As one of the Metropolitan Opera’s biggest stars, Mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves is in more or less constant demand. She’s not easy to book. Nevertheless, a recent invitation to perform at Belmont University caught her eye.
“When they asked me to perform in their new concert hall, I was absolutely thrilled,” says Graves, who was on the phone from her home in Bethesda, MD. “I saw their Christmas at Belmont TV special and absolutely loved it. So I jumped at the chance to perform at that wonderful university.”
Graves, who came to fame in the 1990s when she starred in the title role of Bizet’s Carmen at the Met, will perform this Friday night at Belmont’s acoustically marvelous new McAfee Concert Hall. Her program will feature a mixed bill of opera arias and spirituals. Pianist Warren Jones will accompany Graves in some selections. The singer will also perform with the Belmont Chorale and University Symphony Orchestra, which will be led by conductor Jeffery Ames.
“We are excited to have Denyce perform at Belmont,” says Ames. “It’s a treat for the city, and it’s also a great opportunity for our students to hear someone sing on her level.”
For her part, Graves should feel right at home singing with a chours in McAfee Concert Hall. Belmont’s newest venue, after all, was formerly the old Belmont Heights Baptist Church. Graves got her start singing in her hometown Baptist church.
Born in 1964, Graves grew up the second of three children in a tough Washington, D.C. neighborhood. Her father left home when she was a child, leaving Graves’ mother, Dorothy, alone to raise the family. She ran a strictly regimented household.
The children were all assigned cooking, dishwashing and cleaning chores. Each night, Dorothy Graves required her children to complete a different education project, such as writing a report on birds. And of course there was music.
On Thursday nights, Graves and her siblings performed gospel at churches and meeting halls. Serious singing was encouraged. Listening to pop music was prohibited, though Graves admitted to sometimes listening to Michael Jackson records on the sly. These days, Graves is hard pressed to name a favorite pop musician.
“My husband likes rock music,” says Graves about her spouse, Robert Montgomery, who is chief transplant surgeon at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. “I prefer opera.”
Graves developed that predilection early. While a student at Friendship Middle School, her music teacher and mentor, Judith Grove, took her students to a dress rehearsal of Beethoven’s Fidelio at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Graves was mesmerized. Later at the Duke Ellington School for the Performing Arts, Graves remembers a friend taking her aside to listen to a newly discovered record.
“It was a recording of Leontyne Price singing Puccini,” says Graves, her dusky voice rising suddenly in pitch as she recalled her adolescent excitement. “I’ve always believed that music chooses its own disciples, and at that moment music chose me.”
The young mezzo soprano received a partial scholarship to study voice at Ohio’s Oberlin College Conservatory of Music – she got the rest of the money she needed from D.C.’s Zion Baptist Church and the D.C. Freemasons. She studied with noted pedagogue Helen Hodam at Oberlin for two years. When Hodam took a job at Boston’s New England Conservatory of Music, Groves followed her there, working as an office cleaner and hotel night clerk to pay the bills.
In 1986, she took her first stab at the big time, entering the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions. Graves was four months behind on her rent and was desperate to win one of the cash prizes. By all accounts, she sang gloriously and made a big impression. But in the end her voice gave out, due to what was later diagnosed as a treatable thyroid condition. Despondent over not winning, Graves temporarily gave up music and took a secretarial job.
But the opera world would not leave her alone. The Houston Grand Opera invited her to participate in its young artists program. Graves at first declined but finally relented when her friends insisted she attend. From that point on, her career took on a meteoric trajectory.
In Houston, Graves came to the attention of opera superstar Placido Domingo, who saw her in the role of Emilia in a production of Verdi’s Otello. Domingo was immediately struck by Graves’ dramatic aura. Later, Domingo sang Don Jose to Graves’ Carmen at London’s Covent Garden.
It wasn’t long before Carmen became Graves’ signature role. She finally made her Metropolitan Opera debut as Carmen in 1995, and her appearance was a sensation. Critic Tim Page wrote in The Washington Post that, “We do not merely listen to her Carmen, we experience it; she not on sings the role of the fiery Gypsy girl, she embodies her.” Soon, Graves was being profiled on 60 Minutes.
It would have been easy for Graves to have slipped into a Carmen rut, since many opera houses were eager to cast her in just that role. Graves, however, has maintained a diverse schedule and repertoire.
She’s made a name singing a variety of roles. Saint-Saëns’ Samson et Delilah has become another favorite opera. She also gives master classes, recitals and now teaches at the Peabody Institute at Johns Hopkins University.
It’s been nearly three years since Graves last appeared in Nashville – she sang in Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle with the Nashville Symphony in 2010. So there’s a lot of excitement about her Belmont concert.
This Friday, she’ll sing one of her signature arias, “Mon cœur s’ouvre à ta voix” from Samson et Delilah. Jones will assist on piano. She will also perform such spirituals as “Give me Jesus” and “Git on Board.” The highlight of the concert will no doubt be her performance of Caccini’s “Ave Maria” with the Belmont Chorale and the University Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Jeffery Ames.
The Belmont Strings and World Percussion Ensemble will also participate in this Friday’s concert. In addition to the arias, songs and spirituals, the program will also feature the music of Copland, Ginastera and George Walker, the first African-American classical composer to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music.
“It’s going to be a multicultural program of extraordinary music,” says Ames.
IF YOU GO
A Celebration of Unity: Metropolitan Opera star Denyce Graves performs in concert at Belmont University’s McAfee Concert Hall, 2100 Belmont Blvd. The performance starts at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Feb. 15. The concert is free, but tickets must be reserved by clicking here.