“The greatest lesson to learn is honesty, integrity and deep commitment. Understand that if you want to be an artist, every hour in the day, every day in the week must be a testament to your inner desire.” -Todd Duncan
Robert Todd Duncan (known as Todd Duncan) was born on February 12,1903 in Danville, Kentucky. He was an American opera singer, actor, and voice teacher. He is best known for appearing as Porgy in the original production of Porgy and Bess (1935) and being one of the first African-Americans to sing with a major opera company.
Duncan moved to Indianapolis, Indiana at the age of four. His father worked as a farmer, butler, and chauffeur. His mother was a piano teacher and church musician. When his parents divorced, he and his mother moved to Somerset, Kentucky to live with his maternal grandfather. In 1922, Duncan completed high school at Simmons University inLouisville, Kentucky. He went on to study at the College of Music and Fine Arts where he majored in music, and at Butler College where he majored in English. He began teaching at the Municipal College for Negroes in Louisville, which is where he was exposed to opera. He went on to graduate with a master’s degree from Teachers College, Columbia University.
In 1930, Duncan began teaching voice on faculty at Howard University in Washington, D.C. During this period he met Nancy Gladys Jackson at a church choir rehearsal. They were married in 1934 and Duncan adopted her son Charles, from a previous marriage. The same year, Duncan made his professional opera debut in the role of Alfio in Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana with the Aeolian Negro Opera Company. Duncan’s performance caught the attention of New York Times critic Olin Downes, who recommended him to composer George Gershwin for his upcoming opera, Porgy and Bess. Duncan landed the role of Porgy in the original Broadway run, and then went on to tour the role nationally and internationally to great acclaim.
Duncan was a versatile performer and performed in opera, musical theater, and cinema. Performing career highlights include: “Lost in the stars” on Broadway, “Unchained,” a film for which Duncan sang the Oscar-nominated theme song “Unchained Melody,” and singing at the inauguration of President Lyndon B. Johnson.
In the mid 1960s Duncan retired from performing and focused his attention on teaching voice. He taught from his private studio in Washington, D.C., while also working on the faculty at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Duncan studied voice with Eduardo Lippe, Sarah Lee, and Frank Bibb at various stages in his career. As a voice teacher, Duncan taught into his 90s, and many of his students went on to be world class performers and pedagogues in their own right, including Philip Booth, Carmen Tencredi, and Marvin Keenze.
Duncan was also an advocate for racial desegregation. An inspiring story about a stand he made against the Washington National Theatre at the end of the Porgy and Bess US tour can be read here. He received numerous awards, including the George Peabody Medal of Music (Johns Hopkins University), New York Drama Critics’ Award for “Lost in the Stars,” and eight honorary doctorates. Todd Duncan died on February 28, 1998 of a heart condition in his Washington residence.
Todd Duncan’s advice to students:
“The greatest lesson to learn is honesty, integrity and deep commitment. Understand that if you want to be an artist, every hour in the day, every day in the week must be a testament to your inner desire.”
Marvin Keenze on Duncan’s approach to breathing for singing:
“He was a ‘down and out’ person. He was about maintaining the “Appoggio” posture. Low larynx. “The inhalation of the breath puts the instrument in the proper position and then you leave it there. You sing from where the breath places the instrument.” I went to see him years later in Annapolis and he said to me, “Marvin, what do you thing about subglottal air compression?” He used a lot of vocal fry’s to get this subglottal compression that would guide the voice. He would say that the last point of resistance is at the vocal folds. He would say to sing in your body on that feeling of sub-glotal pressure. He believed that the diaphragm could not be controlled directly, and that the larynx was an organ of reaction. “You must always treat it like that.” He talked about ‘jelly belly.’ The epigrastrium could not be tight. There was nothing in between these two things (Marvin places one hand on his lower abdomen and the other of his head.)
Marvin Keenze on Lessons with Todd Duncan:
He would start with scales and loved intervals. Regardless of the student’s level, the first part of the lesson was always spent on the mechanics of singing. He did not have a monolithic teaching style and emphasized only one or two principles at a time so that the student would not become overwhelmed. And he was into the meaning of the poetry. This was very, very important to him. It’s hard to separate his presence from the teaching. Duncan said that when his students got up to sing he didn’t want anyone to say that they could hear the technique of Todd Duncan. “Singing is singing! You get up there and all this stuff I’ve given you- forget it! All of it will work automatically if God wants you to sing- not Todd Duncan!”