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John Richards McCrae Papers

Two and one-half linear feet of scrapbooks, photographs, concert and ­­ opera programs, letters and clippings documenting the long and productive career of the popular, convivial John Richards McCrae (1917-1986) add a valuable component to the South Caroliniana Library's holdings on the cultural and musical heritage of South Carolina. A native of Denmark, S.C., and a grandson of former governor John G. Richards, this nationally known baritone began his career as a soloist who could eventually claim that he had sung throughout the world, including all fifty states and Canada, often concertizing with his aunt, renowned pianist and Columbia College professor Margarette Richards. He appeared in some seventy operatic roles. He went on to do pioneering work in the promotion of opera in South Carolina and the surrounding region. "In 1949 I came back to South Carolina to start the South Carolina Opera Workshop," he is quoted as saying in an interview in the Greenville News, 28 April 1982, "because the National Federation of Music Clubs was starting operas in every state. Opera was not known in those days. And I was determined that it should be known. So I started the one here in South Carolina...I took operas all over the state, to places that had never had opera before." The South Carolina Opera Workshop later developed into the Columbia Lyric Theatre and the Charleston Opera Company.

The collection shows that McCrae's music career was both intensive and wide-ranging. In 1952 he began an association with Converse College which lasted for thirty years ­­as professor of voice and as founding director of the Converse College Opera Workshop. He went on to become the regional director of the North Carolina Opera Company and, from 1954 to 1970, the managing director of the Charlotte Opera Association. From 1964 to 1970 he served as artistic director of the Brevard Opera Workshop. For eighteen summers he worked with the Chautauqua Opera Company, and was associated at various times with opera projects in Des Moines, St. Louis, and at Stephens College, Columbia, Mo.

Among the unique items in the collection is McCrae's personal chit-book indicating the daily schedule and arrangements for a six-month American transcontinental tour he made from November 1941 through April 1942 as a featured soloist with the young, Juilliard-trained, eight-member Nine O'Clock Opera Company. Sent out under the auspices of the prestigious Columbia Concerts Corporation, the company of "brilliant ...good-looking American singers" mounted "a new type of opera presentation." According to a Columbia Concerts flyer, [1940?], prepared for the production of "The Marriage of Figaro," the group presented the opera "In Crisp, Idiomatic English Translation / In Attractive, Dramatic Modern Dress / In a Concentrated, Fast-Moving Version." On 23 October 1940 McCrae wrote a Sumter friend and admirer, Miss Anna J. Bryan, after the ensemble's first appearance in New York ­­"We ­­The Nine O'clock Opera Singers ­­made our debut in Town Hall last night before a tremendous audience that seemed to like it very much ­­from the applause and curtain calls ­­And this morning the New York Times and Tribune gave us rave reviews of it ­­I'm so thrilled I can hardly write." "Never had I seen an audience enjoy, never have I myself enjoyed Figaro with such wholehearted gusto," wrote critic Virgil Thompson in the Herald Tribune (23 October). While on tour, McCrae characterized its significance when he remarked in a letter to his aunt Margarette Richards written from Oregon in March 1942 ­­"We got a two page telegram from Columbia Concerts telling us of two more dates added ­­Austin, Texas and a town in Wyoming ­­and saying that they wanted to present `Columbia's pet attraction' to the visiting managers in New York on May 4th. This is quite a feather in our cap and will make some top flight performers, I know, not enjoy their breakfast for quite a smell [sic]." He would later indicate to journalist Steve Libby that the "unusual record" established by this "whirlwind tour which carried [us] to 44 states in 89 performances" amounted to "a pre-war touring company highlight, which has never since been matched" (South Carolina Magazine, December 1946).

Another of the collection's most interesting units, as well as one of its most comprehensive, is a loose-leaf notebook compiled by Anna Bryan, which traces "Papa John's" life and work from 1939 to 1965 and contains the largest known surviving cache of letters and cards from him. A V-mail letter written to Miss Bryan, 14 March 1944, from New Guinea, where he was stationed as a chemical warfare officer during World War II, contains the account of an episode which epitomizes the breadth of the world of John Richards McCrae and his determination to make music wherever he was ­­"One musical experience last week may interest you. We were riding along in my jeep ­­two native boys and I­­I was taking them back to their village after they'd done some work for me ­­Unconsciously I pealed forth with Mozart's `Allelulia' ­­and from the back seat came the most exquisite counter-melody using the same word ­­Sounded like some old Gregorian chant and blended perfectly with the Mozart ­­We kept it up for some miles ­­MPs and truck drivers almost fell from their vehicles in dismay at the den [sic] ­­but it was too beautiful to stop ­­they must have thot me nuts­­I'd have thot I was dreaming but the other native is here to bear me out ­­He's the one who beat a syncopated rythm [sic] on the side of the jeep in accompaniment."

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