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Denyce Graves in the title role of The Passion of Mary Cardwell Dawson at The Glimmerglass Festival in 2021
Denyce Graves in the title role of The Passion of Mary Cardwell Dawson at The Glimmerglass Festival in 2021 (photo: Karli Cadel)
Article Published: 22 Apr 2022

My First Opera: Denyce Graves

On my first day of kindergarten, I remember hiding behind my mother’s skirt and crying because I didn’t want to go to school. Then the music teacher, Judith Grove (her name is now Judith Allen), started playing the piano and singing. After that, I loved going to school because I loved being in her class. She was the one who told me about the All-City Chorus, where all the kids from the D.C. metropolitan area would come together and make a big chorus and give performances at Constitution Hall and the Kennedy Center. She would pick me up on Saturdays from my apartment and take me to those rehearsals.    

When it was time to go to high school, she was the one who told me, “There’s a performing arts high school called the Duke Ellington School. You’ve got a pretty voice, and I think you should audition.” She got the application and we filled it out together. I got in, and I’m so glad because it was a magical place for me. I was one of these kids who was very much bullied in school and in the neighborhood where I grew up, but when I was at school, I felt like I could exhale. That was the place where I found my group of people.    

It was as a student at Duke Ellington that I attended my first opera when I was 13 years old. It was the final dress rehearsal of Fidelio at Washington Opera (now Washington National Opera). We were given a tour and met some of the different artists, and it was incredibly imprinting.    

But it was listening to a recording of Leontyne Price that seared into me the love of opera. I was late for a class, and I was standing at my locker when the friend whose locker was next to mine said, “I just heard something that you’ve got to hear.” I said, “I can’t. I’m late. I’m getting to class.” She said, “No, Denyce, you’ve gotta come listen to this.” We went to the listening library and listened to this recording of Leontyne Price singing Puccini arias on LP. When we got to the end I said, “Oh my God, play it again.”   

We cut all of our classes that day. We didn’t eat, we didn’t go to the bathroom, we didn’t do anything. Finally, there was a knock on the door. It was the janitor, and it was 8:00 p.m. We had passed 10 or 11 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.”    

I mentioned that I was one of those kids who was bullied, 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. Nobody understood where this crazy notion came from. But I just looked at this woman, who was gorgeous and sang in such a way that made you fall into a million pieces, and said, “If I can do this, this is what I want to do.”  

Judith was my guardian angel from kindergarten all the way through high school. We are still friends today. She is the godmother of my children. Now, I’m in the fortunate position to be on the other side of the piano teaching young developing artists.    

It was Maya Angelou who said, “I come as one, but I stand as 10,000.” There are so many people who have contributed to my being able to stand on the stage. 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. Even for those who are tenacious and incredibly passionate and driven, it takes the energy of so many people to be able to help them along that way. I’m now in that place in my life where that’s what I want to do. 

Denyce Graves is a mezzo-soprano, cultural ambassador, and voice instructor. She will make her directorial debut as stage director of Minnesota Opera’s production of Carmen in May. 

This article was published in the Spring 2022 issue of Opera America Magazine.