Marc A. Scorca: Let me just say how delighted I am to have this time with Denyce Graves, who has been such a fixture on the American opera scene for the last 30 years. And as we discuss later on in this interview, I know how much you have been a role model to so many people; an inspiration to a generation of young singers. But we'll get to that in a minute. Denyce, thanks so much for being with us today.
Denyce Graves: Marc: any time that I have the occasion to be in your company, whether it's in person, or across the screen, I'm delighted. So thank you for having me.
Marc A. Scorca: Oh, that's very sweet of you. As you know, I start all of my interviews with a simple question: who brought you to your first opera?
Denyce Graves: My first opera? I was 13 years old. I was a student at the Duke Ellington high school in Washington DC, and it was Beethoven's Fidelio, and it was the final dress rehearsal. So we really had the opportunity to see sort of behind the scenes of what it takes to put on an opera. We were given a tour and we met some of the different artists and it was incredibly imprinting. I will say, that while that was as impressionable as it was, it was really for me listening to a recording of Leontyne (Price) that was the thing that really seared into me, and pointed me in the direction, in the way that I've filled out my life.
Marc A. Scorca: I remember from another interview that I've seen that that moment of hearing a recording of Leontyne was really the period at the end of the sentence that brought you into opera. And was that at Duke Ellington that a friend of yours said, "Hey, Denyce, listen to this?"
Denyce Graves: It was at Duke Ellington. It was completely divine. I was late for a class; I was at my locker. There was nobody in the hall, but the two of us and her locker was next to mine. And she said, "I just heard something that you've got to hear." And I said, "I can't. I'm late. I'm getting to class." She said, "No, Denyce, you've gotta come listen to this." (I don't know what 'this' was.) And so we went to the listening library; we cut all of our classes and it was a recording of Leontyne and, this was back in the day of the LP's. And so we listened to it until it got to the end and I said, "Oh my God, play it again." She did that and I said, "Play it again," and so we didn't eat; we didn't go to the bathroom; we didn't do anything, and there was a knock on the door, and it was the janitor and it was 8:00 PM. And we passed - I don't know how many hours there - 10, 11, 12 hours in the listening library, just listening to her sing over and over and over again. And she and I both said, "Whatever this is, and whoever this person is: this is what we would love to be able to do with our lives." We were at school or studying voice, but it was the first time that I'd heard opera. So the Beethoven Fidelio came after that. But the thing that really gripped me, and still to this day every time I listen to her sing, still, I just say, "Oh my gosh, what glory!" It was hearing that album of Puccini arias, sung by Leontyne that was the thing that made me feel that day: the 13 year old Denyce, that that was one of the reasons that I was put here on the earth. I was one of these kids who was very much bullied in school, and in the neighborhood that I grew up, and the fact that I became interested in opera did not lend itself at all to my popularity; in fact, it sent me in the other direction, and nobody understood where this came from: where did this crazy notion come from, to become an opera singer. But I just looked at this woman, who was just gorgeous and beautiful and sang in such a way that made you fall into a million pieces. And I just said, "If I can do this, this is what I want to do."
Marc A. Scorca: I still get weak-kneed whenever I listen to those Leontyne Price recordings. It doesn't get any better than that.
Denyce Graves: Who doesn't?
Marc A. Scorca: So for those who don't know, (because I lived in Washington for 15 years and I know about it), what is Duke Ellington? What does that mean: Duke Ellington?
Denyce Graves: So it used to be the old Western high school, which is in Georgetown, Washington, DC at 35th and R, and it's a performing arts high school. When I was there, it was the old Western building. Now it's very, very beautiful and new and modern and fancy, but at that time too (it had) a tremendous charm, but it's a performing arts high school for DC residents. And I say, actually performing arts, but now they've expanded that a lot. So I think that they actually call it the Duke Ellington school of the arts, because they've got...I think there's creative writing; there's a film design and that sort of thing. But you could major in singing or if there's an instrument or dance or theater or any of the great arts. And it's free, if you're a DC resident. It's a small school, incredibly selective. There's an audition process that you have to go through. There were 35 people in my graduating class, so that lets you know how small the school is. But it still exists. It's always been difficult for them, every year, to try to keep their doors open, because it's always a question of funding, and getting people to support that effort. And Dave Chappelle was also a graduate of the school, but we had people there like Debbie Allen, and just magnificent people who are products of that incredible place, where the teachers (and I know that to be true because I still interact with a lot of them) are so incredibly dedicated to the lives of these young people, who are interested in the success of everybody that comes through those doors. And it's just a real magical place for me. It was a real haven to be there. I talked about being this kid who was very much bullied, but when I was there, I felt like I could exhale; that was my place where I found my group of people in an environment where you were really appreciated, and where you're very much nurtured: it's very much a nurturing environment, which you're interested in, and as you continue to explore and develop whatever that craft is.
