Elitism is not just for the upper class. This was the philosophy of educator and mezzo-soprano Betty Allen, whose five-decade career will be celebrated Monday night at the Schomburg Center for Black Culture. Allen believed that "elitism" didn't need to be a dirty word, and that without expecting excellence from students of all income levels, students wouldn't be challenged to expect it of themselves. (Though Allen passed away in 2009, if she were around she may even be in the den of the tiger mother.)
Richard Elder Adams was Allen's colleague at the Manhattan School of Music for nearly 30 years. He says that Allen's sense of justice was the driving force of her educational mission. "She just couldn't bear to see anything that she thought was unfair or unjust and would fight to the end to make certain things were corrected," he said. "It's a shame it's become a cliché to say someone is a 'force of nature.' Betty was exactly that."
Growing up in an Ohio steel town, Allen made her New York City Opera debut as Queenie in "Showboat" and subsequently became part of a generation of black women who broke color lines and moved up in the opera world. Allen’s musical ambitions eclipsed her previous dreams of becoming a physician, when she left college in Ohio and began studying music in Hartford, Conn.
In a commencement speech published in Opera News, Allen wrote of her mission at the Harlem School of the Arts (where she served as director for 13 years): "Are we nurturing elitism? Perhaps we are. Is it to the good? I think so. What makes this elitism justified—necessary, in fact—is that the gifts of our students will be shared with all of society."
Though she was a fierce leader in arts education, Allen's colleagues remember her as a beloved teacher capable of causing a stir just by walking into a room. Donna Vaughn, who worked with Allen at the Manhattan School of Music, said: "She was a real nurturer. Years after they had gone, she still had such a strong presence in the student’s lives."
In honor of Black History Month, the Schomburg center will celebrate Allen's life and career with music, video and anecdotes beginning at 7 P.M. Tickets are $10.