Baritone William Benjamin Ray, Sr. passed away at the age of 94 on July 3, 2019. His death has been attributed to congestive heart failure.
According to the Baltimore Sun, Ray was a Lexington, Kentucky-born opera singer and civil rights activist who began singing at the tender age of six.
As a young man, Ray was drafted and served as part of the 375th Engineering General Services Regiment in Germany. He was the recipient of both the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart, among other honors. Before going on to pursue his true passion at Oberlin College of Music Conservatory, Ray attended Kentucky State University, where a teacher told him flat-out “Honey, we don’t have enough music here. You should go to a conservatory. And with that voice, they’ll offer you a scholarship.”
Following his college graduation, he continued to study voice with Daniel Harris and was featured as a soloist with the De Paur Infantry Chorus. During a performance of Puccini’s “Il Tabarro” at Cleveland’s Karamu House, an agent took notice of his exceptional talent and presented him with the opportunity to sing King Balthazar in an upcoming production of Menotti’s “Amahl and the Night Visitors” at the Wiener Staatsoper. This was Ray’s big break – he went on to become a leading baritone at the Cuvilliés Theater and Frankfurt Opera.
With performance opportunities for black opera singers few and far between in the U.S., Ray continued to build his career in Europe, frequently performing in whiteface. He used his own struggles to fuel powerful performances.
Ray founded the Black Theater Productions in Stuttgart, Germany in 1974 “in response to the dismal treatment of minorities.” He later served on the faculties of both Peabody Conservatory and Howard University and volunteered as a board member of the Annapolis Opera Company before his retirement in 2000.
Peabody Institute shared via Twitter that they “mourn the passing of William Benjamin Ray Sr. and are grateful for all he contributed to Peabody and the community during his life.”