More than the Band- Pt. 2

HBCUs that develop opera singers

Everyone knows about the excitement of half-time at an HBCU football game.  Its ALL about the marching bands. So much so that many people only think about the marching bands when discussing music at historically black colleges and universities.  But for more than 150 years, HBCUs have also produced classically-trained musicians.  From the Fisk Jubilee Singers, to Wilberforce's William Grant Still to divas like Leontyne Price and Jessye Norman, HBCUs have had an impact on the world of opera.  Here are some HBCUs that offer opera programs or a classical music program that has produced successful opera performers.   For students interested in a complete college experience, along with classical musical training, these represent fantastic options.

The Hundred-Seven has created a list of some successful HBCU opera performers.  

Colleges are listed alphabetically.  

Fisk University
(Nashville, Tennessee)

Starting with the creation of the Fisk Jubilee Singers in 1871, Fisk began developing a music program that gained recognition around the world.  Students interested in opera can join The Jubilee Singers, the Chamber Choir or the University Choir, a requirement for music majors.  Academic paths include a Bachelors degree in Music or Music Performance. 
Alumni include: Robert McFerrin, Sr., Gwendolyn Brown, Rachel Waiters

Howard University
(Washington, DC)

Howard's music program has produced musicians who are known throughout the world.  Historically, the faculty included Todd Duncan, Broadway's original Porgy and opera singer, Charlotte Holloman. Howard offers students the opportunity to participate in an Opera Theater workshop. In 2017 the program presented the premier performance of scenes from 'Kinyamaswa', a new opera composed by Jay Vosk. The students and opera workshop director, Liana Valente, were able to work in collaboration with the composer and librettist.  Students can also enhance their musical performance skills through the University Chorale and University Choir.  
Alumni included: Lillian Evanti, Jessye Norman, Sylvia Olden Lee.

Jackson State University
(Jackson, Mississippi)

Jackson State was a part of Opera/South, which was founded by former Xavier University faculty member Sis Mary Elise Sisson in 1971. In 1984 Jackson State University became the first historically black institution to house a professional opera company when the Opera/South office relocated to the campus. The Opera/Musical Theatre Workshop at Jackson State University offers students the opportunity to study a variety of opera, operetta and musical theatre. Productions include staged opera and one-acts. 
Alumni include: Sheila L. Ramsey, Jammieca Denise Mott and Chester Patton.

Kentucky State University
(Frankfort, Kentucky)

Kentucky State offers an Opera/Musical Theatre Workshop, an organization that provides professional training for students.  Its annual GALA is an opportunity for students to showcase their talents by presenting highlights from various operas.  Past performancs have included Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro; Delibes’ Lakme; Puccini’s La Boheme; Mozart’s Don Giovanni and Bizet’s Carmen. This year's GALA was broadcast on local cable television.  
Alumni include: Tammie Michelle Bradley, Kisma Jordan

Morehouse College
(Atlanta, Georgia)

Morehouse College offers classical music training and performance opportunties for students. Throughout the year students have opportunities to perform during concerts and recitals at the college's Ray Charles Performing Arts Center.  Among the most notable opportunities is the Morehouse College Glee Club, which has appeared in movies, sung for presidents and around the world. 

Alumni include: Laurence Albert, Martin L. Woods, Edwin Cotton

Morgan State University 
(Baltimore, Maryland)

Opera@Morgan began in 2004 to offer students the opportunity to broaden their operatic and music theatre knowledge and experience. Fully-staged productions are presented annually. Students learn all parts of opera producation: major roles, chorus parts, assisting with lighting design, as well as stage and house management. Past productions include Porgy and Bess, Amahl and the Night Visitors, Treemonisha and Lyrics of Sunshine and Shadows, an opera based on the lives & love of Paul Laurence Dunbar and Ruth Alice Moore.
Alumni include: Leah Hawkins, Kevin Short, Benjamin Taylor, Kishna Davis

Oakwood University
(Huntsville, Alabama)

Music became a part of Oakwood early in its history and the Department of Music was created shortly after transitioning from an industrial school to a junior college. The founding of its award-winning Aeolians choir led to the launching of many successful music careers.  Students can earn a Bachelor of Music in Vocal Performance and Pedagogy.   Alumni include:  Whitney Morrison, Angelique Clay, Reyna Carguill, Markel Reed and Angela Brown.

Spelman College
(Atlanta, Georgia)

Spelman's music faculty includes instructors with opera experience, including world–renowned soprano and alumna, Laura English-Robinson.  One of the most prominent performance opportunities for students lies in the Spelman College Glee Club which has maintained a reputation for choral excellence since 1925. Participation is a requirement for music majors and minors.  Their repertoire includes music from many cultures and commissioned works. 
Alumni include: Mattiwilda Dobbs, Janinah Burnett 

Tougaloo College
(Tougaloo, Mississippi)

An original member of Opera/South, Mississippi's first opera company for people of color, Tougaloo continues to offer students the opportunity to participate in an Opera Workshop.  In 2017, Tougaloo's chorus joined with choruses from Jackson State University and Mississippi College, for a non-staged production of Scott Joplin's 'Tremonisha' that included dancers from Mississippi Ballet and featured the Mississippi Symphony Orchestra. Alumni include: Keith Craig, Robert Honeysucker,Walter Turnbull, Amber Demery, DeAnna Marie Tisdale

Xavier University
(New Orleans, Louisiana)

Xavier's music department was established by Sister Mary Elise Sisson in 1934. Through her leadership, Xavier became the first HBCU to produce a full scale opera. Sr M Elise trained opera singers like Debria Brown and Annabelle Bernard.  The "Elise" Performing Arts Series honors her legacy and highlights Xavier's contributions to the performing arts in New Orleans.  Xavier's Opera Workshop class has performed with the city's Opera Creole.  It is currently run by alumna Dara Rahming.
Alumni include: Brown, Bernard, Rahming and Gail Gilmore.  

Special Mentions

Bethune Cookman University:  Bethune-Cookman offers an Opera Workshop for students and has routinely perofrmed concerts featuring the music from operas including,  “Treemonisha" and  "Porgy and Bess".  Additionally, the music department offers masters classes that have included opera experts like renowned opera conductor and vocal coach Dr. Willie Anthony Waters.

Edward Waters College:  Edward Waters College Concert Choir partnered with the Bethune-Cookman University Choir to perform George Gershwin’s opera 'Porgy and Bess' with the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra.

Hinds Community College, Utica Campus: An original member of Opera/South, the campus continues its long legacy of musical excellence through its Jubilee Singers- a group whose history goes back nearly 100 years.

Huston-Tillotson University: In 2015, music majors from the college were a part of the cast during the Austin Opera's performance of Aida. Additionally, music students were part of the cast for the recording of 'Queenie Pie,' Duke Ellington's opera and a celebration of composer Leonard Bernstein's 100th birthday.

LeMoyne-Owen College: LOC has a history of supporting opera, including-on campus performances by opera greats Leontyne Price and George Shirley and has hosted the "La Boheme Extravaganza."  The college's J.W. Withers Singers perform a variety of musical genres, including opera.  Several LOC alumni have performed with Opera Memphis and acclaimed soprano Lenora Green served as Artist-in-Residence.

Wilberforce University: Wilberforce is the alma mater of composer William Grant Still and opera singer Betty Allen.  The Wilberforce University Choir, which began in 1878, sings a variety of music including opera and has performed with opera star Angela Brown.  The choir has presented a full production of Porgy and Bess with The Dayton Opera Company.  

Tennessee State University and University of Arkansas Pine Bluff   both offer students the opportunity to enroll in an opera workshop course each school year.

Published: June 2018

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