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Six decades ago – in 1961 – George Shirley became the first African-American tenor to perform a leading role at the Metropolitan Opera, part of a groundbreaking career that shattered stereotypes and blazed a path for others.
Now 87, Maestro Shirley was on hand for the local Classical Voice Vocal-Arts Competition for Emerging Artists, his trained ears listening in as three performers of color more than 65 years his junior competed for the opportunity to move to national competition.
His reflection after the performances was unequivocal. “Our talent pool remains filled to the brim,” Shirley proclaimed.
The biennial event – held online Nov. 6 owing to pandemic conditions – was sponsored by the Mid-Atlantic District of the Northern Virginia Business and Professional Women’s Club of the National Association of Negro Business and Professional Women’s Clubs, which long has championed vocal training for emerging performers.
“Music has a powerful effect on people all over the world,” said Joan McIver, governor of the Mid-Atlantic District, noting that the event carried on despite an in-person gathering being inadvisable due to health conditions.
“We are committed to upholding the mission of this signature project,” McIver said.
Making sure the event came off successfully was the responsibility of co-chairs Darnell Wise Lightbourn and Dr. Deborah Jackson.
“We have had to pivot,” acknowledged Wise Lightbourn. But while the method of presenting the event had changed, it remained a way to “showcase talented and emerging artists” while serving as “a support platform to introduce and prepare them for the classical genre,” she said.
Club president Janet Ford said the two-hour afternoon event was designed to “soothe your soul and lift your spirit.”
“It is our honor [to provide] an opportunity for young, talented and gifted vocalists,” she said.
Sherelle Carper, current president of the National Association of Negro Business and Professional Women’s Clubs, noted that the vocal competition dated back nearly 40 years. Her organization remains “very passionate” about vocal arts, she said.
Baritone Anthony Anderson, a student at Oberlin Conservatory in Ohio, won the Nov. 6 competition, in which participants performed arias, art songs, Negro spirituals and works by contemporary African-American composers.
Soprano Jessica Edwards (Kentucky State University) and mezzo-soprano Alexandra McBride (La Sierra University) also competed.
“My heart is deeply warmed,” said Anderson, who will now move on to regional and national competition.
All three competitors were cheered on by 2007 national champion Brandie Inez Sutton, currently performing in “La Boheme” at the Seattle Opera and soon to portray the fairy godmother in the Metropolitan Opera’s “Cinderella” this holiday season.
“This is so important for our youth,” Sutton said, praising the “community nurturing” that accompanies the competition.
“Many of the other artists in that  competition are friends of mine to this day,” she noted.
Professor Samuel Barnes Sr., who founded the Duke Ellington School of the Arts Show Choir and has a long history nurturing musical talent, cautioned that challenges await anyone attempting to find success in classical music, with those of color seeing often even more headwinds.
“This is not an easy journey,” he noted. “There are many high mountains and low valleys.”
Professor Barnes encouraged competitors to remain disciplined and self-motivated.
“Never, ever, ever give up on your dreams,” he said. “It is worth the struggles you go through.”
Joanna Ford, Nevilla Ottley and Everett Williams Jr. served as adjudicators for the competition, which was emceed by Rev. Felicia Kessel Crawley.
Honored during the program were Terri Allen, executive director of the Coalition for African-Americans in the Performing Arts, and Pamela Simonson, a soprano with the Washington National Opera.
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For information on the Northern Virginia Business and Professional Women’s Club and its programs, see the Website at www.novabpw.org.
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