Marc A. Scorca: I love how you put that, because for so many people, the arts in high school, or the arts classes were the places you could exhale, because you had a different set of sensibilities than a lot of the other kids in school. But how was it that 13 year old Denyce Graves wound up in Duke Ellington? You said you were studying singing: had you been singing around the house? How had you known that you had a gift to be developed at Duke Ellington?
Denyce Graves: Because one of these spectacular ladies that I was talking about earlier. She actually entered my life the first day of school, when I was in kindergarten, and she's still a dear friend to this day. But I was a really awkward and shy little kid, and I remember very, very clearly still now, the first day of school, and I was hiding behind my mother's skirt and crying, and I didn't want to go to school and I didn't want to be separated from her and I remained like that in a corner until they started playing music. And then they started playing music. There was a wonderful woman named Judith Grove; her name is now Judith Allen, and she started playing the piano and singing. And then after that, I loved going to school and I loved being in her class: she taught music, however, often we went: two or three times per week. And then she knew that I loved music, and enjoyed singing and she would sometimes give me a couple of measures to sing. And she would always encourage me. When I graduated elementary school to go off to junior high school, unbeknownst to both of us, she became the music teacher at that different junior high school. So it was called The Friendship School. It was an experimental school; it was a school without walls in Southeast Washington, DC. I just ran it to her, going down the hallway and said, "Oh my gosh, you're here; you're here." And so she told me about All-City Chorus. And that is exactly what it sounds like: it's when all the kids from the DC metropolitan area come together and make a big chorus. It's usually rehearsal on Saturdays and we would give performances at Constitution Hall and the Kennedy Center and that sort of thing. She would come and pick me up on Saturdays from my apartment; take me to those rehearsals; stay with me all day long, and bring me back home. These are the kind of people that we're talking about. So that was junior high school. When it was time to go to high school, I ran into her in the hall and she said, "Denyce, where have you decided to go for high school?" And I said, "I don't know." And she said, "Well there's a performing arts high school - and you've got a pretty voice - called the Duke Ellington school, and I think you should audition.” So she got the application; we filled it out together. We set up the audition, I sang 'You light up my life'. And I got accepted and she became the vice principal of the school. So this woman was literally my guardian angel from kindergarten through the time that I graduated high school. And when it was time to go off to college, I took a meeting in her office and I said, "This is it." And I decided I was going to go to Oberlin College Conservatory. I said, "I don't want to see you at Oberlin. This is it. This is where it stops." But to this day, she's a very dear friend. She's the godmother of my children, and she was an angel. I mean, she really took me under her wing and guided me and the Kennedy Center at that time - and I think that they still do have a relationship with the Duke Ellington school, where they would invite students to performances there. And I was amongst those young people, and that's when I heard Beethoven's Fidelio for the first time. And it was at that school, through this girlfriend of mine that I heard the recording of the Puccini Arias by Leontyne Price. It was at this school, but it was because of this woman, who really set me on this path, that I've been able to have the life that I have enjoyed.
Marc A. Scorca: If there is a theme that runs through a lot of these oral history chats that we have, it's the outstanding intervention of music teachers, or classroom teachers in elementary, junior, senior high school. How many people's lives have been shaped by the influence of a teacher, who was willing to invest more than the basics and really give of themselves to guide their students? It's an incredible story.
