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Preserving the Thomas Carey papers

by Felicia D. Render

Postcard photograph of Thomas Carey in character, undated
Postcard photograph of Thomas Carey in character, undated

Artists and musicians express themselves in myriad ways to convey passion for their craft. The Thomas Carey Papers at the Amistad Research Center display evidence of this passion, documenting significant contributions to African American classical and operatic genres of music. With the assistance of the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation, archivists at the Amistad Research Center are preserving and providing access to Carey’s papers, helping opera researchers for many years to come.

Acquired in 1991, the Thomas Carey Papers at Amistad Research Center provide a rich resource of materials that document the life of Carey, an operatic baritone singer and music professor. Thomas Carey established the Cimarron Circuit Opera Company (CCOC) in Oklahoma with his wife, Carol Brice Carey, as a vehicle for young aspiring artists. Carey’s distinguished career as a baritone concert singer, beginning in the 1950s, is testimony to the increased opportunities and recognition of Black vocal artists.

Thomas Devore Carey was born on December 29, 1931, in Bennettsville, South Carolina, to Ernest Govan and Beatrice Devore Carey. After serving in the United States Army for two years (1951-1953), Carey attended New York City College and the Henry Street Settlement Music School (1954-1960). While there he studied voice under Lola Urbach and Rose Bampton; vocals with Felix Popper and Ilse Sass; and theatrics, piano and opera under Robert Egan, Harvey Wedeen and Adelaide Bishop. In 1957, Carey debuted at Town Hall in New York City. A year later Carey performed the leading role in the music school’s opera production of Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari’s School for Fathers and Gaetano Donizetti’s Don Pasquale. Carey’s many appearances and his genial attitude made him a favorite of audiences throughout New York City.

Thomas Carey headshot, undated
Thomas Carey headshot, undated

During his career Carey performed worldwide, singing the roles of Porgy and Sportin’ Life with the Belgium Symphony Orchestra; appearing as Absalom in the German premiere of Lost in the Stars (1963); as Joe in the London production of Show Boat (1971); and in the role of Porgy in Porgy and Bess at the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera and in Atlanta (1974). Thomas Carey came to teach at the University of Oklahoma in 1969, and was one of the school’s first black faculty members; he stayed there until his death in 2002.

The Thomas Carey papers include correspondence, financial records and administrative materials on the Careys’ joint project, the Cimarron Circuit Opera Company. Included within the papers are correspondence, photographs, news releases, newspaper and magazine clippings, newsletters, programs, brochures and announcements. The bulk of his correspondence (1959-1969) are letters written to “Maestro and Madame” (Wilfred and Rose Bampton Pelletier) pertaining to his career. There are letters documenting his activities in Munich and Stuttgart, where Carey studied and performed at the Stuttgart Opera Company in Germany.

Overall, the Thomas Carey Papers provide insight into the professional career of an African American musical legend. Today, the Careys’ organization, Cimarron Circuit Opera Company, continues to provide opportunities for performers to develop educational and culturally enriching experiences in operatic and lyrical music productions.

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