Blacktastic Honors Living Legend Denyce Graves: Elevating the Hidden Voices of Black History and Shaping Tomorrow’s Stars
Arts for Learning Maryland is honored to feature Denyce Graves, internationally recognized mezzo-soprano opera singer, as this year’s Blacktastic living legend! While the annual virtual festival traditionally features Black historical figures from days past, Denyce stands out as a musician actively writing her chapter in Maryland’s history book today. In addition to being an Emmy and Grammy Award-winning vocalist, mother, wife, and educator, Denyce is an arts nonprofit pioneer making sure the path is clear for the young musicians of tomorrow through the work of the Denyce Graves Foundation.
Did you know that Arts for Learning Maryland was founded over seventy years ago to bring professional classical musicians (eventually including opera!) into Baltimore schools and introduce children to the genre? This area of overlap made featuring Ms. Graves in this year’s program a beautiful opportunity to give a hometown hero her flowers for dedicating her life to preserving the rich, multicultural history of the American vocal arts. Viewers of this year’s Blacktastic, which airs February 22nd at 9am EST, will be taken on a virtual field trip to America’s first conservatory, Peabody Conservatory, for an exclusive interview and vocal lesson with Denyce at her studio!
While attending fine arts high school, Denyce learned about and consequently began to idolize spinto soprano Leontyne Price. Ms. Price was the Metropolitan Opera’s first African American opera star, and was among the first African American classical singers able to earn a living from her craft. At her debut performance on January 27th, 1961, Price made history by receiving a forty-one-minute ovation at curtain call, one of the longest in Met history.
Inspired by Ms. Price’s legacy, Denyce began her career on the same stage with a breakout performance in the Metropolitan Opera’s 1995-96 production of Carmen, where she played the titular role and set the pace for the rest of her career. Over the next few decades, she would go on to grace the world’s most prestigious stages with her powerful and emotive performances, from opera houses to presidential inaugurations.
Like many artists, Denyce felt motivated to teach later in her career after being invited to lead various master classes and workshops for the communities in which she performed. She currently serves as the Rosa Ponselle Distinguished Faculty Artist at the Johns Hopkins University Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore. Among the great honors that Denyce holds was finally meeting and befriending Ms. Price, and developing a beautiful bond with her idol, with each artist a genuine fan of the other.
If Denyce had never been introduced to Ms. Price’s glittering voice, would she have gone on to make operatic history? How many other marginalized ‘hidden voices’ were there that deserved the mic?
However, Denyce is still one of few well-known Black opera singers. If Denyce had never been introduced to Ms. Price’s glittering voice, would she have gone on to make operatic history? How many other marginalized ‘hidden voices’ were there that deserved the mic? Questions like these drove Denyce to establish the Denyce Graves Foundation, an organization devoted to advancing equity within and fostering community around the American classical vocal arts. The foundation’s ‘Hidden Voices’ program is actively preserving Black history by introducing the public to Black vocalists such as Mary Cardwell Dawson, the accomplished impresario who founded the National Negro Opera Company in 1941. Ms. Dawson established the group, which was the first African American opera company in the United States, so Black artists like herself could bring opera to the masses, particularly to Black communities in major cities, including Baltimore.
Learning about Ms. Dawson’s legacy and realizing it was unknown by many, even in the classical music world, was what ultimately moved Denyce to create a nonprofit, and to feature Ms. Dawson as its touchstone artist. By spotlighting contributions made to classical music history by musicians of color and amplifying their work to secure civil rights and achieve social justice, the foundation’s ‘Hidden Voices’ program is able to empower the vocalists of tomorrow by honoring those who paved the way.
In addition to its work centered around elevating Black history, the foundation strives to cultivate the talents of students currently pursuing higher education in the vocal arts through individual lessons, classes, coaching, performances and rehearsals, and does so in collaboration with top Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), conservatories, and schools of music across the United States. By making and cultivating connections between young vocalists and heavyweights in the industry, the nonprofit hopes to one day honor Denyce’s vision of an inclusive classical music industry that reflects our nation’s diversity.
Like Denyce, Arts for Learning Maryland strives to forge pathways for young artists of all ethnicities and artistic inclinations to follow, to ensure that art history continues to be written, and that Black students will continue to see themselves represented onstage. Experiencing arts integration at a young age is a foundational experience for many artists, including those on our own roster. We are proud to partner with the Denyce Graves Foundation in offering students throughout Maryland and DC exposure to Black history, and strive to encourage young artists to follow their dreams, just like Denyce did.