Díana Thompson-Brewer

Díana Thompson-Brewer

Johnnie Felder

Johnnie Felder

Denyce Graves

Denyce Graves

LaDejia Tenille

LaDejia Tenille

Sandra Seaton

Sandra Seaton

Carlos Simon

Carlos Simon

James Meena

James Meena

General Director & Principal Conductor

Kimille Howard

Kimille Howard


Dr. Gregory Thompson

Dr. Gregory Thompson


The Story of "The Passion of Mary Cardwell Dawson"

Play by Sandra Seaton / Original music by Carlos Simon / Text for original music by Sandra Seaton
In English with Projected English Titles
Composed 2021
New production from Glimmerglass Festival

She trained hundreds of African American youth to sing. She founded the longest-running, all-Black opera company. She organized opera guilds in the country’s biggest cities. Mary Cardwell Dawson’s dream to bring music to African American audiences came true—and it changed the future of opera.

The Passion of Mary Cardwell Dawson makes its highly anticipated mainstage premiere to celebrate the remarkable founder of the historic and groundbreaking National Negro Opera Company, established in 1941. Starring acclaimed mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves in the title role, this play with music by Mark Twain Award-winning playwright Sandra Seaton includes selections from the repertory of the National Negro Opera Company and original music composed by Kennedy Center Composer-in-Residence and 2023 Grammy nominee Carlos Simon.

The story starts in Washington, D.C. in 1943, where the company is set to perform on a floating barge to evade racially-segregated venues. But when bad weather threatens—pushing the performance to a segregated performance hall—Mary Cardwell Dawson must find a way forward.

(From The Kennedy Center)


The Passion Continues with The Charlotte Museum of History!

In partnership with Opera Carolina, the Charlotte Museum of History is telling the story of Mary Cardwell Dawson, a visionary trailblazer in the world of classical music who was born in Madison, N.C., 130 years ago on Valentine’s Day.

Dawson founded the first commercially successful Black opera company in the United States in 1941. Her National Negro Opera Company would go on to help democratize and racially integrate the world of opera, while launching the careers of many influential performers.

In March 2024, the Charlotte Museum of History will open the first-ever, full museum exhibit about Mary Cardwell Dawson, focusing on her impact and on the significance of her National Negro Opera Company in the world of classical music.

The exhibit will include rarely-seen photographs of the company, as well as original costumes.

Become a member of the museum today, and you’ll be invited to our special members-only preview night of “Open Wide the Door” on March 21!

About the Exhibit

Imagine it is a hot, August night in 1941. The theater is buzzing with activity. Costumes are being buttoned and zipped, make-up applied, and the singers are preparing to take the stage. The orchestra is tuning their instruments and a sense of anticipation fills the air. This is the scene on August 28, 1941 as the National Negro Opera Company, the most commercially successful Black- owned and operated company, prepared to perform ‘Aida.’ In Spring 2024, the Charlotte Museum of History will unveil a new exhibition that imagines this night to tell the story of the National Negro Opera Company and its founder, Mary Cardwell Dawson.
This is the story of dancers, singers, musicians, set designers, costume designers,painters, and the entire production team. It is the story of segregation and a lack of funding, but also of perseverance and determination as a Black woman from the Piedmont of North Carolina carved out a space for herself in the world of opera, bringing a talented group of artists along with her in a world where separate was anything but equal.

Know Before You Go!

Mary Cardwell Dawson was born in 1894 in Madison, North Carolina. She studied music at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston graduating in 1925. She continued her studies at the Chicago Musical College. In the late 1920s, she married Walter Dawson, a master electrician, and they moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

In 1927, Dawson opened the Cardwell Dawson School of Music in the Homewood neighborhood of Pittsburgh, which remained open until 1941. Dawson also organized the Cardwell Dawson Choir.

After presenting the opera Aida at the National Association of Negro Musicians convention of 1941, Dawson launched her National Negro Opera Company (NNOC) later that same year with a performance at Pittsburgh’s Syria Mosque. The star was La Julia Rhea, and other members included Minto Cato, Carol Brice, Robert McFerrin, and Lillian Evanti. NNOC mounted productions in Washington D.C., New York City, Chicago, and Pittsburgh.

Dawson was devoted to bringing opera to African American audiences. She organized opera guilds in Baltimore, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Washington, D.C., Newark, and New York. She trained hundreds of African American youth to sing opera.

In 1961, Dawson was appointed to the National Music Committee by President John F. Kennedy.

Dawson died in 1962.

Editors, Blackartstory.org. “Profile: Mary Cardwell Dawson (1894-1962).” Black Art Story, 14 Nov. 2020, blackartstory.org/2020/11/14/profile-mary-cardwell-dawson-1894-1962/.

Parking Information

The New Theater

1201 Elizabeth Ave, Charlotte, NC 28204

Important reminders: 

 Join us for the Pre-show Exhibit by the Denyce Graves Foundation  


Post Performance Talkback

Featuring Artist, Charlotte History Museum, and Denyce Graves Foundation

  Traffic Advisory:

Construction on Central Avenue and Kings Drive

Please plan to arrive early to take care of all of your pre-show needs:  

Will Call

As a reminder, late seating will begin once the performance begins.

Tickets: are digital and have been sent to you via email. If you have an Apple device, you can save your ticket to your wallet. 

Will Call: is available for pickup 2 hours before the performance. 

Parking: Free parking is available in Lot 5 or 6 off of North Kings Drive


Central Piedmont’s New Theater

1201 Elizabeth Avenue

Charlotte, NC

United States