BITTERSWEET SONG OF SUCCESS Damon Evans' classical career didn't come easily

Damon Evans has one person to thank for his opera career: Kurt Schmoke's father.

It was Murray Schmoke, after all, who introduced his son and his son's friend to the world of arias and divas at the Lyric Opera House. The opera was "Aida," and 11-year-old Damon, or Richard as he was known then, sat wide-eyed through the whole performance.


But if he was passionate about it, Baltimore's mayor-in-the-making was indifferent. "Kurt sat through it," recalls his father, "but he would have rather been out playing football."

And Damon Evans would have rather been on stage.


Some 30 years later, he will get his wish when he performs in the "Magic Flute" with the Baltimore Opera at the Lyric on Saturday.

It's a bittersweet homecoming for the former TV actor, who says he has had to travel to Europe to be taken seriously as a musician. He decided to visit Baltimore now -- after a yearlong run in the London production of "Carmen Jones," for which he has received a Lawrence Olivier nomination (the British equivalent of the Tony) -- to "make peace with my own bitterness from the past."

His return has brought back memories of growing up in West Baltimore, just blocks from the Schmokes, and he's been feasting on his favorite American foods -- pancakes and fried chicken. But on this second day of rehearsals, he's fighting a cold, which leaves him reaching for his handkerchief as often as his libretto.

"I'm nervous. To say that important steps in my life don't matter would be a lot of crap. After 12 years of screaming, 'See me, see me,' people are suddenly looking and listening to me. God knows I can handle it, . . . but it also can be a little daunting," says Mr. Evans, 42.

At 145 pounds and 5 foot 11 inches, he looks more like a distance runner than a rotund tenor. In conversation, his love for drama is evident in the way he embellishes his thoughts with grand gestures and lets out a laugh that fills the rehearsal hall. Yet there is also anger in his voice when he discusses the struggles he's faced in his professional life.

He has experienced, he says, a near blackballing by the American classical music industry for two reasons: He's black and a former TV star.

"Being a black male has hindered me. There are more opera managers today . . . who don't care [about race]. But it's the artists' managers who introduce you to these people who have been taught the pre-'50s mentality: You can't sell a black man," he says.

Compounding that was his TV past -- including roles as Lionel in "The Jeffersons" and Alex Hailey in "Roots: The Next Generation" -- which some classical musicians considered inferior to their own backgrounds.


'I think they're jealous'

"A lot of people in classical music are so preoccupied with the small area of classical music they don't realize there's a world out there. Also, I think they're jealous and intimidated. I think there's always been a certain amount of jealousy between popular culture and fine arts," he says.

But Michael Harrison, general director for the Baltimore Opera, believes Mr. Evans' previous experience is an attribute. "Damon is a sensational performer. He embodies the new kind of singer that is emerging from the American operatic syndrome. . . . The opera of the future will require people to be all-around performers," he says.

A decade ago, many in the industry didn't see it that way. After returning from Hollywood, Mr. Evans was without work -- and without much confidence -- for more than three years. His fears were compounded when agents refused to represent him, saying: "You're going to wish you never did television."

"There was a point a few years ago when I was so angry and bitter that I knew I was beginning to destroy myself," he says. "I had to stop."

This wasn't the first time Damon Evans, the only son of a lab technician and secretary, had faced tough times. His parents divorced when he was so young he has no recollection of them ever living together. After staying with his mother in West Baltimore for several years, he was shuffled to aunts' homes and finally was raised by his grandmother in Glen Burnie.


By age 4, however, he showed signs of being an actor. After watching movies, he would walk around the house imitating characters, and he memorized the lyrics to nearly every record his mother owned.

Murray Schmoke recalls how his son and Mr. Evans, who haven't seen each other in years, used to put on shows.

"Richard was always the star," he says.

Mr. Evans attended Frederick Douglass High School but left when he received a scholarship to Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan. After graduating in 1967, he briefly returned to Baltimore to form his own opera company.

"It was a bit of a culture shock to leave Douglass High School and to be one of three black students in an all-white environment," he says. "To be quite honest, I felt guilty. There were all these talented black kids in Baltimore who had never done an opera. I said, 'I have to do something. I've got to bring what I've learned here at Interlochen back home.' "

The short-lived Baltimore Youth Chamber Orchestra Society had ended its first season when Mr. Evans left for the Boston Conservatory and then New York. By age 19, he thought he had hit the big time, making his Broadway debut in "The Me Nobody Knows."


