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Report: Reflections on ‘A Master Class with Denyce Graves’ at the Kennedy Center

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Denyce Graves is an absolute force of nature. This is apparent any time she takes the stage, whether it is in a role or as an instructor. She has a strength of presence that radiates when she is singing a famous aria or is interacting with her talented students in a Master Class presented by Washington Performing Arts. The newly-renovated Terrace Theater made for a felicitous venue for the opera maven, as it was on this very stage that she made her debut at the Kennedy Center.

Denyce introduced her first protégé: Simone Brown, a lovely soprano and recent graduate of the Peabody Conservatory, whose lyric coloratura was on full and glorious display as she sang “Quel guard il cavaliere” from Don Pasquale. Once Simone had finished delivering the audience’s introduction to the aria, Denyce immediately engaged the audience in attempting to decipher the situation of the character based on the inflection in Simone’s voice and her accompanying movement.

Denyce Graves performs “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” for the audience gathered on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol for the PBS National Memorial Day Concert in Washington, D.C., May 24, 2009.

What followed was a thorough break down of Simone’s performance from a vocal standpoint, with asides on how Simone could leverage her particular talents to lean in to the role. Graves is a completist, giving her students’ every note and movement the consideration it deserves. She does not let them off the hook. Much of the audience, which I would assume contained a number of professional singers and students of voice, nodded at her directives and cheered when the pupil inevitably applied these directives to stunning effect.

While I am just a fan of opera myself, it was fascinating to get an inside look in to how professionals create such masterpieces with their instrument. Watching Denyce Graves instruct the women was similar to watching a sculptor chip away at a piece of marble to reveal the beautiful work of art that had always been contained within it, but could only be accessed by a true visionary.

Denyce Graves also reveals herself to be a woman of humor and resilience. Embracing the reality of being a woman of color in a profession which has been dominated by outdated standards and establishments has clearly magnified her natural ability to hold her own. This is a skill she is also passing on to the young women. She reassures them that they are allowed to be assertive and are not required to apologize. What a refreshing change of pace!

Mezzo-soprano Emma Dickinson, who is currently pursuing her degree in Vocal Performance at the Peabody Conservatory, entered with the sorrowful aria “Voi la sapete” from Cavalleria Rusticana. Her performance as the wronged woman whom she was portraying was so inspired that a twelve-year-old from the audience was able to tell Denyce exactly what Emma had been singing about, despite the lack of subtitles.

Denyce coached Emma through the vocal accompaniment for this convincing portrayal, breaking the different sections of the song where the mood changed down to sections to be focused on. The attention to the emotional shifts made for a much stronger performance overall. It was impressive how obvious the improvements were, with both students, when Ms.Graves would make a small change or encourage them to try something they were unsure they could do.

Simone Brown and Emma Dickinson are two up-and-comers whose careers I am sure I will enjoy following. With help from Denyce’s sensitivity to their individual styles, her ear for detail, and her extensive knowledge of the profession I am sure these women have very bright futures.

It is a great credit to Washington Performing Arts that they bring such a special and unique events and engagements to the DC Metro area. For those interested in Ms.Graves’ next performance in DC, she will be appearing as The Old Lady in the Washington National Opera’s Candide, which runs from May 5 to May 26, 2018 at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts – 2700 F Street, NW Washington, DC 20566. Tickets can be purchased online.

Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, with one intermission.

A Master Class with Denyce Graves took place on December 5, 2017 at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts – 2700 F Street, NW Washington, DC 20566. Information about this event can be found online.

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