Carol Brice (b. Sedalia, NC, 16 April 1918; d. Norman, OK, 15 February 1985) was a leading contralto on the American recital, concert, and Broadway stage for several decades, and one of the first African-American classical singers to record extensively. The first black musician ever to win the prestigious Walter W. Naumburg Foundation Award, she was frequently compared with Marian Anderson.
Born into a musical family in North Carolina, Brice was trained at the Palmer Memorial Institute in Sedalia and went on to earn a Bachelor of Music degree in 1939 at Talladega College in Alabama. She went on to the Juilliard School of Music in New York, studying for four years with the revered Francis Rogers (“The song is more important than the singer”).
Carol Brice attracted public attention when, newly arrived in New York, she sang at the 1939 New York World’s Fair with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson in The Hot Mikado. In 1941 she was chosen to sing at a Washington concert in honor of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s third inauguration. She competed for, and won, the Naumburg Award in 1943, and the following year made her recital debut at Town Hall. Her concerts and competitions during this period frequently featured her brother Jonathan Brice as piano accompanist. She was the contralto on Columbia Masterworks’ 1946 recording of Manuel de Falla’s El Amor Brujo, with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra conducted by Fritz Reiner.
Brice’s Broadway career did not get under way until 1959; indeed it was her highly praised performance as Addie in the City Opera’s 1958 production of Marc Blitzstein’s Regina – a work that lies somewhere on the border between opera and musical theatre – that revealed her gift for the genre. First she took on the starring role of Kakou in the original Broadway cast of Harold Arlen’s Saratoga, with Howard Keel and Carol Lawrence, then played Maude in the 1960 revival of Finian’s Rainbow. In 1963 she was back at the City Opera, in the world premiere of Jerome Moross’s Gentlemen, Be Seated.
From 1967 to 1971 Brice sang regularly in Vienna as a member of the Volksoper, where she met her husband, baritone Thomas Carey. Carey, born in South Carolina, brought up in New York City, and educated at City College and the Henry Street Music School, had won grants to study in Europe, and had been pursuing an operatic career there for about ten years. He, too, had been the winner of an international competition. In 1969 he returned to the US to teach at the University of Oklahoma, where his wife followed him two years later, after a very short run on Broadway in the role of Catherine Creek in The Grass Harp. She joined the University faculty in Norman in 1974.
But in 1976, Brice was again on the operatic stage, as Maria in the Houston Grand Opera production of Porgy and Bess. The recording won a Grammy, and the entire show moved to Broadway, winning a 1977 Tony Award® for Most Innovative Production of a Revival.
Brice and Carey had founded the Church Circuit Opera Company in Norman, Oklahoma in 1975. In 1981 it was renamed the Cimarron Circuit Opera. Although Carol Brice soon died of cancer at the age of 66, her husband headed Cimarron Circuit for eighteen more years until his own death in 2002. It is still a vigorously functioning, non-profit, locally touring educational institution.