Picture the greatest opera companies and festivals of our time, and Sylvia Davis (b. 1935), lyric soprano, has performed with many of them. Singing opera, oratorios and solo recitals, she graced the stages of San Francisco, Santa Fe, Seattle, San Diego, Spoleto, Italy and Spoleto USA. Collaborating with America’s major choreographers, she has sung with The Elliot Feld Ballet, American Ballet Theater, US Terpsichore Ballet and Ballet Tech.
Born in Morton’s Gap, Kentucky, Sylvia cannot remember a time when singing played anything but a major role in her life. Both of her parents, who also sang, recognized and supported her talent at church and school. As early as age 11, when her family moved to Minneapolis for her father to attend the University of Minnesota’s PhD program in Physiology, Sylvia sang. At age 15, she launched her career as a professional church soloist which led to the winning of major auditions and the opportunity to perform in outdoor pops concerts. While a freshman in college at the University of Minnesota, Sylvia performed a full-length solo recital. Encouraged by the responses, she declared a major in vocal performance studying with the famous Danish tenor, Aksel Schiotz. In 1958, she graduated cum laude and sang to a packed house at her graduation recital which further encouraged her dream to be a professional singer.
Motherhood was also in Sylvia’s future. Soon after graduation, she married Naval officer, Robert Davis, and gave birth to two sons, Todd Davis and Timothy Davis-Reed. Upon arriving in the San Francisco area for her husband’s naval assignment, she successfully auditioned for major Bay area musical organizations like the Oakland Symphony Orchestra where she performed the soprano soloist’s role in Vivaldi’s Gloria when five months pregnant with her eldest son.
In 1963, Sylvia was chosen as the district winner for the San Francisco Opera company. This honor opened the door to an invitation to pursue advanced vocal studies with the company’s prestigious Merola Program. That same summer, she was also invited to participate as lead soprano in Boris Goldovsky’s graduate program at Stanford University. The following year, Sylvia did several major performances with Dr. Peggy Donovan-Jeffry, director of the San Francisco Opera Talent Bank. John Crosby, founder of the Santa Fe Opera Company invited her to spend the summer in Santa Fe singing Frasquita in Carmen; the bat in Ravel’s L’Enfant et a Les Sortiliegesand covering the role of Lauretta in Jianni Schikhi. Upon returning to the bay area, she sang the major role of Jane in Andrew Imbrie’s twelve-tone opera Three Against Christmas, which earned her first international recognition.
In the ensuing years, she continued to perform solo concerts and oratorios in Northern California with a repertoire that included Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, Christmas Oratorio, and Mass in B Minor, Handel’s Messiah and Samson, Haydn’s Lord Nelson Mass, Honnegger’s King David, the Brahm’s Requiem and Mozart’s Requiem.
In the Spring of 1965, Sylvia performed Rossini’s The Turk in Italy and Donezetti’s Elixir of Love, returning to Santa Fe to cover the soprano role in the American Premier of Hans Werner Henze’s The Stag King. In the fall, Sylvia reprised the soprano role of Vivaldi’s Gloria.
The following year, she sang the role of the governess in Benjamin Britten’s The Turn of the Screw with young maestro Christopher Keene, future director of the New York City Opera. In 1966, she was one of the winners of the San Francisco Opera auditions. She was then asked to perform the role of Violetta in La Traviata in Stern Grove outdoor performances. This was under the baton of Maestro Herbert Grossman, the man she would marry 43 years later.
As part of the Merola Program, Sylvia was trailed by a television crew from the prestigious NBC Bell Telephone Hour. The crew followed her to classes, coachings, rehearsals and performances. The final product, aired January 1967, was entitled The Sights & Sounds of San Francisco and Sylvia shared billing with Grace Slick and the Jefferson Airplane.
