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Opera star Denyce Graves joins Peabody Conservatory faculty

In terms of talent, glamour and wide appeal, few opera singers today rank as high as mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves. No wonder there's quite a buzz at the Peabody Conservatory, where Graves will join the voice faculty in the fall.

People are still talking about a master class that Graves gave at the conservatory last September.

"She didn't know she was auditioning," said Phyllis Bryn-Julson, the distinguished soprano who chairs the voice department. "It was a phenomenal day for the students. They were so filled with elation. There was something from the heart that Denyce gave them. We were all smitten."

Graves found the experience just as positive.

"I had a wonderful time and heard wonderful students," she said. "I am asked all the time to teach. Peabody has been chasing me down that street for years. Young singers want to sing through their arias for me, ask for advice. But there has been no room in the calendar for that sort of thing."

Fortuitously, Graves has been cutting back a bit on her engagements in recent years, especially opera productions, which typically take up several weeks.

"I want to be available for my daughter as much as possible," said Graves, who is 48. "She's 7 now. She needs more and more time from me. I told my agency I would like to concentrate on recitals and concerts and just do one or two operas a year. I am fortunate to be able to be discriminating and not have to accept every offer."

An offer from Peabody, after the success of that master class, turned out to be tempting. In addition to having a few more free days on her schedule, there was the attraction of Baltimore itself.

The Washington, D.C.-born Graves lives in Bethesda, which can be inconvenient for her husband, Dr. Robert Montgomery, the richly mustachioed professor of surgery at Johns Hopkins, where he also heads the Division of Transplantation and is director of the Johns Hopkins Comprehensive Transplant Center.

"He has been complaining about the commute," Graves said, "and we've been thinking about moving. It is inevitable we will be here. My daughter has already been accepted at Bryn Mawr."

The mezzo's Peabody job will not be full-time gig, and she will only take on a handful of students initially. But her presence will likely be felt in a big way.

Having one of the world's most celebrated interpreters of the sensual protagonists in Bizet's "Carmen" and Saint-Saens' "Samson et Dalila" on campus, however briefly each semester, cannot help but give Peabody a lift. This is one of the highest-profile additions to the conservatory's faculty in years.

Bryn-Julson is among the many admirers of Graves' work onstage, especially as Carmen.

"Anybody who can pick up her skirt with her teeth while her hands are tied behind her back is on my front burner," Bryn-Julson said with a laugh, referring to a scene that caused a sensation when the strikingly agile Graves made her 1995 debut at the Metropolitan Opera.

Observing the mezzo in action with students during the master class added to Bryn-Julson's admiration.

"She got the technique she wanted from them without talking about the larynx and all of that," Bryn-Julson said. "She was after the character of it, the emotional part."

That's how it felt to one of the participants in the master class, too.

"She was so driven by a passion for the music," said Kristina Lewis, a mezzo working on her graduate performance diploma at the conservatory. "I felt she was really trying to push my singing to the next level. I haven't encountered that level of energy in a master class before."

After that September event, discussions quickly began with Graves about a follow-up.

"We thought we could only get her to agree to more master classes," said Mellasenah Morris, dean of the conservatory. "Then we found out she was interested in having a small studio. Lo and behold, she was with us during audition week [in February], listening to [prospective] students. When they walked in and saw her, that was an oh-my-gosh moment."

It can be nerve-racking enough for a young singer to audition before the teachers already on the Peabody faculty, which, in addition to Bryn-Julson, includes such highly respected artists as baritones William Sharp and John Shirley-Quirk and bass-baritone Francois Loup. Graves adds quite a starry level to the lineup, but not a forbidding one.

"I've been on the other side myself," she said. "I see the students coming into the room with their hopes, and I want to go up and hug them. That's my instinct. I am an extremely sensitive person. And I know what it's like to sing before a panel like this, where we're picking apart everything. There is nothing more intimidating."

Graves, who first did some vocal coaching when she was still a student herself (she studied at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music and the New England Conservatory), was impressed by the level of singers trying out for admission to Peabody next fall.

