Singing praises of Todd Duncan

April 21, 1994|By Phil Greenfield | Phil Greenfield,Special to The Sun

Todd Duncan, who created the role of Porgy in George Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess," was honored Sunday evening at a recital and reception co-sponsored by the Annapolis Opera and the Banneker-Douglass Museum.

The 92-year-old singer and voice teacher is recuperating from a serious illness and was unable to attend the celebration, but that did not deter a large crowd that gathered in the council chamber at City Hall in Annapolis to pay homage to the extraordinary baritone Mr. Gershwin personally selected to the title role in his classic American opera.

Born in Kentucky on Feb. 12 -- Abraham Lincoln's birthday -- in 1903, Todd Duncan established himself as one of the world's tTC premiere vocal artists in a career that lasted nearly three decades. He sang some 2,000 recitals on the world's concert stages, including White House engagements for Presidents Roosevelt, Eisenhower and Johnson.

"A power baritone," wrote the London Daily Telegraph. "Unquestionably one of the great voices of the day."

Mr. Duncan also appeared in films and on the stage in such plays as "Cabin in the Sky," "Lost in the Stars" and Jerome Kern's immortal "Showboat."

But he became best known for "Porgy," a role he performed more than 1,800 times. The songs he introduced -- "I Got Plenty O' Nuttin," "Bess, You Is My Woman Now," and "Oh, Lord, I'm on My Way" -- came to personify the unique melodic genius of the American musical stage.

Yet, Mr. Duncan's admirers had not gathered merely to "celebrate a memory," as Dr. Ronald Sharps, the director of the Banneker-Douglass Museum, pointed out. The great singer began teaching voice in 1925 and continues to do so in his private studio in Washington.

As sought-after a clinician as he had been a singer, Mr. Duncan has given master classes all over the world and was a faculty member at Philadelphia's Curtis Institute from 1977 to 1992.

It was fitting, then, that Sunday's music was provided by Detra Battle, Angela Powell and Stephen Herring, three gifted young singers whose careers have been guided and inspired by Todd Duncan.

"I took a master class from him," recalled Miss Powell. "And before I could sing a note of 'Turandot' for him, he stopped me because he didn't like my walk. 'You have a body on you,' he said. 'Why can't you show it?' He was very exciting to sing for."

"He is a wonderful, demanding teacher," said baritone Stephen Herring, a current Duncan student. "He is a master who's good not only for your voice; he's good for your life."

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