“So, who was Sylvia? She lived to help singers convey ideas.” – Mark Fairchild
Sylvia Olden Lee was born in 1917 in Meridian, Mississippi. Her mother, Sylvia Alice Ward, was an accomplished opera singer and her father, James Olden, was a minister and classical singer. At the age of 5, Olden Lee began performing and learning to play the piano. By age 8, she was accompanying her parents as they sang. Her family later moved to Washington D.C., and at the age of sixteen, Olden Lee performed at the White House in honor of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s inauguration. In 1942, Eleanor Roosevelt invited her back to sing at the White House a second time.
Olden Lee chose to study piano over voice. She spent two years studying at Howard University before receiving a full scholarship to study at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music. She graduated from Oberlin in 1938, and then toured the United States. Most notably she performed with Paul Robeson in 1942. She met her Husband Everett Lee in 1944. In 1952 Sylvia and her husband moved to Rome, Italy, where they studied opera and oratorio as Fulbright Scholars at the Santa Cecilia Academy.
Perhaps Olden Lee’s most notable achievement was in 1954, when she became the first African American to hold a position of vocal coach with the Metropolitan Opera. She paved the way for other African American musicians to perform with the MET. Famously, Olden Lee coached contralto Marian Anderson, who made history as the first African American to sing with the Metropolitan Opera.
After working with the MET, Olden Lee moved to Germany where she produced television specials. She returned to the USA in 1970, working in Philadelphia at the Curtis Institute of Music for 20 years. She officially retired from teaching in 1990, but stayed active after retirement.
In 1997, Olden Lee performed for a televised concert at Carnegie hall. In 2003, she received an honorary doctorate from Oberlin Conservatory. On April 10, 2004, Sylvia Olden Lee died in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania after a battle with pancreatic cancer.
Mark Fairchild on Sylvia’s teaching:
“So, who was Sylvia? She lived to help singers convey ideas. Even though I don’t know if she ever read the dialogues of Plato, she was one of the most Socratic people I’ve ever known. She would ask a singer a series of seemingly simple, almost naive questions about the meaning of a song.” What is the mood of the person singing this song?” “Swing low, sweet chariot— What does that refer to?” “Who is speaking in this portion of the song?” “Aren’t you actually quoting someone here?” She then demanded that the performance be dedicated to the communication of those ideas…She had very little tolerance for simply ”pretty sound,” or a singer who would merely attempt to “show off.” She would often describe such folly as “pitiful”— with such an almost indescribable facial expression of reproach that you wanted to die rather than commit such an offense.”