WETA Arts Presents a Conversation with Denyce Graves:
Her career, metorship, foundation, and future plans
The February episode of WETA Arts, the locally-produced television program of WETA that celebrates visual and performing arts in the Washington, D.C. area, will present a special feature on world-renowned mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves, with a focus on The Denice Graves Foundation (DGF), which seeks to advance equity and inclusion in American Classical vocal artistry with an innovative approach that includes seeking out “hidden musical figures” of the past. The feature also includes some video clips of her conducting masterclasses at Johns Hopkins Peabody Institute, where she holds the post of Rosa Ponselle Distinguished Faculty Artist*.
Denyce Graves remains a constant figure in any discussion of great singers of our era. In her long and impressive career, the mezzo-soprano – and Washington, D.C. native -- continues to thrill audiences with her critically-acclaimed and intelligent performances of major operatic roles performed with the world’s most prestigious opera houses and concert halls, including The Metropolitan Opera, Vienna Staatsoper, Royal Opera Covent Garden, Lyric Opera of Chicago and Washington National Opera. Ms. Graves is particularly renowned for her roles as Carmen in George Bizet’s immortal opera, and as Dalila in Camille Saint-Saëns’ Samson et Dalila. Her rich voice and commanding presence have led to multiple invitations to perform on the world’s great stages for galas and special performances. Notably, Ms. Graves sang at the 55th U.S. Presidential inauguration, at the 2001 memorial service for victims of 9/11, during a special 2010 performances for the U.S. Supreme Court Justices, and at the U.S. Capitol during the lying-in-state of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in 2020.
As her career deepens, Ms. Graves actively shares her talent and expertise by fostering and educating young, emerging voices in the vocal art world. As a longtime admirer of Ms. Graves’s artistry and tireless promotion of Classical music, I was pleased to have the chance to speak with Ms. Graves about these activities and future plans.
Linda Carducci: Many great artists pursue a dual career path: First, by presenting their talents as a performing artist, and second, by sharing their talents, expertise and experiences as a teacher, coach or mentor. You’ve clearly taken this dual path, and in fact are deepening your involvement in the second prong by your faculty position at Peabody and with the Denyce Graves Foundation (DGF). Please tell us more about what led you to the second path, in addition to your generosity of spirit!
Denyce Graves: The blessing of a career develops around the opportunities the artist is fortunate to be offered. For me, both the opera siging and recital work across my long career, often comes with opportunities to meet students (at all levels, really) in the cities where I perform. From this quite beautiful Kismet, I've taken these chances to advance the classical vocal arts by accepting the invitations to meet students and communities. As time moved along and I felt more and more comfortable teaching and coaching, different offers were extended. It took a while for me to dip my toe into the commitment of 'guest' faculty or 'artist in residence' relationships, but those collaborations were a continuation and extension of early opportunities to facilitate masterclass and coaching sessions. I'm happy to be guest faculty at The Julliard School and at Johns Hopkins University Peabody Conservatory, America's 1st conservatory. Being surrounded by talented students at all levels of development is at the root of what I'm doing at The Denyce Graves Foundation, that's for sure.
LC: During your recent masterclass with vocal students at Peabody, you put the young vocalists at ease with your warm approach – encouraging them and offering help and advice in a respectful, friendly manner. The mood was convivial yet you raised important points about technique, articulation and interpretation and need to distinguish themselves. In fact, what particularly struck me was how you asked each student for her personal idea of what an aria means to her and discussed how best to express that idea while still respecting the composer’s intent. Will you expound on that philosophy?
DG: Thank you for the kind words. I am the product of and have worked with so many wonderfully talented and amazingly gifted pedagogues and musicians: this, across my life from early grade school time. Many of those who taught me, also demonstrated to me that teaching/coaching is quite a personal exchange. I remember how committed I was to learning and getting the most I could from all the places where there was useful information so that now, when I'm working with young performers, I want to offer what I was offered. The high-level of personal engagement I got I'm committed to offering to those with whom I work. Each student is a different person, communicative performer, and is living their unique life when I hear them, their life deserves to be received just as much as their voice deserves being heard. So, while I'm working, I allow myself to be interested in who the young people are. I've found that regard allows me to get to the music parts faster and more incisively. All the music elements you addressed in the question are baselines and MUST be thoughtfully regarded: through the person, offers the best access.
