Although Betty Allen is among the greatest black opera singers America has produced, she died in Valhalla, N.Y., on June 22 without the name recognition she deserved. She was 82.
Nonetheless, the mezzo-soprano, a favorite of conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein, has had significant influence on voices molded and heard right here in Lexington.
University of Kentucky voice coach Cliff Jackson, recently named coach of the year by Classical Singer magazine, knew Allen.
He dared to seek her out in 1978, when he attended the Manhattan School of Music in New York as an accompanying student.
He had heard her sing on an album and wanted to be near her to learn more.
"I went over, and she had a dog named Chauncey, who was all over me," Jackson recalled, laughing. "I didn't want to say get off me, dog, and she didn't say anything other than, 'The dog really likes you.' "
Jackson said Allen admired his courage and initiative, and he served a year as her accompanying pianist during voice lessons she gave.
Although she had a great sense of humor, Jackson said, Allen didn't suffer a lack of ethics or integrity in the people around her very well.
Jackson recalled borrowing her metronome and neglecting to return it. "I lived in Queens, and she lived in Manhattan," he said. "I just forgot to put it in my bag, I guess. I don't know why I kept it."
Well, word got back to him that Allen planned to attend a program he was playing for and embarrass him in front of everyone if she didn't get the instrument back.
"I believed she would have," he said, laughing. "I made sure I had it with me. That was 31 years ago."
Allen taught at the Manhattan School of Music and was executive director of the Harlem School of the Arts. Her obituary in The Washington Post reported she was passionate about poor children having access to classical music, probably because of her shaky childhood.
Elizabeth Louise Allen was born in Campbell, Ohio, a booming steel town in the northeastern part of the state, on March 17, 1927. Her father worked in the mills, and her mother took in laundry.
Because they lived in a diverse neighborhood that included Sicilians and Greeks, Allen said, she heard arias floating from the windows of neighbors on Saturdays during radio broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera.
She never considered it a vocation for herself, though, because of segregation's grip on all things American.
When she was 12, her mother died of lung cancer, and her father took to the bottle. After a few months, Allen boarded a bus to Youngstown, Ohio, and asked a judge there to put her up for adoption.
Instead, she lived in several foster homes, none of which she considered ideal, until she graduated high school and won a scholarship to Wilberforce College. She planned to study languages but was soon directed to the choir and a career as a singer.
Her formal opera debut came in 1964 in Buenos Aires as Jocasta in Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex. From the 1950s to the '70s, Allen frequently performed with the New York City Opera, the Metropolitan Opera and several other companies in the United States and abroad. Composer and music critic Virgil Thomson wrote music specifically for Allen.
"She was very knowledgeable of classical songs," Jackson said. "She sang in many different languages and knew them well."
Jackson said he became interested in black opera singers at a very early age and studied them, always looking for more information.
He learned that the greats were very honest and hardworking and they had the drive to succeed.
He recalled a time when he had promised to accompany a singer during a jury performance for one of her students. However, Jackson said, he also chose to audition at another location, thinking he could do both.
He missed the jury performance, and Allen was not forgiving.
"She said, 'In this business, you have to have good ethics,'" Jackson recalled. " 'That was not good ethics. You had told someone you would do something, and you were not there.'
"I certainly got that lesson down," Jackson said. "Just being around someone like that allows you to pick up things you can't explain."
The last time he saw Allen, Jackson said, was in 1997 at a tribute to singer Marian Anderson. Jackson had to play a difficult piece that he had worked hard to perfect.
"She came up and said, 'You played, and you didn't cheat,' " Jackson said, a high compliment.
Jackson said that to be successful, Allen's group of older black performers "went through so many things. Those who attained those kinds of careers, they really earned them."
Younger people "don't know who Betty Allen is and don't even want to find out."
Jackson wanted to find out. He wanted to learn under her. And for that, he has become a respected instructor, and his students have become respected artists.
"She was a great lady," he said.