Tributes To Sylvia Olden Lee




Who is Sylvia, what is she?"....the first words of song by Schubert that I sang in English as a child.  Of course, I could not have known that I would find my way to a real, live Sylvia who would have such a tremendous impact on my singing life and far beyond. What was she, you might ask?  Well, to begin, she was a consummate musician devoted to the support and the fostering of the professional preparation of more singers than one can count. She was the energetic, challenging cheerleader who wanted more than anything else that we should dream as high as the sky and work towards that goal with all our might. Sylvia had more repertoire at her fingertips than others would ever learn!

She was there when I, a twenty-two year old won the first prize in Munich and a year later, there she was in Berlin when I would step onto a professional opera stage for the very first time.

Oh, yes; did I mention that I first met her when a student at Howard University at age 17?  Indeed, our history together was a long and wonderful one leading all the way to the Spirituals concert at Carnegie  Hall and that terrific duet that she found for Kathleen Battle and myself.."Scandalize My Name". A great moment of levity within the honor offered the ancestors on that beautiful Sunday afternoon.  We were all honored to celebrate this unique heritage. Indeed, that particular concert could hardly have taken place without her guidance and unlimited enthusiasm.

Sylvia lives on through every note that is sung by those who had the privilege of her tutelage  and every recollection that springs to mind of her generous spirit and wide open heart. She lives!

JESSYE NORMAN, opera singer  ____________________________________________________________________


Then to Silvia let us sing, 

    That Silvia is excelling; 

She excels each mortal thing 

    Upon the dull earth dwelling; 

To her let us garlands bring.

                         William Shakespeare

Who Is Silvia?

Who is Silvia? what is she, 

    That all our swains commend her? 

Holy, fair, and wise is she; 

    The heaven such grace did lend her, 

That she might admirèd be. 


Is she kind as she is fair? 

    For beauty lives with kindness. 

Love doth to her eyes repair, 

    To help him of his blindness; 

And, being helped, inhabits there. 

Bobby mcferrin 

My godmother, Sylvia was an uncompromising, no nonsense, musician’s musician with boundless energy, whose source came from the heavenly and her love for the divine art.  She was a great teacher but always recognized the importance of maintaining the attitude of a student …always learning… always entering each new piece as if embarking on a great adventure with the excitement of a little child.  She was an accompanist non-parallel, many times playing for my father in that role.  She was extraordinarily gifted and made her presence known the moment she entered a room, prompting those of us so inclined to stand as if for royalty.  She will be truly missed. Dearest godmother, I love you. I miss you. Play something for me, for us.  We’re listening.

Bobby McFerrin

American jazz vocalist and conductor, Sylvia Olden Lee’s godson

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George Shirley


Sylvia Olden Lee, without a doubt, a musical miracle blessed with a pianistic facility and musical memory that knew no limits. Her ability to sit at the piano and play countless art songs and operatic arias from memory was stupefying. The rigor of her legendary tuition was branded indelibly upon the psyche of those fortunate enough to learn from her.

              “Miss Sylvia” brooked no lackadaisical approach to gaining ownership of song literature. Her punctilious method for learning was true to her perfectionist spirit, and woe to the soul for whom that level of demand proved uncomfortable! She well knew the expectations for one-especially one of a darker hue—who aspires to the professional level of vocal performance in the realm of “non-popular” music. Her determination to ensure that, to the greatest extent possible, those aspirants with whom she worked would respect and meet or exceed those expectations to the best of their ability was the gold standard that bespoke her immense value.

              There will never be another Sylvia Lee, for she was truly distinctive. Those of us blessed to have been in her aura will remain enriched by her influence and unforgettable personality for the rest of our days.

              Happy 100th Birthday, Sylvia!

With love,


George I. Shirley

The J. Edgar Maddy Distinguished University Emeritus Professor of Music (voice), University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance

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Blanche Wiesen Cook

TO CELEBRATE SYLVIA OLDEN LEE is to celebrate the best of our national heritage -- great voices, great teachers, great performers of Classical Music who transcended bigotry, enhanced democracy, enlarged our capacities and heartened our lives. 

From Eleanor Roosevelt's White House invitations to African-American artists Sylvia Olden Lee and Marian Anderson in the l930s to Sylvia Olden Lee's work with the Metropolitan Opera in the l950s, which involved Marian Anderson's pioneering  performance at the Metropolitan Opera, followed by  Leontyne Price, Kathleen Battle, Jessy Norman -- to our contemporary moment when students of music are introduced to this splendid heritage by the Foundation for the Revival of Classical Culture -- there is so much to learn, so much to celebrate.  Everyone concerned about the future of democracy and our cultural heritage will want to attend this concert, and support this generative, inspiring, most important Foundation.