LC: DGF has multiple purposes: To promote equity and inclusion in American classical vocal arts; to encourage young, emerging artists; and provide them the opportunity to collaborate with major national arts organizations, including the Library of Congress, Kennedy Center, Lincoln Center and historically Black colleges and conservatories. DGF also casts a spotlight on “hidden musical figures” from history. How does championing these historical hidden figures further the mission of DGF?
DG: It's true DGF is driven by two particular goals: promoting equity and inclusion in American classical vocal arts by championing the hidden musical figures of the past while uplifting young artists of world-class talent from all backgrounds and preparing them for a successful future. So we do this now through two programs, Shared Voices and Hidden Voices, and I urge all who are reading to visit our website to learn about and to donate to our work. DGF is anchored at the intersection of American History, Social Justice and the classical vocal arts, so from that further definition you can understand how these threads come together in the beautiful tapestry that is the work we do.
The august institutions you mentioned and many others, our work with Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and with America's elite Conservatories and Schools of Music, gives us access to talent and underpinning that shapes us and propels our work. A prevailing mantra for us is Educating is Activism, so it is in that paradoxically broad and at the same time narrow crucible that DGF can have meaningful impact. Learning about the excellence and achievement of world-class artists who were denied opportunity here in America while being celebrated elsewhere in the world, provides encouragement and knowledge that inspires and elevates.
We are learning that very many people welcome discovery and listen with interest to narratives of strength, persistence and success. DGF is blessed to have chosen this work to do.
LC: You will perform in Carlos Simon’s opera The Passion of Mary Cardwell Dawson with the Pittsburgh Opera this Spring. It’s based on the true story of an opera impressaria who guided the longest running all-Black opera company in Pittsburgh. Will you tell us more about the opera and your role in this production?
DG: There's not enough time to share the breadth of the life of Mary Cardwell Dawson here, so again I'll send those reading this blog to DGF’s website, where Ms. Dawson's life is presented with some depth. I'll share that Ms. Dawson matriculated at New England Conservatory of Music (Boston) graduating in 1925 with certificates in Voice and Piano. At that time, her wish to pursue a career as an opera singer was met with impenetrable resistance. That apartheid encountered an indomitable spirit, clear talent and crafty brilliance that wouldn't be stopped so Mary Cardwell Dawson blessed herself saying I'll build my own Opera Company, and that's what she did: The National Negro Opera Company which was founded in Pittsburgh also had performance guilds in Newark, NJ; New York, NY; Baltimore, MD; Washington, DC and other places. The accomplishments of Ms. Dawson are innumerable. Dr. Karen Bryan, DGFs Hidden Voices Coordinator, is writing the book on her life. I am playing Mary Cardwell Dawson in this play with music.
The Passion of Mary Cardwell Dawson is the story of her life in a particular moment when she was being denied a performance venue, how she prepared the singers and dealt with attendant set-backs and indignities, and got the show up. The show MUST go on! It's a beautiful work with libretto by Sandra Seaton composed by Carlos Simon. It premiered at Glimmerglass, under the guidance of renowned director Francesca Zambello, and stage director, Kimille Howard, whose idea this entire creative endeavor was.
Passion will be presented in Charlotte, NC at Opera Carolina; in Pittsburgh, PA at Pittsburgh Opera; and in Atlanta, GA. I invite everyone who can see it to treat yourself to this wonderful show.
Learn more about The Denyce Graves Foundation and her appearance in the February episode of WETA Arts through these links:
*Rosa Ponselle was a renowned American dramatic soprano, considered one of the greatest of the 20th century, who often performed at the Metropolitan Opera.
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