Western Opera, a small ensemble touring company created by the San Francisco Opera Company, debuted to rousing success in 1967 with Sylvia in the lead soprano roles in Menotti, Rossini and Mozart operas. In San Francisco’s spring opera season that year, she also sang the role of Antonia in Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffman. That summer, she performed in The Barber of Seville and in the fall, the roles of Camille in Charpentier’s Louise and Papagena in The Magic Flute. In the summer of 1967, she was the featured soloist with Arthur Fiedler and the San Francisco Pops. In the winter, she moved to Seattle, awaiting the return of her husband from Vietnam, singing concerts with the Overture Concert Company in Canada. In July, she accepted a full year’s contract with the Seattle Opera Company singing Sophie in Rosencavalier, Adina in The Elixir of Love, the Priestess in Aida, and Lauretta in Jianni Schikhi during which she toured the state of Washington.
When her husband was stationed at the Pentagon the following year, she continued her career singing oratorios, and temporarily returned to the West Coast to sing Brahm’s Requiem under Maestro Milton Katims and the Seattle Symphony Orchestra.
In the Spring of 1970, she began a ten-year collaboration with choreographer Eliot Feld, touring with his companies singing songs of Strauss, Mahler, Beethoven, and folk songs from Spain.
In 1972, returning to the San Francisco Bay area, she again performed regularly with Donald Pippin’s Pocket Opera doing concert versions of Handel’s Teseo, Rinaldo, Alcina and Orlando and Dido in Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. She also performed the role of Marchesi in Un Giorno di Regno with longtime friend, baritone Marvin Klebe. Klebe had recently purchased a school building on a hill in Petaluma, Cinnabar Theater, where Sylvia helped him establish a new chamber opera company. At Cinnabar, she sang the role of Narrator in wildly successful productions of Karl Orff’s Dermond (The Moon), Aldonza in the Broadway Musical Man of La Mancha, and Judith in Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle.
In 1973, she met Dr. Margaret Mead, head of the International Anthropologist’s Society who had commissioned an original opera by Gian Carlo Menotti, the Italian composer. Menotti wrote the principal role of the American wife for Sylvia in his new opera Tamu Tamu, performed in Chicago in September of that year. The next year, Menotti brought the production to his Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto, Italy where Sylvia performed the lead role in the Italian language.
Returning from the success of Tamu Tamu, Sylvia sang Margo in Sigmund Romberg’s The Desert Song at the Woodminster Theater in Oakland, California and taught voice at the University of California, Santa Cruz from 1973-1974. In the Fall of 1974, Sylvia returned to New York to work with Eliot Feld’s The Feld Ballet Company, eventually accepting a contract assignment to teach voice at Sonoma State College. With Cinnabar Theater expanding and thriving, she also taught master classes with the assistance of students Diane Ford Craig and Sharabi Hill.
In 1974, Sylvia played the lead role in Donezetti’s Rita on tour with Donald Pippin’s Pocket Opera. Following a performance, she made the acquaintance of Robert Mondavi at his Napa winery where he personally gifted her with a “family-only” bottle of Moscato wine. This gift was repeated 44 years later by the company manager in a 2018 visit to the current Mondavi winery.
In the Spring of 1977, Sylvia was asked by the composer to perform a role in The Consul during the inaugural season of Menotti’s Spoleto Festival USA. This performance was filmed by PBS and broadcasted nationally later that year.
With her sons grown, Sylvia returned to her beloved New York City to establish a vocal studio on the Upper West Side in a space overlooking the American Natural History Museum. At this time, she also performed with the U.S. Terpsichore Ballet and famed ballet master Richard Thomas, Sr., father of the actor Richard Thomas of The Walton’s TV show fame.
“I loved singing,” Sylvia said. “It was a pleasure and an honor to create two roles written for me by major composers, Gian Carlo Menotti and Andrew Imbrie. Having a career gave me the opportunity to be in the company of superlative singers, conductors, musicians, directors, coaches, all of it. Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity. To work at that level where people are really fine musicians and talents, is very lucky and satisfying; it is more than satisfying.”