Denyce Graves: Isn't it something? It's spectacular. And now that I've been in the fortunate position to be on the other side of the piano, with some of my young people, my young developing artists: I understand that, and I feel such an incredible obligation to that thing: that seed that says, "I want to dance;" that seed that says, "You know, I want to sing; I want to play an instrument; I want to conduct." Whatever that little kernel is: I would say that I'm on my knees in front of that, because I see that in the face of my beautiful young people that come through the door of my studio, and they're looking at you with those beautiful young faces, looking at you to just receive and impart, whatever it is that you want to share. And I feel such a responsibility to those people, and fortunately for me now we're doing Porgy and Bess at The Metropolitan Opera. There are two of my students that are in the ensemble - and that just makes my heart feel like it wants to burst, every time I look at them on stage, I say, "Oh my God, look at that." And I've been a part, and I want to be a part of that journey for them, because I've had the most extraordinary people pour so much love, I could just cry. I've had so many people Marc, so many beautiful, beautiful people that you never know about. It's like that line: I think it was Maya Angelou that said, "I come as one, but I stand as 10,000," because there are so many people who have contributed to my being able to stand on the stage - still, at this time and age in my career of The Metropolitan Opera. So, I feel such an incredible responsibility and obligation to those young people who want the same thing. It's not an easy path for anybody. I don't care how you started or where you started or who you are. It's not easy for anybody. You have to earn the right and the privilege to be there. But for those who are tenacious and those who are incredibly passionate and those who are so driven, it takes the energy of so many people to be able to help them along that way. And I'm in that place now in my life that that's what I want to do.
Marc A. Scorca: Well, it's a point I'm going to come to in a few minutes, because I do see in you this continuum of having role models and being one; of having been given and inspired and then giving and inspiring to others, and I see that in your life, but we'll get there in a second, because I wanted to just go a little chronologically here. And we've talked about Ellington and you mentioned Oberlin, and of course studies at Oberlin and NEC, but you landed at the Houston Grand Opera Studio at a young age. You were in your early, maybe your mid-twenties by the time you got to the HGO Studio. And I wanted to focus for a second on that. And what a young artist training program like the HGO Studio does for you. Was that an important part of your life? Of your career development?
Denyce Graves: Absolutely; without a doubt; 100%. It put me on my path and particularly my story, which was an unusual one of how I got there. It's different nowadays for all of the young people who are trying to get access to these wonderful young artists programs, but it isn't the only way. For me, how I got there was: the first thing that I want to say is: my life as a young person growing up: my father was a minister. And I come from a tremendously strict background and a very religious background, and so we were in church seven days a week; seven days a week. Not just Sunday, but Monday, Tuesday...And while I hated that, what that gave me was a tremendous, great spiritual foundation. So before getting to HGO, I'd actually stopped singing and I decided that I wasn't going to sing, and there were a number of reasons why. I had won The Metropolitan Opera Regionals, and I'd gotten to New York and Larry Stair, who was at that time running The Met young artists program was a big champion of mine and said, "Denyce, your voice does not sound like it did when I heard you in Boston." Because at that time I was at New England Conservatory. So I started out in Oberlin. Oberlin had a mandatory age retirement. So my voice teacher who was sort of a mysterious age had been a draw for many singers to come to the conservatory, but they had not been enforcing that regulation at that time, because she was the reason a lot of people were coming to Oberlin. So some of the other professors said, "You can't enforce that for some and not for others." So she was forced to retire. So I actually did not get my degree from Oberlin. I got my degree from New England Conservatory. So I was in my junior year and my voice teacher had to retire early. So there were 13 of us who left Oberlin to continue studying with her at NEC. But I was there and I had won The Metropolitan Opera regional auditions. And by the time I got to New York for the national, something weird had happened to my voice. And Larry Stair said, "Your voice does not sound like it did. What is wrong with you?" So anyway, he sent me to Dr. Wilbur Gould, who was the sort of the ENT of the day. And he discovered that I had, and I still have, this thyroid disease. And even if you look at my neck, now, you could see some borders and stuff that I have. And that's been growing over these 35 years, which is another issue. So they decided that I just couldn't sing; that there was something that was affecting the quality of my voice. And they said, "I'm not sure that you can do this." So I stopped singing, and I was working at a computer company and I was supposed to have gone to