PRIZM Chamber Orchestra member Dana Kelley plays a short selection on the viola.
Members of the PRIZM Chamber Orchestra play as a string quartet during a meet and greet at Orange Mound Gallery on November 3. (From left to right: Chala Yancy, violin; Tami Hughes, violin; Derek Menchan, cello; and Dana Kelley, viola. Elle Perry
Memphis' latest chamber orchestra is 31 members strong, and most of the musicians are people of color.
Opera Memphis will perform with a new chamber orchestra, one with members chosen to reflect the demographic diversity of the city’s residents.
The PRIZM Chamber Orchestra debuted in 2016 debut as part of Opera Memphis’ production of Mozart’s "The Marriage of Figaro".
PRIZM Ensemble founder Lecolion Washington was inspired by the diversity of Opera Memphis’ 2015 production of "The Magic Flute" and began a series of discussions on how to create high quality art while continuing to support the nonprofit's core values of diversity, opportunity, and access.
PRIZM Ensemble has been an important figure in music education for the past 12 years and has engaged students from Orange Mound, Whitehaven, Germantown, Midtown, South Memphis, and Collierville during its annual camp, international chamber music festival and in-school programming
Opera Memphis has worked with PRIZM Ensemble in the past, including on a chamber opera at one of PRIZM’s summer festivals. Washington said that the collaboration was a natural fit.
Opera Memphis General Director Ned Canty said that the themes of "The Marriage of Figaro" are very relevant to what the PRIZM Chamber Orchestra is trying to accomplish.
“Conflicts of social status and power are key to the opera, which was, after all, based on a play which was written shortly before the French Revolution,” Canty said. “These issues expand further to gender equality, and what a powerful man might expect from a woman with lower status than him. Happily, the opera ends on a note of inclusion, forgiveness, and grace--a reminder that despite our struggles, the things that make us the same are farmer numerous than the few that make us different.”
Being that Opera Memphis is the only opera company within three hours of driving distance from the city, Canty said that it was important that people in the area feel like the organization is inclusive.
“That means that for anyone living in that slice of the country, we are their local opera company,” he said. “In the case of opera in America, there is a history of social and racial exclusion that we need to work actively to overcome, and this collaboration is one way to pursue that.”
This performance is another way to engage the whole Memphis community, in addition to already-established Opera Memphis programming such as 30 Days of Opera, which features pop-up performances at venues around the city and county.
At 31 members, PRIZM Chamber Orchestra is the largest group of musicians that PRIZM Ensemble has ever put together. Around 19 of the orchestra musicians originate from outside of Memphis and most of them are new to PRIZM.
Washington said that as the camp and international musical festival grows, he hopes to bring members of this orchestra back to Memphis to participate in PRIZM Ensemble's youth development programs.
“Representation is very important to a young person,” Washington said. “We as parents, educators, and leaders have an obligation to create opportunities for young people to see adults who look like them doing amazing things. For that reason, many of the PRIZM Chamber Orchestra musicians will also be interacting with youth who participate in PRIZM's other engagement programs.”
Several of the musicians will be performing and working with students around the city at De La Salle Catholic School and White Station Middle School. Musicians will also be performing in residence at the Orange Mound Gallery.
Canty said that Opera Memphis hopes to do another opera with the orchestra during PRIZM’s musical festival next summer.
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Read more articles by Elle Perry.
A native of Memphis, Elle Perry serves as coordinator of the Teen Appeal, the Scripps Howard city-wide high school newspaper program.