The sounds of opera, art songs and classic spirituals reverberated throughout the sanctuary at the biennial Mary E. Singletary Vocal Arts Competition for Emerging Adults, a public forum that aims to promote classical-music training for up-and-coming African-American performers and expand appreciation of the art forms by the broader community.
It is the signature event of the Northern Virginia Business and Professional Women’s Club, an affiliate of the National Association of Negro Business and Professional Women’s Clubs, and was held Nov. 2 at Heritage Fellowship Church in Reston.
“We’re in for a treat and we’re really excited,” said Janet Ford, president of the Northern Virginia Business and Professional Women’s Club, as the program began. “We’re very proud [of the competitors] – young people are making a difference today for our future tomorrow.”
The competition has been a national program since 1982, and came to Northern Virginia in 2013. This year, it saluted the life and legacy of soprano Jessye Norman, who died in September and was known for her versatility (“pigeonholes are for pigeons,” Norman once noted). The audience held a moment of silence in her honor.
Competitors, of college age or just slightly older, performed three works each for a panel of three adjudicators. Moving on to district-level competition will be Courtney Porter, a soprano who is completing a master of music degree in vocal performance at the University of Delaware and aims to relocate to New York City to pursue professional opportunities.
Also in the competition were baritone Justin Harrison, a recent master’s-degree graduate in opera performance from the University of Maryland College Park; soprano Azia Bennett, a graduate of the Duke Ellington School of the Arts who currently attends the University of the Arts in Philadelphia; and soprano Bria Walker, also a graduate of the Duke Ellington School and soon-to-be graduate of the University of the Arts. All competitors received scholarships to support their future endeavors.
In a Q&A segment, Harrison said he had been doing a great deal of auditioning in New York City, and his ultimate goal was to work as a full-time singer. It was a desire embraced for all four competitors by those in the audience.
“It is a joy to be here to support these young people and what they do,” said Pamela Simonson, herself a soloist as well as founder of the non-profit Coalition for African Americans in the Performing Arts. Simonson noted that – “way back when” – both she and her brother had been participants in the competition.
Dr. Deborah Jackson, a former principal of McLean High School who co-chaired the committee putting on the Northern Virginia competition, said the initiative aims to “bring color to the classics.”
“We’ve got it all covered for you,” she promised, ticking off the variety of music to be covered during the program – from historic to contemporary.
Classical music, in whatever form, represents not just an art form but a “heart form,” said Jackson.
“Music is the only communications medium that is understood by everyone in the world,” she wrote in the event program. “The arts have a long history of creating an environment for people from varying backgrounds and countries to engage in meaningful dialogue and exchanges of ideas.”
The biennial competition is conducted in association with a number of community partners, including the National Coalition of 100 Black Women, the Coalition of African Americans in the Performing Arts, Opera Nova and Power Up Women’s Conference.
Darnell Wise Lightbourn, who chaired the committee putting together the Northern Virginia competition, lauded both those in attendance and those who sponsored the afternoon’s effort.
“Your support and encouragement have been vital to the success of this program,” Wise Lightbourn said.
The Nov. 2 event honored soprano Brandie Inez Sutton, who currently performs on the roster of the Metropolitan Opera. Serving as honorary chair for the program was Dr. Lloyd Mallory Jr., director of vocal choral activities at Delaware State University.