Wolf Trap that summer. And Peter Russell was running the program at that time. And I called him, and I said, "Peter, I'm not singing anymore." And he said, "Denyce, are you sure?" And I said, "Yes, I'm sure. There's some health issues that I've got to deal with." So I got a call from Shauna Bowman, who was, at that time, running the Houston Grand Opera program. And she said, "We got your name from Peter Russell, and we're looking for a mezzo-soprano". And I said, "Thank you very much, but I'm no longer singing." And so she said, "Okay." A couple months later, she called back and she said, "Your name keeps coming up, and I just wanted to check in and see how you're doing." And I said, "I'm still not singing." I was working as a secretary, and that's how it was. And she said, "I wish you well, and blah, blah, blah." So I was on the phone with a good friend of mine who you know: Ronald Smith. They called a third time some months later. And she said, "Denyce, I know, but everybody keeps telling me your name." It had already been a year. I said, "Can I think about this and call you back?" And she said, "Yeah." So I hadn't sung; it'd been a year. I had no idea what the voice was going to be like. I had a dream that night, that I'd gone to see the doctor. And I told him that I couldn't sing. And so in the dream, he said to me, "Start singing, just sing." So I started singing in the dream, and people were coming into the examining rooms. "Oh, what a lovely voice." So I took that as my sign from the universe. So I called Shauna the next day and I said, "I'd love to come and audition," and I was on the phone with my friend Ronald, and I had call waiting, and he said, "You must be crazy, Denyce. There isn't a singer in the world who would not die to have an opera company call them. What the hell is wrong with you?" And so I had that dream that night, and I called her and I said, "I'm coming." And I hadn't sung. I had no idea what it was going to be like. I got there early. I warmed up for an hour. I did my presentation, John DeMain and David Gockley were there, and they offered me a contract right there on the spot. And my life changed direction, 'cause I was on another path, but that was God coming, saying, "Nope, Denyce: you're supposed to be over here." That's how I ended up there. So for me, it absolutely changed my life. It has the ability to do that anyway, for any young artist who finds themselves fortunate enough to be in some of these young artists programs at The Met; in Chicago and Washington; Houston Grand Opera is one of them, San Francisco; all of these wonderful young artists programs that we are aware of now, but for me it was an absolute saving grace and put me really back on the path to righteousness, as it were.
Marc A. Scorca: And for another time when we were having dinner, I didn't realize you went back that far with Ronald. So that's a nice story.
Denyce Graves: I go further back. When I was a student at the Ellington school, I was 13 years old, and after they let us go see the Fidelio, there was an opportunity to be a super that summer for Kennedy Center Summer Opera Theater with John Mauceri conducting Il furioso, and I was 13 years old, and I was a super and I met him then. That's when I met Ronald. I was 13.
Marc A. Scorca: Wow. I had no idea. That's just great to know. So, Houston Grand Opera Studio, 1988, but by 1990, you're making important debuts. You stopped being a secretary. You went back to singing and you got launched into a career that had you make debuts around the world, culminating in The Met in 1995/96 with Carmen's: your signature roles - Dalila and I'm fascinated as I look at your career by your incredible work in the inherited repertoire, with really important roles that became yours for a decade or more: the person who sang those roles at the great opera houses, Denyce Graves. And then, I see on the repertoire list: Doubt and Margaret Garner; Champion, Marnie...I can go on. So there is this long list of the inherited repertoire, toward the beginning half of your career. And then there's this shift, as that work begins to meld with new work. I'm wondering whether that was a process of discovery for you, to go from the 19th century to the 20th and 21st century repertoire. What was that journey like for you as an artist?
Denyce Graves: So first of all, I just want to add a tag about being a secretary. The man who I was a secretary for is my greatest fan. He will be at the opera on Saturday. We do a matinee of Porgy. He's seen me perform more than anybody; he's my biggest fan, and he's a huge opera fanatic. But how I got there? Because there are more than 75 roles actually in my repertoire. So Carmen and Delilah, just are two of them. Again, I will say that this career has been God-led and God-driven. That's all it is to it. When I was at Oberlin, the first opera that I did was one by Conrad Cummings, and that was Eros and Psyche, and I sang the role of the queen. And so I started out singing new music, and that's just the way it worked. I think that also being a mezzo-soprano, oftentimes it's...I've heard some singers say "You're sort of second banana." And in terms of being the main protagonist: (it's) a disproportionate amount, when you look at what's available for a soprano. And you certainly are not going to start out as a young mezzo singing Dalila or Carmen. So, I sang more Suzuki's. I believe that the reason my knees are screwed up today is because of Suzuki.
Marc A. Scorca: A work hazard of a mezzo-soprano...
