Opera star Todd Duncan, who was hand-picked by George Gershwin to play Porgy in “Porgy and Bess,” died Feb. 28 of a heart condition at his home in Washington, D.C. He was 95.
Duncan was also instrumental in helping to desegregate opera by performing with an otherwise all-white cast in a 1945 New York City Opera production of Leoncavallo’s “I Pagliacci.”
His stage credits and triumphs also included the Lord’s General in Vernon Duke’s “Cabin in the Sky” and Stephen Kumalo in the first production of Kurt Weill’s “Lost in the Stars.”
A much sought-after soloist, Duncan sang more than 2,000 recitals in 56 countries and was quoted as saying that recitals interested him more than opera and the theater.
He was born in Danville, Ky., in 1903. He earned his bachelor’s degree at Butler U. in Indianapolis in 1925 and his master’s at Columbia U. Teachers College in 1930. He later became a member of the music faculty at Howard U. in Washington, until 1945.
He began his opera career in New York in 1934 in an Aeollian Opera production of Mascagni’s “Cavalleria Rusticana.” He became well known for his baritone voice and continued performing with black opera companies throughout New York.
In 1935, Gershwin auditioned about 100 baritones for the role of Porgy; at the suggestion of New York Times critic Olin Downes, he contacted Duncan, who was offered the role after Gershwin heard him sing 12 bars of an Italian aria.
Duncan later told various interviewers that he was dubious about accepting the role because he thought Gershwin was strictly Tin Pan Alley.
He sang Porgy 124 times during the show’s premiere run at New York’s Alvin Theater. He also revived his role in 1937 and ’42, and recorded an original cast album with Anne Brown (the original Bess).
In 1945, Duncan won his debut role at the New York City Opera, as Tonio in “Pagliacci,” becoming the first black singer to perform in an otherwise all-white cast.
Duncan, a 70-year resident of D.C., left Howard at the peak of his opera and recital career but later returned to teach privately and at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.
Duncan is survived by his wife, Gladys Jackson Duncan; and son Charles Duncan.