that you always have to have. It's a mesh of something that I just love. I can keep working toward it and I can love it at the same time.

Gina:     Is this your first time working with Opera Wilmington?

Tori:      Last year I was a part of UNCW WOOP for the Carmen symposium, but I hope to be a part of the ensemble in the summertime for Die Fleidermaus. This is my second time being part of UNCW WOOP, so I'm very excited.

Gina:     Where are you from?

Tori:      I moved to Richlands, North Carolina when I was seven years old from Union, New Jersey. So I grew up here.

Gina:     Tori, just tell me a little bit about the song you'll be singing for the event. The spiritual.

Tori:      Something that I didn't know about the song until I started further studying it is that My Lord, What a Mornin', the morning was originally m-o-u-r as in a sad state of affairs. I never realized that. I just thought it was something that you would sing to bring hope after a bad experience. But knowing that it was originally My Lord, What a Mournin' as in a sad thing, it really makes the song more meaningful. Spirituals help to have an opening to where the African American community was coming from when they were making this and singing this. So to know that that song that now some people sing in a peaceful manner was something that was sung after a tragic event. And us being in Wilmington and around the time when Jarboro was growing up, you know, they had the Wilmington massacre. That song really resonates. I picture it as if one would be singing it right after that event.

Gina:     Is there anything that we've missed that you want people to know?

Nancy:   So the symposium is actually free and open to the public and we have a wide variety of guest lecturers who are coming in to talk about different aspects of the political and racial climate in Wilmington during 1898 and also trace Jarboro's path from Wilmington up to New York and then over to Europe and then circling back around again. For example, Glenn Harrison and Amy Kurtzke are speaking. They’re on the faculty of UNCW along with Helena Spencer. Then we've got some people coming in from as far away as UCLA, University of Oregon, and SUNY Buffalo.

These people are all going to sort of address more specific parts of either Jarboro's experience or what the climate was like during her rise to fame. So those are all free and won't cost you a dime. Come on down to the Cultural Arts Building at UNCW. It's in Beckwith Recital Hall. And those conversations will start happening at about 11:00 AM and it'll go throughout the afternoon and then at around 3:00 we'll have a break from talking about Jarboro's experience and segue into experiencing music. So the master class with our guest artists and lecturer, Jimmy. So Yarborough will happen around 3:00 in the afternoon, again, free and open to the public. Then the recital that evening, which is a ticketed event. And if you want more information about those tickets, you can go to Wilmington Opera’s brand new website.

Did I mention we have a brand new website? That's Or you can certainly call the Kenan box office at 962-3500 and they can help set you up with tickets for that event in the evening. And then circling back around to Saturday morning, we'll start around 9:00 AM with reflections from Tony Rivenbark and then reflections from Richard Yarborough, who's going to talk about the mystique surrounding his great Aunt Katherine.

Transcription Assistance by Production Assistant, Lindsay Wright