If you closed your eyes right now and tried to imagine an opera performance - from the players on stage to the musicians, the director and the hired hands behind the scenes - chances are that hypothetical musical tableau won’t include many professionals who look like Dennis Whitehead Darling.
That, in fact, is why Opera Memphis has just named Darling - an award-winning stage and music director, who’s also African-American - as its inaugural McCleave Fellow, a fellowship the opera company launched to support artists of color and which is itself one piece of Opera Memphis’ larger McCleave Project.
The project is a collection of affiliated undertakings like the fellowship that is named in honor of Florence Cole Talbert McCleave, an African-American soprano who spent three decades singing and teaching in Memphis. She was a Detroit native and a star of early 20th century opera, who gave music lessons at her home on Vance Street and wrote articles for The Tri-State Defenders, among other endeavors.
It’s her legacy that Opera Memphis wants to preserve while the organization tries to move beyond the typical opera company archetype in its productions, its audiences and even its own ranks. There’s a version of the art form that Opera Memphis general director Ned Canty knows is probably lodged in too many people’s minds - that, first of all, it’s not mass entertainment. The productions are stuffy, shouty affairs with big-voiced stars in extravagant costumes singing in a foreign language. Enjoyed in fancy opera halls. With a sea of mostly white faces looking on.
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As a McCleave Fellow in directing, Darling will direct projects over the course of the opera company’s next two seasons. The less empirical part of the fellowship, for him, will be to help diverse audiences fall in love and find something profound and meaningful to latch on to in an opera production. To fall in love with it, in other words, like he did.
Florence Cole Talbert-McCleave was a Detroit-native whose voice and passion took her all over the world. In 1930, she moved to Memphis, where she not only taught voice, but spread a love of opera to generations of young black Memphians.
“I’m very interested in works that deal with people of color and issues that people of color face - and really any groups that are marginalized,” Darling said. “I want to tell those stories. To bring us a different perspective, to bring us closer in some sense and help bring about positive change in our community. I think by telling some of these stories, more current stories, or possibly taking a different approach to an older work - I think that can be a connector that brings in more audiences.”
Opera Memphis gave audiences a sense of that interest in using the art form to tell modern stories during April’s Midtown Opera Festival. The festival was anchored by “The Falling & The Rising,” a production that told the story of a soldier based on interviews with dozens of Army veterans at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.
Darling has already helmed two previous productions with Opera Memphis, 2017’s “Blue Viola” and “Movin’ Up in the World” this year. Projects he’ll direct over the next two seasons include productions in Opera Memphis’ Masterworks series, education programs, Opera Memphis’ “30 Days of Opera” program and more. He’ll also serve as an associate director throughout the season, among other tasks and duties.
The fellowship, meanwhile, is one way of tackling the talent pipeline challenge that Canty sees as existential to the art form.
“For the art form to thrive, it has to have a multiplicity of points of view,” Canty said. “What you’ll hear is, oh, I’d love to hire more directors of color - they’re just not out there. Well, if they’re not out there, then we need to address the pipeline. We need to get right down to the bottom of it.”
It’s even more challenging, he continues, when you talk about directors like Darling compared to vocal talent. With, say, an 8-year-old, a music teacher perhaps can hear something even at that young age that helps identify a talent and sets that child down a path.
“You can’t necessarily find someone at 8 years old who’s going to be a director one day and tell them, oh, you should investigate opera. Directors sort of develop in very different ways, same with conductors. So that by the time somebody has those interests and skill sets, they might have just completely avoided opera their entire lives and there might not be somebody who can say this seems like a natural fit for you.”
Which is why Opera Memphis is doing what it can, how it can, in part with the fellowships that ultimately will be open to singers, directors, coaches and conductors of color. Opera Memphis is also pressing forward with its McCleave Project itself in other ways.
This year, for example, Opera Memphis plans to take free performances into primarily Latino areas of the city, presenting Spanish language content in partnership with Latino Memphis.
“For me, opera is just such an interesting canvas to have and to use,” Darling said. “I found it to be so much more broad and open and freeing and colorful and magical than I’d expected it to be.”