This semester, I have had the honor of volunteering with The Denyce Graves Foundation, led and founded by the legendary opera superstar Denyce Graves-Montgomery. The Foundation’s genesis came about as a result of many factors. Last fall, I produced and helped create a cooking show with Denyce, titled “Cooking with Denyce,” that reached over 250,000 viewers online and provided a light during the pandemic by featuring celebrity opera singers, stage directors, sculptors, and many other artists. After producing our first season, Denyce realized that she has many philanthropic visions that she wants to tackle. One of the factors in this call to action was being overwhelmed by the inequity that exists in our classical music industry and nation overall, and COVID-19 amplified these issues to the point where, like many people, our founder felt the urging to move. Thus, this nonprofit was born.
In just 5 months, our Foundation has accomplished so much and is in the works to make lasting impacts in the realm of classical music. Leading into 2021, Denyce was approached to play a role about a woman named Mary Cardwell Dawson, who was a prominent African American figure in the early 1900s and pioneered many opportunities for black classical singers. MCD led the National Negro Opera Company, which trained over 300 black singers, put on productions, and gave experience to these singers in a time when black people were not allowed on the main stages. This play will be premiered at The Glimmerglass Festival in Cooperstown, NY this summer. Almost simultaneously, we learned that the actual building that housed the NNOC still stands today in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania! However, it is in deep ruin, and the house is in the midst of collapse, making it in danger of becoming a soon forgotten national landmark. Our Foundation has partnered with the National Opera House, as it is now called, to conduct a major fundraising campaign and save this home and restore it as a place that could possibly be a museum, cultural center, and performance venue for years to come. We made a trek to Pittsburgh to connect with the local leaders there, see the house, and put even more energy behind our fundraising. Due to such efforts, our Foundation won the “Opera for Peace” award, given by the International Opera Awards.
Furthermore, we have so many projects on the horizon that I am excited about! We had our Foundation Summit in May 2021, marking the first time that the entire team has been together in one place and not solely on Zoom. We made a great deal of progress in discussing our upcoming partnerships and programming which, in general, include both research to uncover more of classical music’s hidden figures (like MCD) and mentorship endeavors that aim to close the gap of access to opportunities for exceptional classical singers in America.
Not only have I been able to be of service to the Foundation in a digital/media sense, but my background and studies as a singer have fueled my passion for this organization. I am so inspired by the people on our team, some of which are students and emerging professionals and others retired, and I am honored to be at the helm of such groundbreaking work. One of the most important things the Luckyday Scholars Program has taught me is the notion of servant leadership, and this past year has truly brought this concept off the page and into my daily practice.
–Justin E. Bell, Senior Vocal Performance and Choral Music Education Double Major