Damon Evans' classical career didn't come easily

BITTERSWEET SONG OF SUCCESS

April 19, 1992|By Mary Corey | Mary Corey,Staff Writer

Damon Evans has one person to thank for his opera career: Kurt Schmoke's father.

It was Murray Schmoke, after all, who introduced his son and his son's friend to the world of arias and divas at the Lyric Opera House. The opera was "Aida," and 11-year-old Damon, or Richard as he was known then, sat wide-eyed through the whole performance.

But if he was passionate about it, Baltimore's mayor-in-the-making was indifferent. "Kurt sat through it," recalls his father, "but he would have rather been out playing football."

And Damon Evans would have rather been on stage.

Some 30 years later, he will get his wish when he performs in the "Magic Flute" with the Baltimore Opera at the Lyric on Saturday.

It's a bittersweet homecoming for the former TV actor, who says he has had to travel to Europe to be taken seriously as a musician. He decided to visit Baltimore now -- after a yearlong run in the London production of "Carmen Jones," for which he has received a Lawrence Olivier nomination (the British equivalent of the Tony) -- to "make peace with my own bitterness from the past."

His return has brought back memories of growing up in West Baltimore, just blocks from the Schmokes, and he's been feasting on his favorite American foods -- pancakes and fried chicken. But on this second day of rehearsals, he's fighting a cold, which leaves him reaching for his handkerchief as often as his libretto.

"I'm nervous. To say that important steps in my life don't matter would be a lot of crap. After 12 years of screaming, 'See me, see me,' people are suddenly looking and listening to me. God knows I can handle it, . . . but it also can be a little daunting," says Mr. Evans, 42.

At 145 pounds and 5 foot 11 inches, he looks more like a distance runner than a rotund tenor. In conversation, his love for drama is evident in the way he embellishes his thoughts with grand gestures and lets out a laugh that fills the rehearsal hall. Yet there is also anger in his voice when he discusses the struggles he's faced in his professional life.

He has experienced, he says, a near blackballing by the American classical music industry for two reasons: He's black and a former TV star.

"Being a black male has hindered me. There are more opera managers today . . . who don't care [about race]. But it's the artists' managers who introduce you to these people who have been taught the pre-'50s mentality: You can't sell a black man," he says.

Compounding that was his TV past -- including roles as Lionel in "The Jeffersons" and Alex Hailey in "Roots: The Next Generation" -- which some classical musicians considered inferior to their own backgrounds.

'I think they're jealous'

"A lot of people in classical music are so preoccupied with the small area of classical music they don't realize there's a world out there. Also, I think they're jealous and intimidated. I think there's always been a certain amount of jealousy between popular culture and fine arts," he says.

But Michael Harrison, general director for the Baltimore Opera, believes Mr. Evans' previous experience is an attribute. "Damon is a sensational performer. He embodies the new kind of singer that is emerging from the American operatic syndrome. . . . The opera of the future will require people to be all-around performers," he says.

A decade ago, many in the industry didn't see it that way. After returning from Hollywood, Mr. Evans was without work -- and without much confidence -- for more than three years. His fears were compounded when agents refused to represent him, saying: "You're going to wish you never did television."

"There was a point a few years ago when I was so angry and bitter that I knew I was beginning to destroy myself," he says. "I had to stop."

This wasn't the first time Damon Evans, the only son of a lab technician and secretary, had faced tough times. His parents divorced when he was so young he has no recollection of them ever living together. After staying with his mother in West Baltimore for several years, he was shuffled to aunts' homes and finally was raised by his grandmother in Glen Burnie.

By age 4, however, he showed signs of being an actor. After watching movies, he would walk around the house imitating characters, and he memorized the lyrics to nearly every record his mother owned.

Murray Schmoke recalls how his son and Mr. Evans, who haven't seen each other in years, used to put on shows.

"Richard was always the star," he says.

Mr. Evans attended Frederick Douglass High School but left when he received a scholarship to Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan. After graduating in 1967, he briefly returned to Baltimore to form his own opera company.

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