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STL-born opera star who broke Met color barrier dies


New York – A St. Louis-born soprano who broke the color barrier at the Metropolitan Opera debut has died. Helen Phillips was 86.

She became the first black chorister at the Met when she was hired as an extra in 1947. That was seven years before Marian Anderson's historic debut in a major role.

Phillips died of heart failure July 27 in New York, her nurse at the Isabella Geriatric Center said.

Although the opera company had no formal policy barring non-whites from appearing on its stage, Phillips became the first black chorister when she was hired as an extra for five performances of Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana from December 1947 through February 1948, said Met archivist Jeff McMillan. In 1933, a troupe of black dancers performed with the Met, he said.

In January 1955, Anderson became the first black singer to perform a major role at the Met, portraying Ulrica in Verdi's A Masked Ball.

Phillips was a St. Louis native who graduated from Lincoln University in Jefferson City. She sang at Manhattan's Town Hall in 1953, and with orchestras in Madrid, Spain, and St. Louis, where she also sang with the opera company.

In 1954, Phillips sang the part of Queenie in a production of Show Boat at New York's City Center. She also performed more than 500 times as part of a State Department entertainment tour of Austria and West Germany.

Phillips later became a schoolteacher and vocal coach.