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Duncan, Todd(1903–1998) - Opera singer, educator, actor, Chronology, Success in Teaching, Resumes Teaching Career

university kentucky music college

One of Kentucky’s great civil rights pioneers, noted teacher, opera singer, and actor Todd Duncan was inducted into the Kentucky Civil Rights Hall of Fame at Kentucky State University in Frankfort, Kentucky, in 2005. Duncan made significant contributions on a national level, and as a voice and music teacher he influenced generations of African American musicians and vocalists. He developed a system of teaching operatic singing known as the Duncan Technique. Because of Duncan, major changes in classical musical performance for African Americans began to take place in the United States.

Born Robert Todd Duncan in Danville, Kentucky, in 1903, Todd Duncan (as he was commonly called) moved to Somerset with his mother when he was quite young. While a young child he studied piano with his mother, Nettie Cooper Duncan. He attended the Davis Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church, singing in the choir. Duncan completed elementary school about 1916, then at the age of thirteen he moved to Louisville to attend the African American high school at Simmons University. There appears to be some disagreement on when the family moved to Indianapolis. Some sources indicated that his early education was completed in Louisville, Kentucky, and some mention that his early education was completed in Indianapolis. Sources that report that he attended high school in Indianapolis indicate that he was an industrious but not brilliant student.

Duncan continued his musical training at Butler University in Indiana, where evidence of his outstanding abilities began to manifest. He earned a bachelor of music degree in 1925. He also attended the College of Fine Arts in Indianapolis. His academic training continued with training in voice and theory at the College of Music and Fine Arts in Indianapolis.



Born in Danville, Kentucky on February 12; moves with his mother to Somerset, Kentucky


Completes elementary education


Receives B.A. from Butler University


Teaches at Louisville Municipal College for Negroes


Receives M.A. from Columbia University Teachers College


Appointed professor of voice at Howard University


Debuts in Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana


Performs the role Porgy in George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess


Has lead in the Sun Never Sets (London)


Gives concert at the White House for President and Mrs. Roosevelt


Appears in the film Cabin in the Sky


Appears in Syncopation


Appears in revival of Broadway musical Porgy and Bess


Retires from Howard University; opens his own voice studio; becomes the first African American male to sing with a major opera company, singing the role of Tonio in Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci ; sings the role of Escamillio in Bizet’s Carmen


Appears as Stephen Kumalo in Weill’s Lost in the Stars


Appears in Unchained


Seventy-fifth birthday gala held by the Washington Performing Arts Society


Dies in Washington, D.C. on February 28


Posthumously inducted into the Kentucky Civil Rights Hall of Fame at Kentucky State University in Frankfort, Kentucky

Duncan later attended Columbia University Teachers College in New York, where he received a master’s degree in music in 1930. He studied voice with Sara Lee, Edward Lippe, and Sidney Dietch in New York City. He received his L.H.D. from Valparaiso University in 1950 and the degree of Doctor of Music from Central State College in Ohio.

Success in Teaching

After earning his degree from Butler, Duncan accepted a teaching position in a local junior high school in Indianapolis. After this position he taught at Louisville Municipal College for Negroes, operated by the University of Louisville, from 1925 to 1930, as an instructor in English and music. His tenure there offered him an opportunity to gain experience directing operettas such as The Marriage of Nanette, The Chocolate Soldier , and other Gilbert and Sullivan works.

After graduating from Columbia University, in 1930, with an M.A., he was offered a teaching position at Howard University, in Washington, D.C. In 1931, he was appointed professor of voice at Howard University in Washington, D.C, a post he held until 1945. As a teacher at Howard, he was able to share his knowledge of classical European music with a mainly black student population. He taught special ways to present the music. These special ways became known as the Duncan Technique. Along with his teaching responsibilities at Howard, Duncan was also in charge of the public school music department in D.C.

In 1934, Duncan married Gladys Jackson, a teacher in the Washington, D.C. public school system. They had one son. Duncan was an avid tennis player and was often on the courts in Washington, D.C, where he made his home with his wife and son when he was not on tour.

Resumes Teaching Career

After a twenty-five-year career on Broadway, in films, and with more than two-thousand recitals in fifty-six countries, Duncan resumed his career as a teacher. He retired from Howard University in 1945 and opened his own voice studio teaching privately and giving periodic recitals. In 1978, the Washington Performing Arts Society presented his seventy-fifth birthday gala. Duncan died upstairs at his home on February 28, 1998. He taught hundreds of students over the years, and some musicians say they can recognize his students because they demonstrate his special method of singing.

Todd Duncan was inducted into the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame. Duncan’s achievements in the world of classical music were highlighted in Kentucky after the former chair of the music department of Bethune-Cookman College in Florida went to Kentucky to visit the places she had written about in her dissertation on his life. After her visit, the Duncan Celebration Team was formed to revive his memory in the state of Kentucky.

In 2003, the theater in the Center for Rural Development paid a musical tribute to the life of Todd Duncan and raised over $1,500 toward the Dunbar High School Alumni Scholarship fund. Dunbar was the former all-black high school in Somerset, Kentucky where Duncan spent his early years. He was also awarded an NAACP award for his contribution to the theater (1945), the president of Haiti’s Medal of Honor and Merit (1945), and the Donaldson and the Critics Awards for his performances in musicals (1950).

Dunham, Katherine [next] [back] Dunbar, William (c. 1460–c. 1514) - BIOGRAPHY, CRITICAL RECEPTION

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