A Determined Diva Nobody tells Keyontia Hawkins what to sing. Not even Juilliard

November 07, 1993|By Glenn McNatt

Keyontia Hawkins, a slender young woman with high, sculpted cheekbones and perfect teeth, is standing in the middle of the room with her eyes closed and her arms over her head.

Ahhh-ahhh-ahhh-ahhh-ahhh! Eeeh-eeeh-eeeh-eeeh-eeeh! The notes come rocketing up out of her throat and ricochet off the walls in the confined space like sonic golf balls.

"Open it up, open it up!" shouts her teacher from the piano as she pounds out the scale in octaves. "Stop trying to make your sound sound, just get your breath under it!"

Keyontia flicks her eyes open just long enough to toss a glance at her teacher, then shuts them and resumes singing up the scale. Ahhh-ahhh-ahhh-ahhh-ahhh! Eeeh-eeeh-eeeh-eeeh-eeeh!

She is standing almost on tiptoe now, trying to hear the resonances of her voice.

"Watch your jaw!" her teacher commands as the scale climbs upward. "Keep the voice high, high! As if you had a marshmallow, a Ping-Pong ball, an egg in your mouth!"

Keyontia, her body bent like a bow, tentatively tries moving her mouth and lips, then suddenly drops her arms and collapses into laughter as the absurdity of the image sinks in.

Her teacher looks over from the piano and frowns, then smiles.

"Let's take a break," she says finally. "But only for a minute. We've got so much to do, so much work! My goodness, how are we going to get it all done in time?"

It is the day before Keyontia is to sing for the voice faculty at the prestigious Juilliard School in New York City, where she is a student. The event is called a jury, and her performance there will determine her final grade.

So Keyontia has come back to Baltimore, her hometown, for a lesson with Jean Carter, her first voice teacher, at the Baltimore School for the Arts. Mrs. Carter knows Keyontia's voice better than anyone else. If anyone can get Keyontia's voice into shape by tomorrow, it's Mrs. Carter. But the lesson is almost over and Mrs. Carter still feels Keyontia needs more work.

"Let's do some songs," Mrs. Carter says. Keyontia sings "See How They Love Me" by Ned Rorem, and Samuel Barber's "Sure on This Shining Night."

Suddenly the voice is thrilling. She's warmed up now and the sound begins to flow.

After an hour, Mrs. Carter shuts the piano lid and gives Keyontia last-minute instructions. She tells her to take an early train back to New York, go to bed and get up refreshed at 6:30 a.m. Eat a good breakfast, get into a practice room by 9 a.m. and warm up until 1:30. Then dress and be ready to sing at 2 o'clock sharp.

"Do you have any questions?" Mrs. Carter asks as she walks Keyontia to the door.

Keyontia says she understands. She goes home but then decides to take a late bus to New York, arriving after midnight. The next day she feels OK and sings her jury. She thinks they liked her. School ends and she returns to Baltimore.

A few weeks later the school sends her a letter informing her that she has been dismissed.

It is the kind of stunning reversal of fortune that routinely befalls the characters of the world's great operas. But for Keyontia, the letter from Juilliard was all too real.

HEADED FOR STARDOM

This is a story about a local girl who has the talent to succeed, but whose incredible gift came wrapped with obstacles and challenges. It is the story of a brilliant 19-year-old budding diva from East Baltimore who was blessed with the chance to launch a career in the glamorous world of grand opera -- and who seemingly let it slip through her fingers.

Two years ago Keyontia Hawkins (pronounced Key-ON-ta), a 1991 graduate of the Baltimore School for the Arts, was headed for stardom, winning virtually every prize available to an aspiring young soprano, including the Presidential Scholars Award from the National Foundation for the Advancement of the Arts, and a full scholarship to the most famous music school in the world.

Today she works as a part-time clerk in a Baltimore hardware store. Her future hangs in the balance and everyone who knows her can only shake their heads and wonder: What happened?

Mrs. Carter, Keyontia's first voice teacher and still her greatest fan, may have come as near as anyone to what happened:

"Some of it is Keyontia's fault, and some of it is Juilliard's," Mrs. Carter says. "Keyontia had never heard Schubert or Puccini before she came to the School for the Arts. But here she was in a situation where everyone was supporting what she was trying to do. There she was on her own."

To understand what happened to Keyontia, you have to understand something about the peculiar condition singers endure as people carrying around priceless, irreplaceable instruments inside all-too-human bodies, and about the clash of cultures that occurs when an elite classical music school confronts a young artist who insists on singing everything from gospel to grand opera.

A POWERFUL SOUND

"Keyontia is a terrific performer," says David Simon, the principal at Baltimore School for the Arts. "She has a superb talent for reaching out and touching people with her voice, and she loves doing it."

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