Todd Duncan isn’t just a part of Somerset’s history. He’s part of the nation’s as well.
When it comes to Black History Month in Pulaski County, Duncan is one of the first names that always comes to mind. A name claimed by both Somerset and nearby Danville, Duncan went on to become one of the most influential male vocalists of the 20th century.
Few around here would know better than Amanda Balltrip. A classically trained operatic performer who teaches locally with McNeil Music Center and also at the University of the Cumberlands, Balltrip was the 2008 winner of the Kentucky District of the Metropolitan National Council Auditions and the Alltech Opera Scholarship Competition. The soprano with numerous performances all over the world under her belt moved to Somerset in 2014, and has been involved with numerous local organizations such as Watershed Arts Alliance and Flashback Theater Co.
“Most wouldn’t expect opera to have a legacy in this region, but it has a pretty strong one, especially thanks to Todd Duncan,” said Balltrip. “He helped show that opera is indeed for everyone. It’s an honor to be a local opera singer, striving for that goal.”
Duncan has left behind numerous handprints on the music landscape. Remember the song “Unchained Melody,” made popular by the Righteous Brothers and in the film “Ghost”? Duncan was the first voice people heard sing it, in the 1955 film “Unchained.” As an instructor, he developed an important system of teaching operatic singing known as the “Duncan Method.”
But perhaps the most iconic piece of American history with which Duncan is associated is “Porgy and Bess.” The opera composed by George Gershwin, with his brother Ira and librettist DuBose Heyward, a distinctly American entry into an arena dominated by Europeans — Italians, French, Germans in particular — and one that offered opportunities to African-American artists in a time when such stardom was hard to come by, back in 1935, as much of the country was still segregated.
Duncan, a bass-baritone, was the first to play the title male lead in “Porgy and Bess.” In 1935, Duncan was asked to audition for the role after being suggested by a New York Times music critic. Lore has it that Gershwin had sat through 100 baritone auditions and was not thrilled by any of them. Gershwin heard less than one minute of Duncan’s recital of a Giuseppe Sarti aria before interrupting him to offer the part of Porgy. Duncan went on to play in 124 original productions of “Porgy and Bess” and also starred in the 1937 and 1942 revivals.
As such, Duncan is inexorably tied to one of the greatest enduring works of both American music and the long and proud opera tradition — one which has seen its songs echo in the national consciousness down through generations.
“Most people are familiar with ‘Summertime,’ the iconic melody that’s been covered across many genres of music by iconic musicians, like Ella Fitzgerald, Sam Cooke, and Janis Joplin,” observed Balltrip, who noted that the over sound and arrangements by Gershwin were based on the blues and old spirituals. “‘Porgy and Bess’ was bold for its time because it was written specifically for Black classically trained singers. It tells the story of a poor, disabled street beggar who falls in love with and tries to save Bess, who is being abused by her ex-lover, Crown, and tempted by her drug dealer, Sportin’ Life.
“At this time, Black stories were seldom told on the American operatic or Broadway stages,” she added, “and ‘Porgy and Bess’ offered one point of view of the life African Americans endured during the Jim Crow era.”
The Gershwin Estate stipulated that the opera only be performed by a Black cast, said Balltrip, who said that there was some controversy related to racial authenticity concerning the material.
“(The stipulation), along with the story, raised concerns from the beginning; concerns that are still debated today. If the story is written from a White perspective, and the music is written from a White person’s perspective on Black music (Spirituals, Blues, and Jazz), is it still an authentically Black story?” she said. “But after hearing more of the opera, one cast member, Todd Duncan, was convinced.”
In a 1980 interview, Duncan recalled his experience auditioning for “Porgy and Bess,” already an established performer and vocal instructor at Howard University. Noting the mixing of cultures already inherent in the performance world, Duncan said, “The paradox is that I sang an old Italian song, ‘Lungi dal caro bene,’ by Secchi. Now I say paradox because here was a Negro singing for a Jew and singing an old Italian aria of the eighteenth century, auditioning for an opera whose site was to be in South Carolina. So that is paradoxical.”
Duncan went on to have a substantial career in opera, being the first African-American to sing the role of Tonio in New York City Opera’s production of “I Pagliacci,” Escamillo in “Carmen,” and Rigoletto in Verdi’s opera of the same name. But it was “Porgy and Bess” that no doubt launched Duncan’s career, especially in a time when Black singers weren’t being hired, said Balltrip. Likewise, “Porgy and Bess” helped open doors in the opera world and lay the groundwork for future works by African-American creators.
“Today in the opera world, ‘Porgy and Bess’ is seeing a resurgence,” said Balltrip. “The Metropolitan Opera recently mounted a fantastic production in 2019, only the second time in the Met’s history, the first time being 1985. It is undoubtedly an important, historic American opera.
“But it is just as important, and maybe even more so, to look to new operatic works by Black composers and librettist, or new works that tell Black stories,” she added. “You might consider ‘Margaret Garner’ by Richard Danielpour (libretto by Toni Morrison), ‘Charlie Parker’s Yardbird’ by Daniel Schnyder (libretto by Bridgette A Wimberly), ‘Amistad,’ or ‘Life and Times of Malcom X,’ both by Anthony Davis. Davis has also written ‘The Central Park Five’, a Pulitzer Prize-winning opera.”
Duncan was born in Danville on Feb. 12, 1903 to John and Nettie (or Lettie) Cooper Duncan. When he was young, however, the future singer’s mother brought him to Somerset, where her father, Owsley Cooper, lived. Owsley Cooper was a brick mason and railroad shop worker, as well as a local choir director. Todd Duncans grandfather and mother would be his two earliest musical influences.
In Somerset, Duncan reportedly lived at 102 East Oak Street and attended the historic Davis Chapel AME Church as well as the Dunbar School, which served African-American students in the days of segregation. Duncan sang in his church choir, even at a young age. However, after completing elementary school, the 13-year-old Duncan was forced to leave Somerset and move to Louisville, as there was no high school in Somerset for African-Americans.
In 1921, Duncan graduated from the high school at Simmons University in Louisville. By 1925 he had earned a Bachelor’s Degree from Butler University in Indianapolis, and achieved his MA at Columbia University Teacher College in 1930 and obtained his Doctorate from Howard University.
Duncan retired from teaching at Howard in 1945, but continued to teach privately in his home’s basement studio until his death from a heart ailment on February 28, 1998 at age 95. One report says a student was in Duncan’s basement waiting for a lesson when Duncan passed away upstairs.
Shortly after his death, Duncan was inducted into the Washington Area Music Association’s Hall of Fame in recognition of his accomplishments as a distinctive operatic voice and a mentor to young singers. During his lifetime, he received many other recognitions, including a Haitian medal of honor, an award from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), a Donaldson Award, a New York Drama Critics’ Award for “Lost in the Stars”, a George Peabody Medal from the Peabody Conservatory of Music of Johns Hopkins University and honorary doctorates from several universities.
“Porgy and Bess” has endured the test of time, with countless performances and recordings, its songs covered by a host of other artists, and even being commemorated on a special U.S. postage stamp in 1993. But without a native son of Somerset, Todd Duncan, it’s hard to say that the opera would have ever become what it’s been — making Duncan not just a key part of local Black History Month significance, but Black History everywhere.