Denyce Graves: Up and down, up and down, pouring tea all night long. So there were so many other roles; secondary parts, and that sort of thing that I built the career doing, before I got the opportunity to sing some of those leading ladies, and I still have - even now, in the twilight of the career - singing the role of Maria in Porgy and Bess: it's not a main character at all. It's a supporting character; she's an important figure, but not the leading role. So I think that, certainly with this voice type, as a mezzo-soprano, you get used to having to do all kinds of different roles, and not necessarily a star role. But I came along in a great period where, you know, as head of OPERA America, that there's been a great push and a tremendous amount of support with encouraging our great American composers, our great artists. And I think a lot of opera companies now are trying to incorporate new works all the time in their seasons, and so I happened to come along when there was a real explosion of lots of new works being done, but I started out doing new works as well. And so I've had a great time doing that. I would say that it wasn't planned on my part. None of this was planned. It just kind of happened. The first Carmen I did in 1990/91 with Minnesota Opera was my first real big opportunity. And because we've had such a success with that, the production itself was fantastic. Keith Warner did this very new avant-garde telling of this story. Stephen O'Mara was my Don Jose; Elizabeth Knighton Printy was the Micaela: just spectacular artists who were really, really committed to doing great work; really engaged singing-actors, and because we had the dialogue, and because that is a show that's really about the relationships so much, even though her name is the title, it's really about the relationships with everybody else that makes that a success. Because of the work that we did with that, and I would have to say that it was really so much of my colleagues also, who really propped it and lifted me up, that my managers and people in the industry could see not only a singer here, but a stage animal. We have someone who is willing to engage as an actress, and so I think that people started seeing me that way, and I began to get offered roles that were really meaty acting parts.
Marc A. Scorca: And I will say: it sticks out in my memory, your Amneris in Cincinnati, which I saw, and it's the first time that I really came to understand the love triangle, because it's usually Radames and Aida, and Amneris is unhappy and over there, but when you sing Amneris, Amneris was right here, the princess, and she was not happy. And suddenly it's "That's the drama Verdi meant": it was a love triangle; not a duo with a sidecar, and you just brought it to life. And I will say then about your work with new pieces, it is so important for an artist of your stature, because you lend credibility to the new work by associating with it, and someone of your great accomplishment, your scenes in these works that I think about: Doubt in Minnesota and Champion in St. Louis. The mother's aria in Champion that you did in St. Louis to this day is one of the great moments. New work can't be, should not be just populated by the young artists program. It's when the fine artists bring their craft, their skill to these works, that they shine like the other masterpieces in the literature. So it is so great that you were doing these new works, Denyce.
Denyce Graves: Well, I'm very, very fortunate. I'm incredibly blessed, like you, and thank you for what you said about that Aida. That was Mario Gárate's direction, and he really believed that she was a central figure. And so, he really helped teach that to me, but there's just been great, great, great fortune where that's concerned, because I have really been interested and care about these individuals. And I try really hard not to judge them, and to really see it from their perspective. And like every artist, I just want to do a really good job. Everybody wants to do that. I want to do a really good job with what it is, because it is really a privilege. I heard Jose Carreras say that one time. I was actually in his presence when he was doing an interview. And he was saying that he considers being on the stage an incredible honor, and just an incredible privilege and not one that he takes for granted at all, whatever it is that he's charged with doing. I feel the same way. I just want to do a good job. And I was curious when you were asking me that: what drives you? Because you've been doing this job for 35 years; 40 or something like that. I don't know.
Marc A. Scorca: It's 32. I haven't hit 40 yet. Because the world changes and here's this incredible art form that can engage people in so many ways: musically, theatrically, through the texts, through the imagery. And as the world changes, how does the art form change to be informed by, to be shaped by the world we live in? And that's an ever-changing score. That score isn't finished yet. And every day I awake, there's a new page in the score about what's going on in the world and how opera can relate to it. So, it is a matter of constant discovery, as you are constantly discovering your artistry through these new works, that call on new parts of your voice or new parts of your character to create new roles. It's really remarkable.
Denyce Graves: But Marc: excuse me, please. You said something very prophetic some years ago. Do you remember we had tea in the west village some years ago? And I think we were talking about my being involved with OPERA America. And you said that you felt that it was so important for opera to be able to tell unique and different stories. And I never forgot about that. And I think that what we see certainly happening right now...I don't want to get ahead of where you're going...because that really landed on me when you said that. "I think it's great, Nozze and Butterfly and all these wonderful pieces, but it's also really important in terms of us engaging our audiences to tell different stories.” And I think that now we're so fortunate. And so out of your 32 years from where you started... I don't know how long you've held that vision, but you've been able to see this incredible arc of what we see in front of us right now: the success that we're having.
