Robert Todd Duncan was born in Danville, Kentucky. By the time he auditioned for Porgy and Bess creator George Gershwin in 1935, Duncan already held a master's degree from Columbia University and had been a professor of voice at Howard University since 1931. Eschewing the traditional Spirituals that other performers had sung as audition pieces, Duncan sang an obscure Italian aria, and Gershwin offered him the part. Duncan did not immediately accept, however. As a classically trained Opera singer who years later described himself as a “stuffed shirt” and who thought of the popular Gershwin as merely a composer of show tunes, Duncan insisted on first hearing Gershwin's music for the opera. The music convinced Duncan to play Porgy. His performance in the original Broadway production in 1935, as well as in revivals in 1937 and 1942 earned him lasting acclaim from reviewers who considered ...
A version of this article originally appeared in Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience.