A Woman of Many Talents: Betty Allen

The beloved American mezzo-soprano, esteemed recitalist, artistic administrator, educator, and teacher served on the Curtis voice faculty from 1988–90

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Early Life

“When she was onstage everything came to life, and everything around her was dimmed.” —Harold Schonberg, The New York Times, 1973.

Born on March 17, 1927, in Campbell, Ohio, pioneering operatic mezzo-soprano and recitalist Betty Allen (Elizabeth Louise Allen, known as Betty Lou) enjoyed an illustrious international singing career from the 1950s through the 1970s before embarking on a second career as an artistic administrator, educator, and voice teacher. After her singing career ended, Ms. Allen became a sought-after voice teacher and an arts advocate and administrator, serving on numerous prestigious boards and teaching at the Manhattan School of Music. It was in her role as teacher that she began her relationship with the Curtis Institute of Music, where she served on the voice faculty from 1988–90, gave several prominent master classes in the 1980s, and was Curtis’s commencement speaker in 1988 while serving in her position as the Executive Director of the Harlem School of Arts.

Best known for her collaborations with American composers, including Leonard Bernstein (Conducting ’41), Aaron Copland, David Diamond, Ned Rorem (Composition ’44), and Virgil Thomson, Ms. Allen was part of the second generation of Black opera singers (alongside Grace Bumbry, Leontyne Price, and Shirley Verrett) to achieve widespread success. She was seen as one of the key artists who worked to overcome racial prejudice in the opera world. She was greatly admired by Mr. Bernstein, who notably chose her to be the featured soloist for his final performances as the New York Philharmonic music director in 1973.

Following her mother’s death at age 12, Ms. Allen boarded a bus to Youngstown, Ohio. There, she entered the foster home system. Before enrolling at Wilberforce College, she met Theodor Heimann—a former Berlin Opera tenor who taught German and voice there—who encouraged her to consider a singing career. After receiving a scholarship from the Hartford School of Music and graduating, Allen studied voice in New York City with Sarah Peck More, Zinka Milanov, and Paul Ulanowsky.

In the 1950s, she studied at the Tanglewood Music Festival’s Berkshire Music Center, where Mr. Bernstein selected her to be the mezzo-soprano soloist in his Jeremiah Symphony with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. She made her New York City Opera debut as Queenie in Jerome Kern’s Show Boat. She then played Begonia in Hans Werner Henze’s comic opera The Young Lord, Sesto and Annio in La clemenza di Tito, and Dorabella in Così fan tutte with the company.


Betty Allen made her formal opera debut in 1964, performing the role of Jocasta in Igor Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex at the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires. She went on to sing with numerous opera companies worldwide, including the Canadian Opera Company, the Metropolitan Opera, Santa Fe Opera, Washington Opera, and Bellas Artes in Mexico City. Other prominent operatic roles included Teresa in La Sonnambula, the title role of Carmen, Monisha in Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha, Mistress Quickly in Verdi’s Falstaff, Suzuki in Madama Butterfly, Baba the Turk in The Rake’s Progress. In 1973, Ms. Allen performed in the “mini-Met” performances of Virgil Thompson’s Four Saints in Three Acts, singing the role of Commère, which Alvin Ailey staged at the Forum at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater.

Betty Allen passed away in Valhalla, New York, in 2009 at 82. Read more about Ms. Allen in a tribute to her life in The New York Times HERE.

Please visit the Curtis Institute of Music Open Archives and Recitals (CIMOAR). Learn more about Curtis’s library and archives HERE.

Photo credits: 1.) Detroit Public Library Digital Collections, E. Azalia Hackley Collection. 2.) Alchetron Digital Encyclopedia; Betty Allen. 3.) Betty Allen with composer Virgil Thomson preparing for a New York Philharmonic performance of “Four Saints in Three Acts” in 1952; John Vignoli, courtesy of the Musical America Archives. 4.) Betty Allen performing with the Salem United Methodist Singers in the early 1970s, The New York Times; Chester Higgins Jr. 5.) Courtesy of the Curtis Archives and Special Collections.

-article by Ryan Lathan, Associate Director of Communications