Junetta Jones, a pioneering African-American soprano who performed with the Metropolitan Opera after winning its 1963 Young Artists competition, died of dementia complications Feb. 17 at the Crofton Rehabilitation Center. The former Liberty Heights area resident was 78.
She also sang with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, and Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops, as well as with European opera companies.
Born in Baltimore and raised on Gilmor Street, she was the daughter of Luther Jones, a Bethlehem Steel worker, and Charity Jones, a beautician. In a 1963 article she told The Sun she "discovered she had a voice about the same time her teachers asked her to sing Christmas Carols." By 1954, before her graduation from Frederick Douglass High School, she was singing with the Baltimore City Orchestra.
In a 1956 Sun story, the Peabody Conservatory announced she was the first African-American to win a three-year competitive scholarship after she was judged alongside 19 other contestants. She took the scholarship after studying humanities at Morgan State University. She had been a student of Peabody faculty member Joseph Victor Laderoute at the time of the award. She went on to receive a Peabody teaching certificate, a bachelor's degree in music and an artists diploma in voice.
In a Peabody history, "The Storm Is Passing Over," she recalled her experience: "Peter Mennin, then Peabody's new director, brought us into his office to discuss how we were being treated. Things were fine at Peabody. Melinda Newton had a little luncheon counter up on the third floor of the Conservatory where we could buy sandwiches. We couldn't go any place else for lunch. Mount Vernon Place was off limits except for Ted's Music Shop. We couldn't rent rooms in the area or join the other students at lunchtime."
She also said "The St. James and the Stafford hotels were off limits, along with the lunch counters at the drugstores around Mount Vernon Place. Between classes Veronica Tyler [a classmate who went on to Broadway] and I used to sit in the ladies lounge next to the Peabody Library and study.
"Junetta Jones recalled an upsetting confrontation at the St. James Hotel," the history said. "One afternoon Mr. Laderoute took me to lunch at the St. James Hotel. When we sat down, the waitress told me that she would not serve me. Mr. Laderoute was outraged. He went on and ordered food and when it came, got up and left.'"
While a Peabody student, she sang in a concert version of "Porgy and Bess" with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.
She earned a master's degree at the New England Conservatory in Boston, where she performed at Jordan Hall. She was a winner in a Metropolitan Opera annual audition for young talent.
Rudolf Bing, general manager of the Metropolitan Opera, announced in April 1963 that she would appear with his company, according to a New York Times story that included her photo. On Oct. 31, 1963, she sang in Verdi's "Don Carlo," alongside Richard Tucker, Robert Merrill and Jerome Hines. She also appeared in Met productions of "The Marriage of Figaro," "The Magic Flute" and "Rigoletto."
In a 1963 Sun story, she said, "'What I really like about the people at Met is they all treat you with dignity and respect ... they call you Miss Jones, not by your first name as they do in school."
She went on to spend nearly four years performing in European opera houses. She had roles in opera companies in Dusseldorf, Wuppertal, Regensburg, Munster, and Trier, Germany, and in Lucerne, Switzerland.
A New York Times critic called her voice "beguiling" when she sang in Handel's "Samson" at Carnegie Hall in 1965. She also performed with the Goldman Band in Central Park at the Guggenheim Memorial Concerts in the summers of 1964 and 1965. She did an aria from "Carmen" and gave an encore performance of "Summertime" from "Porgy and Bess."
In the 1970s Ms. Jones was a voice instructor at the University of Florida, Bowie State College, Oldfields School and the city public school adult education division.
She also served as the director of Charles Street's Gallery 409 from 1978 through 1981.
"She had a fine, exquisite voice. It was a pleasure to hear her sing," said Norman E. Ross, former cultural arts director for Baltimore who is also a retired Holy Trinity Episcopal Church organist. "Her voice matched her personality. She was understanding of her colleagues. She nurtured students she thought had possibilities. You could tell she had spent time overseas, in Germany. She was a classy lady."
Ms. Jones later joined the Mayor's Advisory Committee on Art and Culture as a performing arts coordinator. She planned and organized musical performances at Artscape held on the Mount Royal Station campus of the Maryland Institute College of Art. She retired in 1991.
"Junetta was quiet and not aggressive," said Earl Arnett, a former Sun reporter who is the husband of jazz singer Ethel Ennis. "We worked together on the first Artscape. She later supervised the annual Billie Holiday vocal competitions."
Survivors include her brother, Luther L. Jones Sr. of Upper Marlboro; and nieces and nephews.
Services were held Saturday at St. John's African Methodist Episcopal Church, Baltimore, where she was a member.