This story is part of a series of 50 stories we are releasing to commemorate 50 years of opera in West Michigan. Browse more stories and follow our journey throughout the season.
Catherine Barrow-Williams, Opera Grand Rapids first African American opera singer, established herself during a time of unprecedented racial tension.
Catherine Barrow-Williams first performance with Opera Grand Rapids took place during the long hot summer of 1967, when American cities would be decimated by race riots, and interracial marriage was a legal issue to be decided by the Supreme Court. As Grand Rapids’ first African American opera singer, Williams established herself in an overwhelmingly white art form during a time of unprecedented racial tension. She sang in The Marriage of Figaro, the very first performance by the organization that would eventually become Opera Grand Rapids. The entire production received enthusiastic reviews and put opera in Grand Rapids on the map.
While unquestionably a trailblazer, those who knew her remember her as much for her compassion as for her courage. Known as “Mama Cathy” to those in her congregation, Catherine often opened her home to those in need. She and her husband, Bishop John, were known to provide food, transportation, and spiritual guidance to anyone who fell into their orbit.
Cathy’s zest for life can be seen in a video uploaded to Youtube by a member of her congregation. Taken just a month before she passed away, the video shows Cathy and members of her ministry on the way back from a conference in Cincinnati. As an elder of her congregation, Cathy was a spiritual leader, but that didn’t stop her from setting an example in other ways; in the video, taken in the early A.M., the bus is full of laughing, light, and singing, but it’s Cathy that stands up, claps her hands, and starts to dance.
Despite the often-fraught race relations in the late sixties, especially in her hometown of Detroit, Cathy said she always felt welcome in Grand Rapids. “God knew best. He brought me here. It was the best thing that ever happened to me, raising my kids here in Grand Rapids,” says Cathy in an interview during her final months. “As an adult, I went to Grand Rapids Community College, and I went to Grand Valley. I was a music major in school. And that was my life, singing. I was the first black opera singer here in Grand Rapids. I have been treated like royalty here. I love this town and I love the people.”
Cathy’s love for her eventual home didn’t stop her from seeing the world. As a missionary, she used the incredible gifts of her voice and her kindness to help hungry children on many continents. Said Cathy, “I’ve had the opportunity, as a missionary, to travel to over thirty countries. It’s been a wonderful life for me.” She described herself as an “instrument of peace,” and that was apparent in everything from the way she smiled to how she spent her time on earth.
Opera Grand Rapids is lucky to have had the honor of Cathy’s presence, both onstage and off. She secured her place in our history and our hearts.
OUR FOUNDERS HAD A BOLD PROPOSITION: to build a professional opera company that would put Grand Rapids on the map for a very discerning audience. 50 years later, we are humbled to be the modern bearers of classical standards and modern ingenuity. Learn more.
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