Todd Duncan was born in Danville, Kentucky in 1903. He obtained his musical training at Butler University in Indianapolis with a B.A. in music followed by an M.A. from Columbia University Teachers College.
Duncan was George Gershwin's personal choice as the first performer of the role of Porgy in Porgy and Bess in 1935 and played the role more than 1,800 times. He led the cast during the Washington run of Porgy and Bess at the National Theatre in 1936, to protest the theatre's policy of segregation. Duncan stated that he "would never play in a theater which barred him from purchasing tickets to certain seats because of his race." Eventually management would give into the demands and allow for the first integrated performance at National Theatre. Duncan was also the first performer for the role of Stephen Kumalo in Kurt Weill's Lost in the Stars.
Duncan taught voice at Howard University in Washington, D.C. for more than fifty years. While teaching at Howard, he continued touring as a soloist with pianists William Duncan Allen and George Malloy. He had a very successful career as a concert singer with over 2,000 performances in 56 countries. He retired from Howard and opened his own voice studio teaching privately and giving periodic recitals.
In 1945, he became the first African American to sing with a major opera company, and the first black person to sing in an opera with an otherwise white cast, when he performed the role of Tonio in Leoncavallo's Pagliacci with the New York City Opera. In the same year he sang the role of Escamillo, the bullfighter, in Bizet's Carmen. In 1955, Duncan was the first to record Unchained Melody, a popular song with music by Alex North and lyrics by Hy Zaret. The recording was made for the soundtrack of the obscure prison film Unchained, in which Duncan also played a minor character. Following Duncan's version, the song went on to become one of the most recorded songs of the 20th century.
In his final interview, Todd Duncan spoke of his love for spirituals: "... spirituals are so deep inside of me, it's difficult for me to find words that are meaningful. Spirituals are a part of whatever I am. When I sing them my being sings them, not my throat.... It is very difficult for me to put into words something that is at the bottom of my very being."
Honors and death
In 1978, the Washington Performing Arts Society presented his 75th birthday gala. Duncan was awarded the George Peabody Medal of Music from the Peabody Conservatory of Music of Johns Hopkins University in 1984. Other awards he received include a medal of honor from Haiti, an NAACP award, the Donaldson Award, the New York Drama Critics' Award for Lost in the Stars, and honorary doctorates from Valparaiso University and Butler University.
He died of a heart ailment at his home in Washington, D.C., in 1998.
- "Porgy and Bess: Today in History, September 2". Library of Congress. Retrieved 2007-12-06.
- Deaths: Malloy, George, The New York Times, March 20, 2008
- quoted in Nash, Elizabeth, Autobiographical Reminiscences of African-American Classical Singers, 1853-Present, Edwin Mellen Press, 2007, p. 170
- "Notable Men of Alpha Phi Alpha". Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Mu Lambda chapter. Retrieved 2007-12-06.
- The Music of Black Americans: A History. Eileen Southern. W. W. Norton & Company; 3rd edition. ISBN 0-393-97141-4
- "Todd Duncan." Newsmakers 1998, Issue 3. Gale Group, 1998.
- The African American Registry