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Sylvia Olden

Female 1917 - 2004


 

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Obituary: Sylvia Olden Lee

Published in the Philadelphia Daily News, 16 Apr 2004.

Philadelphia Daily News (PA) - April 16, 2004
Deceased Name: Sylvia Olden Lee, 86, music-world icon

SYLVIA Olden Lee was a grand diva of music. She was a vocal coach to great opera luminaries such as Jessye Norman and Katherine Battle. A classical-trained pianist, she had a sharp mind and could play more than 300 arias from memory.

"She was a brilliant, innovative, fascinating musician," her daughter, Eve, said. "Her music was her life. There was nothing she didn't know. She never needed the music sheets; it was in her head."

"She was an icon in the music world," said Blanche Burton-Lyles, the founder of the Marian Anderson Historical Society and a longtime friend. She was very spirited and outspoken, but she knew what she knew and so you listened to her. People came from all over the world to sit at her feet and hear her wisdom."

Lee, whose impact in the world of opera and classical music is legendary, died Saturday of complications from old age. She was 86 and lived in Germantown.

Born in Meridian, Miss., Lee began studying piano when she was 5, and her career took off. She studied the piano and organ at Howard University. She was invited to play at the White House for President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's first inauguration. In 1935, she was recruited to Overlin Conservatory. Three years later she was teaching, first at Talladega College, Ala., then at Dillard University in New Orleans.

But Lee also had a great career as a performer. She toured with singer Paul Robeson throughout the South and was invited to play at the White House for Eleanor Roosevelt. She was also the first African-American winner of the Naumberg Music Competition.

In 1944, she married violinist/conductor Everett Lee, and continued playing and accompanying in the studios of Elisabeth Schumann, Eva Gautier, Konrad Bos, Rosalie Miller, Fritz Lehmann and many others.

She also trained singers for the New York City Center Opera and the Metropolitan Opera, coached at Tanglewood Music Festival and was technical adviser for the world premiere of Benjamin Britten's "Peter Grimes." She helped her husband prepare an opera performance for his cosmopolitan little symphony (the first interracial symphony), and for
the Columbia University Opera Workshop.

Lee was a Fulbright Scholar at the Santa Cecilia Academy in Rome, and was invited to the Metropolitan Opera, to be a Kathryn Tourney Long Scholar. Lee was the first African-American to be employed at the Met. While there, she worked with singer Marian Anderson.

In 1956 she received a grant, along with her husband, from the German government to study music at the Munich Conservatory of Music.

In 1963, she moved to Sweden and performed as a piano soloist with her husband throughout Scandinavia and Germany. The couple later separated.

In 1970 Lee moved to Germantown because she had been invited to teach at the Curtis Institute of Music. She was the first African-American member of the faculty. And the high-profile opportunities continued to pour in. She coached the singers in the premiere of "Porgy and Bess" at the Metropolitan Opera and coached the Russian Company, which performed it in their native land.

She served as musical consultant and artistic director of the Spirituals broadcast starring Jessye Norman and Kathleen Battle, which was broadcast internationally. She most recently was the musical and vocal coach to the Marian Anderson Historical Society for which she taught her Project Sylvia master class to Marian Anderson scholars.

But no matter how accomplished she was, Lee never hesitated to tell everyone around her that she was the granddaughter of a slave. She wanted no one to think she was white because she had fair skin and blonde hair.

She is also survived by a son, Everett Lee III, and two granddaughters.

Memorial service: 1 p.m. June 26 at Union Baptist Church, 1910 Fitzwater St.

Donations can be sent to the Sylvia Olden Lee Voice Scholarship, Oberlin College Conservatory of Music, 77 W. College St., Oberlin, Ohio, 44074-1588. *

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