On Feb. 13 internationally acclaimed opera singer Denyce Graves sat down in the Massey Performing Arts Center for a conversation with longtime journalist Harry Chapman, who now serves as Belmont’s director of development and major gifts. Graves, who will be performing at the McAfee Concert Hall with various School of Music ensembles tonight, discussed her personal story.
Graves described her entire career as being her “mother’s fault.” She explained that each week her mother assigned her and her siblings a new activity. “One week would be sewing, next week would be something else.”
Eventually, her mother realized the potential of her children and formed the Inspirational Children of God, and the musical group would perform at the family’s local church. However, it wasn’t until Denyce’s brother, the lead singer, became ill that she reluctantly took his spot in the group.
“My mother pushed me onto the stage, and at that point, you can’t really say no,” she recalled. From then on, Graves’s passion for music flourished as she continued to sing for the church. She fondly remembers the church as her “first audience” and “nourishing ground.”
After starting elementary school, Graves quickly developed a close relationship with her music teacher who encouraged her to develop her voice. When it came time to move onto middle school, her music teacher took a new job—at Grave’s new school. She continued to work closely with Graves, and encouraged her to audition for the All-City Chorus. She also suggested that Graves apply to the Duke Ellington School for the Arts for high school. Graves was accepted. Her music teacher became principal of the school the same year. “I truly believe she is my guardian angel. She was with me from kindergarten all through high school,” said Graves.
Following high school, she enrolled at Oberlin College before transferring to the New England Conservatory. During her time at the conservatory she won the Metropolitan Regional competition. While rehearsing for the finals competition to be held in New York, Graves’ voice began to suffer.
“The more I sang, the more phlegm would build up,” she explained. “I tried everything, and nothing would work.” A doctor finally told her that her thyroid was the problem. Graves was no longer able to sing.
Upon resigning herself to the fact that any potential career in music was no longer a possibility, she accepted a secretary position in a hospital. Graves had been working at the hospital for over a year when she received a call from the Houston Grand Opera. Her name had come to them highly recommended, and they requested an audition from her. Graves politely told them that she was no longer singing and declined the audition.
After receiving two more phone calls, she reluctantly agreed to an audition, primarily because of her friend’s urging. Graves performed the audition without incident. Her voice had returned. “It really is a profession that chooses you,” she acknowledged. “They offered me a contract on the spot, and I took it.”
In 1995, she took on one of the roles that would come to define her, playing the title character in the New York Metropolitan Opera’s production of Bizet’s Carmen. “[The character of Carmen] taught me to become a woman,” she explained. “She lives in an authentic way.” She recalls the initial reaction of her mother, who brought choir members from their hometown church. “My mother wouldn’t talk to me for two weeks,” Graves said, laughing.
Recently, Graves has changed directions and is focusing her efforts on training a new generation of opera singers. In September, she began teaching at the Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore. She describes the process as a challenging yet rewarding one.
Also rewarding for her is the opportunity to donate and give back to the community. For a number of years, Graves has been involved with a variety of children’s initiatives. “There is so much joy in doing it. It’s a privilege, and it blesses my life,” she said. “That’s easy—students are difficult.”