Blanche Wiesen Cook

Professor of history at John Jay College and Graduate Center, City University of New York. In addition to her biography of Eleanor Roosevelt, her other books include The Declassified Eisenhower and Crystal Eastman on Women and Revolution. Eleanor Roosevelt Volume I was a winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and both volumes were New York Times bestsellers.

A tribute to Sylvia Olden Lee

   I would like to thank the Foundation for the Revival of Classical Culture, the Harlem Opera Theater and the Schiller Institute for this tribute to my mother Sylvia Olden Lee (I called her "Moah"). Needless to say, Moah was a strong influence on Eve and me, and instilled in us manners, independence, respect for others and to treat others as you would want to be treated. She and Dad set the parenting model for me in my raising of my two, now grown, daughters. 

   I can remember where she was never stumped or challenged in any way in coaching her students, and she demanded that whether it was the aria, Lied or song it was to be sung with the appropriate, or called for, expression, articulation and emotion in delivering the message. 

   The most obvious characteristics of Moah, that were her makeup, was her enthusiasm, musical knowledge and experience, which was instrumental in, and contributed to, her being able to communicate to her students on how to present the work properly. And further, that makeup allowed her to pull the very best out of her students, to include their confidence, inner strength, delivery and performance.

   The part of Moah that amazed me the most was the amount of arias she knew from memory, and could play them on the piano in any key to accommodate a singers throat that was stressed. She never stopped learning and studying, with one or more dictionaries within reach for translation, meaning or interpretation. I do also recall constrant crossword puzzles being worked and completed in record speed, including the challenging New York Times' puzzles.

       Again, thank you for this tribute.

Everett lee III

Son of Sylvia Olden Lee and Everett Lee

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Marti newland, PhD. 

Soprano; co-founder, Oberlin Conservatory Black Musicians Guild; co-founder, Harry T. Burleigh Society; lecturer in Music, Columbia University

In the spring of 2003, members of the Oberlin Conservatory Black Musicians' Guild(OCBMG), Invited Dr. Sylvia Olden Lee to offer a master class for its members. Our expectation was that she would arrive in town, complete the master class, and return to Philadelphia. We were completely wrong! From the moment we picked her up from the airport, she was active with students. Dr. Lee attended every recital scheduled during her visit, insisted on providing coaching in practice rooms to any student who wanted them (accompanying anything from memory) and commanded group presence during meals to discuss the joys and challenges of the industry. That spring was the first time that she had been invited back to her Alma matter since her own graduation in 1938, which propelled OCBMG students to pursue her receipt of a well deserved and overdue honorary doctorate. The request was submitted to the office of the president and she became, as she said, "Dr. Syl!" that May, to rousing applause. In the bounty of wisdom that she shared, we all remember three things in particular about her mentorship: that is it imperative to perform from the heart, that nothing compares to the pride of being black, and that we belonged in classical music. 



Helga zepp-larouche

Founder and chairwoman, Schiller Institute

Sylvia Olden Lee, was one of those absolutely outstanding artists, who are capable to crystallize for her many pupils and people she inspired, the essence of a piece of music, the true idea, only accessible to those individuals, who can read the intention of the poet and the composer. She implanted in many minds throughout her life the knowledge in her students how the artist, the singer, the instrumentalist steps modestly behind the composition, but at the same time adds his or her own ennobled individuality to the performance, to make it both unique and absolutely truthful. 

   In doing that, she was always playful, polemical, full of humor, profound, loving and with disarming openness, and by representing all of these characteristics, she would liberate her students, as well as the audience out of their normal un-elevated condition to the higher plane of true art. She was able like only a few, to let her surrounding participate directly in the creative process, in the diligent work of the kind of perfection it takes, to actually produce art, and not just nice sounds. 

   The afternoons and evenings she would participate in Musikabende or coaching sessions in our place in Virginia, together with William Warfield, Robert McFerring and numerous other classical artists, belong to the fondest memories for my husband and I. Sylvia and Bill were for many years on the board of the Schiller Institute and added an invaluable treasure to its work. 

   In thinking about Sylvia, one suddenly wishes she would still be here, since what she taught is so very needed for out humanity.