After the Three Mo' Tenors' recent performance at the Chesapeake Center for the Creative Arts, an Odenton man went backstage and started to introduce himself to the acclaimed trio. Tenor Thomas Young interrupted him.
"Sir, we know who you are," Young said, "and we are honored to meet you."
Young was speaking to 76-year-old William Ray, singer, actor, teacher and board member of the Annapolis Opera. If the Three Mo' Tenors are out to rectify the scarcity of African-American singers on the operatic and classical concert stages, they need look no further than Ray for inspiration.
Ray was classically trained as a singer, and fluent in several languages, but he had little chance half a century ago to establish an opera career in the United States because, he says, he encountered racism.
At the suggestion of a colleague who'd heard him in Puccini's one-act opera, Il Tabarro, and thought he'd be perfect as Balthazar in Menotti's Amahl and the Night Visitors, Ray left a secure job as a social worker to take off with his wife, Carrie, for an uncertain operatic future in Europe.
Ray made his European operatic debut in 1957 as Amonasro in Aida with Sir George Solti, and quickly became a leading baritone with German opera houses in Munich, Kiel, Wuppertal, Frankfurt and Stuttgart. Fluency in German, French and Italian helped him land roles as a singer and actor on German and Austrian television.
By the time he returned to the United States, Ray had won several major awards. In 1982 he became a member of the faculty at Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, where he taught voice for 10 years. Around that time he and his wife settled in Odenton.
In 1992 he retired from Peabody and was immediately called by Howard University, where he served as associate professor of voice and chairman of the voice department until last year, when he retired.
He gave his last public singing performance in 1992.
During his teaching career, Ray helped many young singers establish operatic careers.
During recent summers, Ray served on the voice faculty of the International Music Institute in Graz, Austria.
He continues to serve as a board member of the Annapolis Opera Inc., where he sometimes judges singing competitions.
He is also a musical adviser for Baltimore Municipal Opera Inc. and a judge for several other singing competitions.
As he sat in the Chesapeake Center for the Creative Arts audience two weeks ago, the Three Mo' Tenors sang their anthem, "Make Them Hear You," from Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty's Ragtime.
They sang: "Tell them in our struggle, we were not the only ones. Make them hear you. Your sword can be a sermon. Or the power of the pen. Teach every child to raise his voice. And then my brothers, then."
Perhaps more than anyone else in the audience that evening, Ray understood the significance of those words.
"What we have seen time and time again is the black tenor is never chosen for a role," he said.
But he added that the sees hope in the message the Three Mo' Tenors are spreading.
"It's now the 21st century, it's now 2001 and I think some strong and intelligent person will hear some of these voices and say, 'I'm going to ask him to do a role in an opera,'" Ray said.