Marc A. Scorca: And I see it accelerating. I see it as a crescendo of new people wanting to bring new stories, but also new musical styles and new voices, new creative voices into opera. I see it as a moment of abundance. We are becoming more diverse, not just because it is a social responsibility, but because we are all so much better for it, artistically and in every way, when we have more voices and more styles and more stories coming onto the opera stage. It is a time of increasing abundance. And I'm really joyful for that.
Denyce Graves: I totally believe you. That is wonderful. That is really, really wonderful. I went to the opening of the season of The Met, but it was just so much fun. Of course, that night was about so many other things. But the way that people were dressed and the way that people were celebrating. I felt so happy for everybody to just be who they were. That's the one place: the arts is the thing that does unify us. It's so unlike anything else. With sports, you're either on this team or that team...The Arts is the one thing that is a great...it's unlike anything else. It is the great, great, great unifier and the place that can transcend all that, because it's really about talent. It's really about art; that's the basis for it. Either you can do it, or you can't.
Marc A. Scorca: If we let it be about that. If we don't clog it with other things; if we let it be about talent and the love of talent and the love of stories; the love of perspective and discussion. If we allow it to be that, then the opera house is the town square. It is the place where people can gather and share their lives.
Denyce Graves: That's really gorgeous. And for me, that is what sits at the seat of every sort of conflict that there is in the world. I think it's because somewhere, somebody feels disregarded or unheard. And when you can go to the theater and you can find yourself, and you can see yourself, and you can see your stories being told, that says to you that that's important. I grew up in the church and we were always embarrassed. We didn't want to have to go to church, and kids teased us for having to do that and all those songs and how rich the experiences growing up in church and somewhere, I always thought that those songs were not as worthy of being on the main stage. Somewhere I thought that. I know why I thought that; growing up as I had been in America, I definitely received the message that my life and my story was not of equal value: that message came through loud and clear. And so, in this little teeny, little Pentecostal church that we used to belong to, all those songs, all that stuff that was being poured in me, I had no idea that was going to give me my life. I had no idea that that was going to inform every piece of music that I pick up to this day. I was so embarrassed about having to go to church and learning all the gospel songs and learning all the spirituals. That became the foundation on which I built my career.
Marc A. Scorca: Yep, yep.
Denyce Graves: Praise God. It's crazy.
Marc A. Scorca: Absolutely. And just remember where you have come from, because it will inform where you are going and you have to embrace it all. There is so much to talk about here, and I want to turn the chronological dial, because I want to talk about the Denyce Graves Foundation and the concept of giving back. You have given so much already as an artist, and I know that you are a teacher at Peabody; at Juilliard. You have a private studio. You are a role model. I've interviewed (Ryan) Speedo (Green), and I know what it was like for him to go backstage after his first performance of Carmen, and to be embraced by you. That was for him, the moment that the Leontyne Price recording was for you. So you've been giving back so much, but I think it takes on a whole new dimension with the Denyce Graves Foundation. And I wanted to hear you describe what it is you're doing; what you hope to accomplish and how the Denyce Graves Foundation will be the vehicle for that.
Denyce Graves: I think like so many other artists, because tomorrow I'm speaking with [Sondra] about her screaming divas project. And we've seen that in that period of confinement, what was born through a lot of artists because we're creative beings and we wanted to be active...It's very interesting what happened. Some people felt paralyzed and some other people felt, "Come on, let's seize this moment." But because I am so inspired by my students and because I felt so awful about what had happened, particularly to singers. And I wanted to reach out to my students to find a way that I can help those young people: they were just about to get going. And then all of a sudden, there was this incredible stop and halt and freeze to everything. And we didn't know what our direction was. And I thought, "I've got to do something for my girls; what am I going to do? What am I going to say? How can I help them? How can I encourage them move forward?" And it basically first started with the cooking show, but there's always this dichotomy with everything. You teach, but it ends up your students teach you. I've said that about giving birth: you give birth to your children, but they actually give birth to you. It's always like this inverted thing. And so it was one of my students who was singing in Pittsburgh, at the house of the National Negro Opera Company that was founded by Mary Cardwell Dawson, who was out there just singing an aria, acapella by herself on these broken down decrepit steps. And I was so moved by just the courage that that took. Only a few people saw it. And I was just so proud of what she was doing. And so I got in touch with my studio and I said, "We're doing a project." And the project is that we're going to raise awareness about Mary Cardwell Dawson and about the National Negro Opera Company, and the fact that we don't really know who this woman is, but the fact that we're pursuing these careers that we're having is because you know, of her efforts. She was the original entrepreneur. And so we started doing that and, as they say, no good deed ever goes unpunished. What I thought I was doing was bringing awareness to an incredible part of American history that had been forgotten, and I wanted people to know about this great American woman who has been considered the first lady of opera, Mary Cardwell Dawson, back in the time of war; the war decided to create this opera company, and this little black lady decided that, what I want to do is I want to create opera for those singers who don't have an opportunity to perform.
