When Charlotte Holloman was a little girl, only eight years old, she and her parents visited the summer home of Harry T. Burleigh on Martha’s Vineyard. Mr. Burleigh, best known for his instrumental role in arranging and publishing African American spirituals and bringing the songs to a wider audience, had long vacationed on the Island. During the visit, he brought Mrs. Holloman to a church in West Tisbury where there was an organ, thinking that Charlotte, a budding pianist, might like to play.
“My feet would not go all the way down to the pedals,” Mrs. Holloman, now 91, recalled some 80 years later, seated in a wicker chair at a friend’s home on Farm Pond in Oak Bluffs, her eyes radiant beneath her white hat. So Mr. Burleigh worked the pedals while Mrs. Holloman played.
In 1962 Mrs. Holloman and her family bought a summer home of their own on Martha’s Vineyard, situated where the Lagoon Pond bridge is in Tisbury. The house was recently taken by the state of Massachusetts via easement in order to complete the final phase of bridge construction. Mrs. Holloman now stays with friends when she visits the Vineyard, traveling up from her Washington, D.C. home with her daughter, also named Charlotte.
But Martha’s Vineyard is a tiny blip in the vast world Mrs. Holloman has explored in her 91 years.
“When somebody asks me something about myself, then I have a lot to talk about,” she said.
Mrs. Holloman was born in Washington in 1922, the daughter of Charles and Louise Wesley. Charles, the third black student to earn a doctorate from Harvard, was head of the history department at Howard University. Mrs. Holloman attended Howard once she was old enough, enrolling in the junior music program to study piano. Prior to that, she had been a student at Dunbar, the first public high school for black students.
She sang backup for Harry Belafonte — although the version of Day-O that made it on the record is not the one with her vocals — and somewhere in the caverns of music history there is a lost James Brown recording she also did backup work on with her friend Gloria. She traveled the country as an understudy in the road company of Carmen Jones, and acted in The Barrier, a play based on the Langston Hughes story The Mulatto. Langston Hughes himself called her to ask if she could be in his play, Street Scene, but she was a new mother at the time, and her own mother, Louise, would have none of it.
Mrs. Holloman is first and foremost an opera singer, but this career happened almost by chance.
Just before she entered her final semester at Howard, Mrs. Holloman realized she would need one more credit to graduate. She and the school secretary went through the course catalog class by class. Having already taken nearly all of the one-credit classes offered except violin — and “that would require me buying a violin” — she signed up for voice. But there was a catch. Voice lessons involved an audition with music instructor Todd Duncan, the man who originated the role of Porgy in George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess.
She had no material prepared, so she simply sang America.
“So I started to sing that,” Mrs. Holloman recalled. “He said to me, ‘Interesting.’” They did some vocal exercises. Mr. Duncan sat at the piano and began in the middle, playing five-note exercises and asking Mrs. Holloman to sing the notes back. He continued right up the piano, into the highest portion of the register, and Mrs. Holloman continued right up too. Mr. Duncan’s jaw dropped. He asked how she was doing that.
“I said, ‘do what?’” Mrs. Holloman recalled. “So he said, ‘Well, we’re going to have an interesting time.’”
Mrs. Holloman began her voice studies as a coloratura, the highest register in opera. Mr. Duncan also encouraged Mrs. Holloman to keep moving forward in her new vocal world, and sent her to Baltimore to take private lessons with a friend of his at the Peabody Institute of Music. She later moved to New York city to get her Master’s degree at Columbia University’s Teacher College. It was then, working to pay for her voice lessons, that she recorded backup vocals with James Brown and Harry Belafonte. In 1954 Mrs. Holloman performed a debut concert at The Town Hall, a performing arts center in New York city. “In her performance Miss Holloman demonstrated a vocal range and facility nothing short of phenomenal,” a New York Times write-up observed. “Miss Holloman even proved able to cope with the finale of Strauss’s 1937 opera Daphne, written with typical Straussian disregard for vocal limitations. The aria was listed as a first performance in this city.”
The debut drew the attention of the very first New York Times music critic, Carl Van Vechten, who, like Mr. Duncan, encouraged her to continue studying, and to apply for a Rockefeller grant. The grant took her first to London, where she gave a debut concert in 1961, and then to Berlin, where she was told that she needed more study.
“I have been studying for 12 to 13 years,” Mrs. Holloman recalled telling the instructor. But it wasn’t enough, she learned, and so she went to Milan to develop the lower parts of her voice, becoming a lirico spinto, which “is kind of a big lyrical soprano,” she explained.
“I worked every day, twice a day for 18 months, and I did nothing but vocal exercises,” she said. In the meantime, her grant ran out and she became a teacher at the Berlitz school, teaching the children of diplomats, to continue her lessons.
The work led to an audition, and eventually a four-year contract — unheard of at the time, when most contracts were for one year — with the opera in Essen, Germany.
In Europe, she was among a minority of Americans and an even smaller group of black Americans who performed there. After five years, she returned to the states and to teaching.
Mrs. Holloman taught first at Lehman College in New York city before moving to Washington to be closer to her parents. After some time at Northern Virginia Community College, Catholic University and the University of Washington, D.C., she went back to where it all began.
“I’ve taught the last 19 years at Howard University, full time,” Mrs. Holloman said. “I stopped [singing] because I was doing so much teaching I couldn’t devote the time that I wanted. But if somebody said will you do a song for my wedding or something . . . I’d do it.”
This article has been updated to reflect the correct spelling of Carl Van Vechten's name.