William Benjamin Ray Sr., a renowned opera singer and civil rights activist who left the Jim Crow South for Europe, where he compiled a stellar, 25-year performing career before moving to Maryland to teach young vocalists at the Peabody Conservatory and Howard University, died of congestive heart failure at the Gilchrist Center Howard County in Columbia on July 3.
The longtime Odenton resident was 94, according to his son, Alexander Ray of San Jose, California.
A rich baritone who was fluent in German, Italian and French, Mr. Ray starred in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “Rigoletto” and many other productions, which led to television acting roles and music recording contracts. While catering to audiences unaccustomed to seeing African-American performers in European opera houses, Mr. Ray sometimes performed in whiteface.
In 1974, he founded Black Theater Productions, which put on sketches highlighting racial prejudice and the dismal treatment of minorities, in Stuttgart, Germany. Twenty-three years later, the gregarious performer received the National Opera Association’s “Lift Every Voice” Legacy Award, honoring the contributions of African American Artists to opera.
He grew up singing, beginning at age 6, at the First Baptist Church of Lexington, Kentucky, and graduated from Dunbar High School there in 1943.
Harlowe Dean, a teacher from Boston, offered to coach Mr. Ray after hearing him in church, even though the notion of a white musician teaching a black singer was unpopular among many at the time. Mr. Ray credited Mr. Dean with being instrumental in his development as a singer.
Mr. Ray was drafted into the U.S. Army after high school and served in the 375th Engineering General Services Regiment in Germany. He received the Bronze Star, the Purple Heart, Excellent Marksmanship and other awards before being honorably discharged in 1946, according to his son.
Upon his return to Kentucky, he attended Kentucky State University for two semesters, until one of his music teachers encouraged him to apply to a conservatory: “With that voice, they’ll offer you a scholarship,” Mr. Ray recalled in The Sun’s previous report.
Continuing his training under Daniel Harris of the Metropolitan Opera, Mr. Ray was a soloist with the De Paur Infantry Chorus and eventually performed at Cleveland’s Karamu House, the oldest African American theater in the U.S., where he got his big break.
An agent from Vienna, Austria, was so impressed by the baritone’s performance of Puccini’s “Il Tabarro” at Karamu House in 1956, that he offered him a role as King Balthazar in a production of “Amahl and the Night Visitors” at the Vienna Opera House.
Perpetually high-spirited, with a good sense of humor and a love of travel, Mr. Ray took a chance, his son said.
“He really considered himself a citizen of the world," Mr. Ray said. "It was a bit of a leap, but he took that leap.”
It paid off. Mr. Ray became the leading baritone at the Cuvilliés Theater in Munich and the Frankfurt Opera, and appeared in 14 different German-language roles on stage and on German and Austrian television.
While touring, he earned his master’s degree in education from the Heidelberg University, Germany, in 1982. Nearing retirement from performing, Mr. Ray took a job as a professor of voice at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore and moved back to the U.S., settling with his wife in Odenton.
He taught at Peabody for 10 years, then retired again, only to join Howard University in 1992 as head of its voice faculty. He retired from Howard in 2000.
Mr. Ray also volunteered for more than 30 years as a board member of the Annapolis Opera Company, recruiting the judges for the annual spring vocal competition, said Leah Solat, a fellow board member and former president.
For the event’s 30th anniversary last year, the organization surprised Mr. Ray with first prize and a $5,000 award donated by friends and admirers.
“That should tell you how he was regarded," Ms. Solat said. “His voice was very rich, both when he sang and when he spoke. When you heard him speak, you knew he was an opera singer.”
Janice Jackson, a longtime voice professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, met Mr. Ray and his wife at the American Institute of Musical Studies in Austria in the early 1990s, and quickly “adopted them as my parents” for her time there, she said.
“He gave me so much insight on the business and singing,” she said. “He was a great teacher, a great mentor.”
His countless accolades and memberships include the Kentucky Human Rights Hall of Fame; the National Association of Negro Musicians; the National Opera Association; Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Inc.; the NAACP; the Gamma Boule of the Sigma Pi Phi Fraternity; and the Alpha Delta Chapter of Kappa Lambda National Music Honor Society. Mr. Ray is believed to be the only African American international opera singer from the state of Kentucky.
His stories alone could “enthrall you to such a point you’d sit there in amazement," said James Haynes, a longtime friend and retired Morgan State University administrator.
Mr. Ray was preceded in death by his wife; his parents; and his sisters, Nellie C. Taylor and Annabelle Carter. In addition to his son Alexander, he is survived by another son, William Ray Jr., of California, two granddaughters and 11 nieces and nephews.
A musical tribute to him will take place 6 p.m. Monday at March Funeral Home West, 4300 Wabash Ave., in Baltimore. A service will be held at 11 a.m. Tuesday at Union Baptist Church, 1219 Druid Hill Ave., with the family receiving guests at 10.