At about this time, another transformation took place: He changed his name.

"When I joined the union as an actor, there was already a Richard Evans, so they wouldn't let me use Richard or any derivative of. An agent called me into her office and said, 'So what do you want your name to be? Daryl?' I said no. 'Damon?' And I said yes. It was literally that arbitrary."

For several years after, he asked colleagues to call him Dickie. Bette Davis, however, put an end to that.

'You've outgrown Dickie'

Mr. Evans was auditioning for a part in a play with her when she heard his name and remarked: "Drop Dickie. You've outgrown Dickie."

To supplement his income, he also worked at CBS, accepting bit parts on soap operas. One afternoon a friend at the network mentioned that Norman Lear was looking for a replacement for the original Lionel on "The Jeffersons." On a lark, he flew out to Hollywood. He and Mr. Lear hit it off, and Mr. Evans won the role.


"It was considered an American dream to walk into a hit TV show the way I did. There was Carol Burnett in the next sound stage, Cher, Tony Orlando. I was walking in the halls with them, eating in the same canteen with them. There was this feeling of self-esteem to be in this environment, but there was no one there to remind me, 'This isn't where you want to go,' " he says.

After three seasons on the show and a part in "Roots," he found out for himself and returned to New York in 1979.

'I felt like I had failed'

"When I came back, I felt like I had failed. It was also hard getting any theatrical representation. People thought I was foolish to walk out on a good show. They were afraid I couldn't make a commitment to anything," he says.

Other than taking private singing lessons, he spent his time "sitting in the house moping and wondering where I was going with my life."

But after nearly four years, things began to look up. He received two prestigious grants and studied in Italy. In 1985, he made his debut with the New York City Opera. Yet it wasn't until he played Sportin' Life in an English production of "Porgy and Bess," conducted by Simon Rattle and directed by Trevor Nunn, that zTC the British public took notice. The role has since become his signature: He reprised it for the 1989 recording and will perform it again in London's Covent Garden this fall.


His current role, Monostatos in the "Magic Flute," will make it impossible for him to attend the Olivier awards in London April 26. He was nominated in the best actor category for his role as Joe (Don Jose) in "Carmen Jones." His agent will attend for him. But if he could have gone and won, he would have said, " 'Don't label me an opera singer because I'm an actor, too, and don't just label me for ethnic roles.' That would be my acceptance speech."

His views have brought detractors who consider him "arrogant" and "difficult," he says. "I can be arrogant, but I think that's often to camouflage fear and self-doubt."

His commitment to his career has left him with few close friends and no long-term romance. "I haven't had a long-standing relationship. I consider that a sacrifice. This business makes that very hard.

"I also went through a period thinking I was failed as a human being and a man because I never reproduced. You always hear women talk about the biological urge, but men have it, too," he says.

The idea of fatherhood now overwhelms him. "My children are the pieces I do," he says.

When he finishes the "Magic Flute" May 3, he'll return to London to begin rehearsals for "Biko," an opera based on the life of South African anti-apartheid activist Steven Biko. The summer is filled with concerts in Finland, a recording with the London Symphony Orchestra and plans for an August vacation.


London became home 15 months ago, and he has no desire to live in the States again. "I am receiving respect like I never had in America," he says. "My career is now going in the direction I want it to."


Occupation: Singer-actor.

Born: Baltimore; Nov. 24, 1949.

Education: Attended Frederick Douglass High School; graduated from Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan in 1967; attended the Boston Conservatory and Manhattan School of Music.

Current home: London.


Favorite Baltimore memory: Winning William H. Lemmel Middle School's declamation contest in 1964 for reciting Martin Luther

King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech.

Pre-performance routine: Meditate by noon, eat a steak by 4 p.m.

What only he knows about childhood friend Kurt Schmoke: "I remember seeing Kurt cry once because he had a toothache. It surprised me because I'd never seen him let go like that." What: The Baltimore Opera will present the "The Magic Flute."

Where: The Lyric Opera House.

When: April 25, 29 and May 1 at 8:15 p.m., and May 3 at 3 p.m.


Tickets: From $16 to $74.

Call: (410) 685-0692.