Marc A. Scorca: And this was 1941, it was World War II.
Denyce Graves: This was 1941. So she created that. She had gone to New England Conservatory and graduated in 1925. So many blessings start this way. So many gifts start this way, that when you don't see something; there's a need for something: you step in that gap and you say, "I don't see it here. So I'm going to create it for myself," and that's one of the things that we want to do with our Foundation is that I want singers to have agency over their own and have dominion over their own destiny. I don't want them sitting around feeling like, "Oh my God, I hope somebody gives me a job," or the starving artist. We're done with that. I want them to know that they can empower themselves and create their own opportunities, and you don't have to sit around hoping and begging and praying and crying for somebody to give you a job; that you can create your own opportunities. And I think that that was one of the great gifts that we saw happen with a lot of artists to come out of the pandemic, because everybody realized we've got to do this ourselves, right? If we want to get out there, if we want to create our own audiences, if we want to be heard, if we feel like we've got something to offer, and we feel like we have a unique story to tell, then it's up to us because there's nobody there, but you and yourself, and if you want to sing, that's like God's instrument. You can do that. If you want to have a career, that's something else. If you want to be really famous, that's something else. But there's nothing that prevents you from being out there and fulfilling whatever that desire is that makes you want to be able to share this incredible gift that you have in that way. So for us, the Denyce Graves Foundation was born out of my wanting to help my students and finding a way to empower them. And then learning about this incredible woman, Mary Cardwell Dawson, and discovering in our research about her, that there were so many others like her. So many others, like Sissieretta Jones, who decided 20 years after being a slave, that she wants to become an opera singer. Where does she get that crazy idea? But she did, and she did it. And we might know Lily Pons; we might know Enrico Caruso; we might know Maria Callas, but we don't know some of these other wonderful, great artists. And so the Foundation is sitting at the intersection of social justice, American history, and classical vocal arts. And there's a lot of ways that we are doing that through our programs, in that we're telling the stories and supporting artists dead or alive; past present and future, with the work that we're doing through the Foundation. So I feel that I was created for this moment. I do, I do. I feel like the 35 years that I've had on the stage have enabled me to be in the position where I'm being interviewed by Marc Scorca, who's president of OPERA America. Why is that? Well, because I've had the career that I've had, and you believe that I have something important to say, but you also give me this platform to be able to talk about the work that we're doing, so I'm incredibly grateful. But it's because of the work that had to go on before this moment, that allows people to return the email or pick up the telephone. So I'm incredibly grateful for that, but I feel that everything that my life has been about: all of these wonderful people, like Judith Grove, like Peter Russell, like Shauna Bowman, all of these people who lifted me up and said, "Nope, this is what you're going to do. I know you think you're going to be a secretary, but we've got a different idea for you." All of those people who have done that, the beautiful young faces of all the young people that I see, those magnificent people that were on the stage of The Metropolitan Opera every day; the young people that we hear in high school in undergraduate, in graduate school. Those young artists who are out there who want to do something. I want, and I owe them and I owe art, and I owe the people that have given their lives and poured all of that love and support into me. I have an obligation to offer that and to do what I can do to support the next generation of artists that are coming along, and they are tremendous. And there are just so many wonderful, beautiful artists. And when I look in their faces, I see myself all the time. It's the same way: they're struggling, trying to pay for lessons and coaching’s and all this stuff, and the whole path that you and I both know so well. So if I can be a blessing in some way, I want to be able to help. I want to be a resource where singers can come to and get support to help them along that journey. And I want to be a part of the retelling of the American story that has left out a lot of our great heroes. Because this faceless person, this nameless person called Mary Cardwell Dawson: while I didn't know her, it was her work that allowed me to have the career that I had. Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield, these wonderful people that we never knew anything about. Marissa Leica: all these incredible, great, great, great artists, who came before Marian Anderson, that we don't know. That's not a part of the telling of our story, and it is part of our rich cultural history. So, I just want to give them their bow; their moment on stage and to acknowledge them, because I'm their daughter. I'm their daughter. And that is my job and my responsibility. I didn't know this woman. And particularly as an African-American person, so much of our history has been lost and so much of the history has been oral history. I had the great, great, great fortune some years ago, before he passed, Nelson Shanks painted a portrait of me that actually hangs in the National Portrait Gallery. And he was asking me - and at that time I didn't have a family - and he asked me, what does this mean to you? And when I think about my father, who doesn't know when he was born: that's just a generation ago...He doesn't know when he was born, because at that time, they were not able to go to the hospital, so they were born at home by the midwife. Nobody wrote that stuff down. And so much of our history...I see now Henry Louis Gates doing the finding your roots, and now we've got all these things with ancestry.com and where you can sort of trace, and find out your lineage, but for a lot of African-Americans and for a lot of other people as well, we just don't know what that history is. But Mary Cardwell Dawson asked for us and she did great, great, great work. She had chapters in Cleveland, in Chicago, in New York and Washington, DC; in Pittsburgh; in Baltimore. These chapters where she gave opportunity to over 1,600 singers that we don't know anything about. We're not taught about those people in the conservatories. So the Foundation is highlighting and celebrating the lives of the great; those names that we may not know. And one of the programs that we have is called 'Hidden Figures, Hidden Voices', and that's when we assign an emerging young artist the name of a hidden figure where they have to do research about that individual, and we have works of art created around it. Now with Mary Cardwell Dawson, we have Francesca Zambello and Sandra Seaton and Carlos Simon. We premiered last summer The Passion of Mary Cardwell Dawson, so we've got that piece about her now that tells a little bit about her life. The Library of Congress has 11,000 artifacts, and so does the Heinz Foundation in Pittsburgh of costumes, photographs, music from her life, and what we would love to do, is to do exhibits, where we could take The Passion of Mary Cardwell Dawson to The Metropolitan Opera, to the conservatories, to the National Museum of African-American History and Culture, put that on, and also have an exhibit of photographs of Mary Cardwell Dawson with Eleanor Roosevelt, who was a huge supporter, or some of the costumes from the time, or Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield: have works done about her. Let's say Sissieretta Jones, which Harolyn Blackwell I know is working on a piece about her right now. But have songs cycles written about these particular people; children's books written about them, where these young artists can go and present in concert halls, in recital spaces, a lecture piece about a hidden figure, and to support that, we will have also different works of art, whether there are short films about it, or as I said, children's books or song cycles, or some kind of exhibit that tells and gets this incorporated back into certainly the conservatories and certainly the schools and things like that.
Marc A. Scorca: It's absolutely fantastic. And you talk about your feeling of obligation to have these stories told. And I just feel on behalf of OPERA America, our obligation to you to support you in all ways possible in getting these stories out there, because,...
Denyce Graves: You have been. I came running to you from the very beginning, and you have been so helpful to us. Thank you.
Marc A. Scorca: Only the very beginning, because these stories do nothing but enrich all of our lives. And it really inspires us to recognize the strength of the people who came before us, so that we can be strong to meet the challenges of today, as we need to be. But Lord knows, we are inspired and informed by these incredible people you've named, whether it's Sissieretta Jones or Mary Cardwell Dawson. I just can't wait to hear more of these stories. Now, Denyce, I know you have a busy day, and there's so much more we could talk about, but I really wanted to capture a little bit of the history and then a little bit of what you're up to today. We will be speaking a lot more to learn from your discoveries and to understand how you are giving back to this wonderful world of opera. But in the meantime, I want to just thank you for your time this morning, and for all you're doing. And I can't wait to see you really soon.
Denyce Graves: Marc, you break my heart. You are so sweet and you have been so genuine from day one; from the moment that I met you, you've been so kind to me. And I just want to thank you for your support.