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Josephine Curtis

In 1949, South Bend gained a premiere reputation on the international opera scene, thanks in part to the woman pictured here. In June of that year at South Bend’s Central High School, the Harry Thacker Burleigh Music Association debuted a fully-staged performance of Ouanga, the first opera written and composed by African-Americans. The musical association was founded by Josephine Curtis shortly after her arrival in South Bend in 1933. Curtis moved to the area from St. Louis, Missouri, with her husband, Dr. Guy P. Curtis. She graduated from the University of Chicago in 1927 and studied music at the private Kroeger School of Music in St. Louis. Named for African-American composer and arranger Harry Burleigh, the association performed several concerts and operas a year. Georgia Ward Bryant, a locally-trained pianist, and James Lewis Casaday, the association’s stage director, worked alongside Curtis to promote professional standards within the company. In 1947, local newspapers began to report on their performances, and the group earned its reputation as an artistic pillar of the community. The grouped performed at Central High School, First Methodist Church and Hering House. This eventually led to the groundbreaking performance of Ouanga, a piece completed in 1932 by Clarence Cameron White and John Frederick Matheus.  The association produced its last opera, Taylor’s Hiawatha, in 1959, and its last known performance was a concert in the fall of 1960. In addition to founding the Harry Thacker Burleigh Music Association, Curtis received an honorary degree from Saint Mary’s College and was involved in the South Bend Women’s Council for Human Relations. Donated by John Charles Bryant.

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