Associate Curator Renée Maurer on Lillian Evanti’s performance at The Phillips Collection in 1942.
Lillian Evans Tibbs, a Paris trained, internationally renowned soprano, with an ability to sing in several languages, traveled the world as Madame Evanti, the first African American opera singer to perform with a major European company. She held concerts at her home on Vermont Avenue, which was transformed into an informal salon, and also at various venues throughout the city, from the White House to the Belasco Theater to the Lincoln Theater to The Phillips Collection.
An important art patron and collector, Lillian Evanti first wrote to Duncan Phillips in early December 1934 after touring the collection. She described her impressions: “The museum is a magnificent contribution to Washington, for which we should be deeply grateful.” She discussed her interest in the interrelation of the arts, her fondness for the August Vincent Tack panels, sent clippings and brochures from previous performances, and asked for “an appointment” hoping to secure a concert in the Music Room. Phillips and Evanti met on December 7, 1934. Although a concert was not immediately scheduled, Evanti kept up her correspondence with Phillips, apprising him of her performances in South America, enclosing publicity brochures that detailed her work, and reminding him of his promise to host an event for her at the museum.
In 1942, Phillips suggested to Evanti that she perform during the Modern Mexican Painters exhibition at the museum. Pleased by the invitation, Evanti shared her memory of their first meeting, which actually occurred eight years before, and offered to sing “Inter-American music with a special group of lovely Mexican songs.” She promised to invite distinguished guests to her performance. But Evanti’s premiere was put on hold until February.
In mid-February, Evanti secured a day for her debut at the Phillips. The letter below indicates her interests in an immersive experience, one where several works from the collection would be on display in the Music Room to complement her song selection. Phillips kept the installation he had in place since early February 1942, which included paintings by Georges Rouault, Pierre Bonnard, and Rufino Tamayo, among others.On February 15, 1942, Evanti performed in the Music Room “a varied program of Classics, a group by Hugo Wolf, an Inter-American group, and a group of Negro Spirituals. The concert was timed with the Phillips’s inaugural exhibition of Jacob Lawrence’s The Migration Series. Held in the museum’s print rooms, it featured all 60 panels. Evanti’s performance was well received in the local press.
This letter, which expressed the staff’s enjoyment of the concert, was sent to Evanti along with her $100 honorarium.