"One looked like a Goth, a heavy duty rock-'n'-roller," she said. "You would cross the street if you saw him coming your way. But then he opened his voice and sang German lieder so beautifully. It reminded me how music binds us all over the world, how it chooses its disciples, how it will call you, whether it's rock or not. Something inside your solar plexus says 'This is what you are called to do.'"

Graves heard the calling at a young age.

"I grew up in a very strict religious home, with nothing outside of gospel in the way of music," Graves said, "not even the Jackson Five. I was a terribly shy and awkward kid. But on the first day of kindergarten, I couldn't wait until they took me to music class."

The focus on singing came later, in junior high, when a teacher heard her in the chorus and recommended that Graves transfer to the Duke Ellington School of the Arts.

"When I was given the 'Twenty-four Italian Songs and Arias' book, which every singer starts with all over the world, that was as foreign to me as anything," Graves said. "But I fell in love with it."

With her rich tone and dynamic personality, the mezzo quickly built a career after her college years, first honing her craft at the Wolf Trap Opera Company.

Her list of credits includes such venues as London's Royal Opera House, the Vienna Staatsoper and Deutsche Oper Berlin, in addition to the Met and major companies throughout the U.S. Her repertoire extends from standard works to the title role in the Richard Danielpour/Toni Morrison opera "Margaret Garner," which Graves premiered.

Next year, she is scheduled to perform in two more opera premieres, one by Terence Blanchard about boxer Emile Griffith, the other based on the John Patrick Shanley play "Doubt," with music by Douglas J. Cuomo.

The mezzo has long been a popular concert performer as well. Next month, she will be the guest artist for the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra's 50th anniversary gala at the Clarice Smith Center in College Park.

Graves has also lent her distinctive voice to some major national events. In the aftermath of 9/11, she was featured during the televised prayer service at Washington's National Cathedral (she served as cultural ambassador during the Bush administration). In 2009, she sang at the Lincoln Memorial, marking the 70th anniversary of the legendary Marian Anderson concert there.

The perspective from this busy and successful career will be part of the mezzo's teaching at Peabody.

"She wants to help students with real life issues of making it in the business," Morris said. "In the academic world, we sometimes miss those things."

That was the mezzo's experience.

"When I got out of school, what I needed to know I hadn't learned in conservatory," Graves said. "There are so many things I would like to share with the students. The politics. The conductors. What happens if you get sick. How to negotiate contracts. Singing next to a four-foot tenor. The impossible stagings where they want you to sing your aria sliding down a banister. The awful colleagues, of which there are a plethora."

And don't get Graves started on the subject of managers and agents.

"They're getting younger all the time," Graves said. "They don't know diddly-squat. The offers come in, and the agent doesn't know your body of work or what you should be singing. In the beginning, you're just so excited that someone has offered you a contract. But the business will just eat you up and spit you out."

Graves has clearly figured out how to weather that business.

"It's all part of learning to find your own survival system," she said.

Starting in the fall, Graves will begin imparting to Peabody students the technical, artistic, practical and philosophical lessons she has learned.

"I consider this process a privileged one," she said. "It is a tremendous blessing to listen to wonderful music and discover beautiful talent."


Born: Washington, D.C., 1964

Education: Duke Ellington School of the Arts, Washington; Oberlin Conservatory of Music, Oberlin, Ohio; New England Conservatory, Boston.

Opera highlights: Metropolitan Opera debut in "Carmen," 1995; La Scala debut in "La Vestale," 1995; performing Charlotte in "Werther" opposite Andrea Bocelli at Michigan Opera Theater, 1999; creating the title role in Richard Danielpour's "Margaret Garner" at Michigan Opera Theater, 2005

Momentous occasions in D.C.: Soloist for National Prayer Service at Washington National Cathedral, Sept. 14, 2001; the funeral of President Gerald Ford at the cathedral, 2007; the 70th anniversary commemoration of Marian Anderson's concert at Lincoln Memorial, 2009

Personal: Met Dr. Robert Montgomery, Johns Hopkins kidney transplant specialist, on a flight from Dulles to Paris in 2006, married him in 2009; a daughter, Ella, from a previous relationship.

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