Madame Butterfly on Exhibit

Madame Butterfly on Exhibit
Kate McDannold, exhibit curator, displays one of the silk robes worn on stage by Camilla Williams.

On January 12, 2020, the Danville Museum of Fine Arts and History will unveil their newest exhibit, a tribute to Camilla Williams. Held on the anniversary of her 100th birthday, the Camilla Williams Exhibition “highlights the relationship of the famed New York opera diva and her hometown, Danville, while exploring the difficult path to fame in a racially divided South during the civil rights movement”.

Camilla Williams (read the blog post here) was born in Danville in 1919 and began studying voice at the age of twelve under Raymond Aubrey who was teaching at Averett University at the time. After graduating high school, she went on to study at Virginia State College (now University). Thereafter she returned home to teach music. A group of Virginia State alumni, however, had another idea. The group set up a fund in her behalf and raised enough money to pay her way to Philadelphia where she could study music in earnest. The opportunity led to a scholarship and to a performance in Stamford, Connecticut. In the audience that night was the great Geraldine Farrar, who, in 1907, was the first to play the lead role in Madame Butterfly. Miss Farrar offered to mentor Camilla, and it was through her tutelage and influence that Camilla was cast for the same role in 1946, becoming the first African American to receive a contract from a major opera company. Camilla went on to become a world-renowned opera singer.

Kate McDannold examines some of Camilla William’s stage jewelry.

Ms. Williams herself would be pleased with the production. Aware that her accomplishments might have the potential to impact our community, she gifted her personal affects to the Museum in the hopes that just such an exhibition might one day come into fruition, an opportunity not only to place “Camilla Williams’ life and time in a historical context,” as exhibition staff describe their aim, “but also to inspire neighborhoods and community residents to dream big, pursue excellence, and cultivate positive creative change.”

The exhibits curator and manager, Kate McDannold, is a student of Museum Studies at University of North Carolina—Greensboro. Her contributions to the Camilla Williams Exhibition further her passion for celebrating “overlooked and underrepresented historical perspectives.”

Other contributors include artist, educator, and curator Michelle Talibah who will be writing the curatorial essay. Ms. Talibah is the founding director and curator of New Door Creative Gallery in Baltimore, Maryland. In 2009, New Door Creative presented the work of late artist Morgan Monceaux, who painted a series comprising over 30 African-American opera vocalists. The series was initiated with a portrait of Camilla in her role as Madame Butterfly. Through Ms. Talibah’s influence, the exhibit will include this work, as well as others depicting Ms. Williams.

Fred Motley, storyteller extraordinaire, will be serving as the exhibit’s community engagement director. His work connects the exhibit with area schools and churches in order to bring Camilla’s story to those who would benefit by deeper interaction with their own histories and community-based narratives—particularly those of resilience and achievement in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.

Louis Morris Martling is serving both the museum and the Exhibit as design support and organizer, along with fellow staff members C.B. Maddox, Wenn Harold, and Sara Shorter.

More silk robe’s from Camilla’s many performances.

The Camilla Williams Exhibition is, in itself, setting history making precedence in its own way. It’s the hope of the Danville Museum of Fine Art and History’s new director, Elsabé Dixon, that the exhibit will be the first of the museum’s productions to go on tour. Such an opportunity would change the status of the museum significantly from one that simply hosts small private local exhibitions to one that produces and markets shows that travel nationally and eventually internationally, setting the museum firmly on the list besides those making significant contributions in the fields of both art and history.

The exhibit was made possible through the Danville Regional Foundation’s Make More Happen grant. Through the exhibit, and others like it, the Museum hopes to promote history and art in the Dan River Region while at the same time integrating awareness of history, culture, and community.

The opening reception will be held on Sunday, January 12, from 2:00-4:30pm. The reception is free and open to the public. The exhibit will run through May 14, 2020. For more information call the Museum at 434-793-5644, or email C.B. Maddox at