While growing up in Lexington, Ky., in the 1930s, William Ray listened to Paul Robeson and Marian Anderson on the radio. He sang in his church, enjoying the compliments and attention.
Despite his obvious talent and interest in opera music, his family and friends had an easier time picturing him as a doctor than a singer. After all, at least they knew of other black doctors.
"My dream didn't seem very realistic," said Ray, who has made his home in Odenton for 25 years. "I'm sure everyone was thinking, 'Poor thing, how can he possibly think that he could be an opera singer?'"
Ray beat the odds, molding a stellar opera career in such European productions as Madame Butterfly, Aida and Porgy and Bess. It led to his acceptance last month of the National Opera Association's Legacy Award, a top honor for African-American opera singers and composers.
"Bill had a wonderful career, both in Europe and in this country," said executive director Eric Hansen. "We use the Legacy Awards as a leading edge to encourage emerging minority artists."
Now, Ray lends his expertise to young opera singers, traveling to high schools and colleges, and recruiting judges for the Annapolis Opera's annual vocal competition. A concert featuring the finalists in the 19th annual contest will be this afternoon at Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts.
Ray said he teaches "because others did it for me." He recalled the discrimination of the 1940s South. "If those of us who become professionals, don't do it, [opera] will become a dying art."
Despite the unlikeliness of his ambition, his large family, close-knit neighborhood, church members and teachers, fed him with music and nurtured it.
"You love the adulation as well as making people happy, and this compels you to continue," Ray said.
A teacher from Boston, Harlowe Dean, heard the young baritone singing in church and offered to coach Ray, even at the expense of Dean's safety and reputation. Ray said many disliked the idea of a white musician teaching a black singer, yet Dean was instrumental in his development as a singer.
After graduating from high school, Ray completed a short stint in the Army, something he would have never done if he hadn't been drafted, he said. When he returned to Kentucky in 1945, Ray attended Kentucky State University for two semesters. One of his music teachers told him plainly, "Honey, we don't have enough music here. You should go to a conservatory. And with that voice, they'll offer you a scholarship."
And they did. Ray was accepted into Oberlin Conservatory, where he soon met his wife, Carrie Kellogg , an accomplished musician and soprano. The two married in 1949 after a year of singing and working together.
Ray got his big break after performing at a community music center performance in Cleveland. An agent offered him a role as a king in Amahl and the Night Visitors to be performed in Europe in 1956.
Opportunities for black opera singers were scarce in the United States. And because many American opera houses were led by men, Ray said, lead roles for black men were even fewer.
He would have to travel to Europe as many of his predecessors and influences, such as Anderson and Robeson, had done. With little money, Ray set out. His wife and two young sons joined him later.
It was a good choice for Ray. He was paid well, even for rehearsals.
"I was making out like a bandit," he said.
Although Ray was nervous about his first European performance, "I had a mission and I couldn't allow my nerves to upstage my mission."
Ray built his repertoire throughout Europe, starring in various plays, including A Midsummer Night's Dream. He was even offered roles in televised plays, once performing as a boxer. Yet, many opera houses worried how he could play roles for traditionally white characters.
Ray and his agent came up with an unusual idea: having him perform in whiteface.
Still, he carried the struggles of the African-American population on his shoulders. In one of his favorite roles as Rigoletto, a hunchback jester who unintentionally kills his daughter in a botched assassination attempt on the prince she loves, Ray drew upon his experiences of racism in the South.
"I found that as an African-American, I was the tragic figure. Someone else prevented me from doing things I wanted to do. They did not tell me personally, but we had to cater," Ray said. "There was absolutely no way I could sing the same roles in America."
In 1974, Ray founded Black Theater Productions in Germany in response to the dismal treatment of minorities. Several plays and recordings later, the Rays returned to the United States when he was offered a teaching position at the Peabody Conservatory in 1982. After 10 years, he moved on to Howard University, where he stayed for a decade.
Now retired, Ray remains active within the immediate community, mentoring students and participating in tai chi and competitions such as the Annapolis Opera's.
"As soon as you meet him, he just becomes your friend," said Annapolis Opera music director Ronald Gretz, a longtime friend and colleague. "I always admired and respected his interest in trying to support young singers."
Even after receiving the Legacy Award, Ray, who is in his 80s, still feels youthful.
"He has no age. You just don't think of age with him," said Anne Marie Musterman, an honorary trustee board member and former president of the Annapolis Opera.
Ray, who recalled the time his sister visited his family in Europe and marveled at all he had accomplished, has that same amazement today.
"I sometimes pinch myself."