KEYONTIA R. Hawkins went into the Baltimore School for the Arts four years ago thinking she was going to be a jazz singer. She came out of the public high school at Cathedral and Madison streets Sunday a singer of opera.
Along the way, Hawkins met Verdi, Puccini, Mozart, Wagner, Gounod, Beethoven and other opera composers. She also saw her first opera, "Tosca," and heard the voices of opera singers Kiri Te Kanawa, Jessye Norman, Leontyne Price and Dawn Upshaw.
But most of all she met Jean Carter, Baltimore voice teacher for 26 years. Forget jazz and forget the singer's other earlier favorites like gospel, pop, and even her very first song, "Our Love," by Natalie Cole. ("My mom says I was 4.")
Jean Carter helped turn Hawkins on to opera. As a result, Hawkins, known to family and friends as "KeyKey" (as in KiKi), has the remarkable honor of singing two solo arias Monday night at the age of 17 at the Concert Hall of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
Hawkins is a Presidential Scholar in the Arts. Each year there are only 20 American high school students receiving what is generally considered the country's highest honor for graduating seniors. Further, Hawkins is the only singer among the 20.
Two other Baltimore-area students, both from Towson High School, are among the 20 as visual arts scholars. They are Kyle L. Kinsella and Jeanne K. Wilmot, who also studied at the Lutherville Art Institute. They show their art works at 5:30 p.m. Sunday at the Smithsonian Institution's National Portrait Gallery.
Yesterday in a school studio, soprano Hawkins sang "Ain't it a pretty night" from Carlisle Floyd's "Susannah." Pianist Adam C. Mahonske accompanied her. An instant music review: No way this person and this beautiful voice are only 17. It was one of the two pieces the two will do (Hawkins in lavender gown) at the Kennedy Center at 8:30 p.m. Monday. The other is "Mein Herr Marquis" from Johan Strauss' "Die Fledermaus."
She has fans from here to Sunday. Mack Thomas, the arts school's friendly police officer, says "She's unbelievable. She reminds me of Leontyne Price. She steals me . . . just wraps me up."
"KeyKey is exceptional, she had no training earlier than high school," said Suzette Prude, communications associate of the National Foundation for the Advancement in the Arts, organizer of the scholars program.
For six years, Hawkins did sing with the New Psalmist Baptist Church here. She also sang some solo gospel around town. This was while developing some hobbies -- dancing, a taste in reading for mysteries and Shakespeare, a great fondness for her school -- "my second home." She lives with her parents in Overlea, has an older sister and younger and older brothers.
"When I first came to the school, I didn't like classical music or opera," said Hawkins. "It's more difficult than pop . . . anyone can do a pop record. So it became a challenge. I worked at it. Every day I do 2 1/2 hours . . . some singing, studying, thinking. I love classical music and opera now. I know over 100 arias, classical songs. Thanks to Mrs. Carter."
After four years in this special relationship, Jean Carter chooses her words carefully. Her prize student has been accepted to the Mannes College of Music in New York with a full scholarship and awaits word from the Juilliard School of Music. The student sits nearby.
"It's time to let go," Carter said, the teacher gazing at the student, the student smiling at Carter. "But I'm always here for you."
Carter speaks as a teacher but is also a respected local soprano who figures her greatest success was singing Carl Orff's "Carmina Burana" with the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra in the early 1970s. Her husband is Nathan Carter, music director at Morgan State University.
"I would classify KeyKey as leaning to the coloratura," an agile, florid, pretty style, Carter said. "I see her as a lighter Verdi, a Gilda or a Violetta.
"She goes deep with herself. She has a special reservoir of wanting to learn. She's filled with lots and lots of hard work, she wanted lesson after lesson. I didn't have to inspire her. If she keeps working, remains inspired, stays on an even keel, stays healthy, she could be a very fine artist, a singer in the best opera and concert houses.
"I've told her 'success brings confidence' -- it's very necessary for the stage. But you have to remain simple, uncomplicated, almost child-like. Always remember from whence you came. It keeps you humble."