April Haines' Amazing Grace Singer: For 12 years, the soprano's voice inspired the congregation at Roland Park Presbyterian Church. Now, she's astonishing audiences at New York's Metropolitan Opera.

October 26, 1997|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN STAFF

On a bright Sunday morning in 1985, the Rev. Teresa Martin-Minnich had just concluded a tightly reasoned, intellectual sermon before the sea of well-to-do white faces at Baltimore's Roland Park Presbyterian Church.

Then something totally unexpected occurred.

A large, strikingly handsome African-American woman with a leonine mane of jet black hair suddenly rose to her feet and, without a trace of self-consciousness, burst into song.

Amazing Grace, How sweet the sound

That saved a wretch like me!

I once was lost, but now I'm found

Was blind but now I see!

The voice was a rich, powerful soprano, full of pathos and drama. The performance seemed to sum up what everyone was feeling after Martin-Minnich's sermon.

The woman finished singing and sat down as abruptly as she had arisen. Her eyes were closed, her expression fervent with devotion. She seemed utterly transfigured by her song.

For a moment, no one reacted. "We're Presbyterians," Martin-Minnich recalled thinking. "This is unheard of."

Then the church members looked at one another. Many were blinking back tears. Everyone felt that something strange and transformative had taken place in their midst, that their church would never be quite the same again.

"After she came, we knew there was always the possibility of the spirit of God descending," Martin-Minnich recalled. "She brought to us a ministry beyond music through her music."

The singer was a young woman named April Haines, who had recently been hired to fill a vacancy in the choir. Until that moment, no one suspected that Haines would so indelibly mark the life of the church and its congregation.

Nor did anyone have an inkling of the journey that had brought Haines from a life of misery and hardship to one of the city's most affluent congregations.

No one knew how she had witnessed the murder of her mother by a drunken boyfriend at the age of 9, or how for years afterward she had been farmed out to relatives who neglected and abused her.

No one knew how she put herself through school, how she struggled for years to combine the roles of wife, working mother and aspiring artist, or the anguish she suffered watching her younger brother slowly die from AIDS.

And not even Haines herself could foresee that within a few years, her dedication and phenomenal gift for emotional expression would take her from the choir at Roland Park Presbyterian to the chorus of the Metropolitan Opera Company in New York -- an accomplishment all the more remarkable for the fact that Haines started out as a computer analyst and didn't begin studying singing until she was 30.

"I knew I was put here to do something wonderful," Haines said last month during a break between rehearsals for Bizet's "Carmen," which opened this year's Metropolitan Opera season. "I didn't know exactly what it was, but I always felt that God had bigger plans for me. It was something I never lost sight of. And now, wow, I'm at the Met!"

Getting started

It is 4: 30 in the afternoon the Thursday before "Carmen" opens. A reporter arrives at the Met backstage to interview Haines, but she isn't there yet. Instead, the heavy double steel doors burst open, and out steps superstar tenor Luciano Pavarotti, walking rapidly amid his entourage. The "King of High Cs" mops his face with an oversize handkerchief. He seems in a hurry to get out of there.

Inside, soloists and choristers cram the tiny vestibule. Haines breezes in. She's as hard to miss as Pavarotti, over 6 feet tall in her heels, dressed in head-to-toe black and with that wild mane of hair. She's been here only a few weeks, but already it's her milieu. She waves to a singer across the room, blows kisses to another.

Soon she and the reporter are careening up the West Side Highway in her car. She drives like a woman possessed, talking non-stop and zipping in and out of lanes. The reporter notices there is no seat belt on his side.

Only later, perched on a park bench overlooking the Hudson River just north of Manhattan, does Haines finally slow down.

"I sang 12 years at Roland Park Presbyterian," she says, recalling the church where she got her first important break as a professional musician. "I never felt out of place there because they always understood the path I was on. They were always there with a kind word, and they saw my growth year after year."

Day job

Haines, now in her 40s, was working as a computer analyst for USF&G when she came to Roland Park in 1985, but she had already had a taste of stage life as a chorus member in Baltimore Opera Company's 1983 production of "Porgy and Bess."

John Lehmeyer, who directed that show, said he hired Haines not just for her voice but also because of her incredible stage presence.

"She was the kind of person you simply couldn't take your eyes off," Lehmeyer recalled. "She was like this magnificent lioness. I said, 'I don't know what you've been doing until now, but you belong in the theater.' "

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