Opera singer beyond `Bess'

Soprano: The talent of an African-American woman from Columbia is landing her roles traditionally sung by whites.

April 25, 2002|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,SUN STAFF

Growing up a preacher's daughter in Columbia taught Kishna Davis three life-altering things: how to sing for an audience; cheerleading is no way to get into college; and no matter how big you get, you've got to - got to - give back to your community.

So the classically trained, opera-singing soprano - who first belted out gospel tunes in her father's church choir at age 5 -put together two Columbia shows, each with the same dual purpose.

Though her first goal is to share her talents with her hometown, the second takes on a wider scope: Davis, 33, wants to bring more African-Americans into the traditionally white world of opera.

"I'm tired of walking out onto a stage at a concert or an opera and seeing four or five black people sitting out there," she says, "and they're my family."

The opera arena has been steadily - but slowly - embracing African-Americans since sensation Marian Anderson smoothed the way by becoming the first black singer to perform at New York City's Metropolitan Opera in 1955. Today, African-American stars such as Jessye Norman and Kathleen Battle can draw big audiences and the best parts, which Davis says is the most difficult: earning a role in spite of its supposed race requirement.

"I've lost jobs sometimes because companies want to match up white girls with white boys," Davis says. "I wish I could walk into an audition and there would be a screen up, and I could just sing."

Lately, Davis' talent has been getting her those "white girl roles," though. She just finished stints as Norina in Don Pasquale with the Indianapolis Opera and as the title character in Verdi's Aida with New Jersey's Metro Lyric Opera.

But to get those roles, she had to get noticed. And she did that, she says, by taking on the role of drug-addicted Bess in Gershwin's opera Porgy and Bess, which some charge is full of negative stereotypes about African-Americans.

"Kishna's part of a new breed that's able to not just be known as Bess," says Nathan Carter, director of Choral Arts at Morgan State University, "but to sing and be recognized in other roles."

Carter played a huge part in developing Davis' career. She says it started when she was a senior at Hammond High School and her father said he had had enough of her being a cheerleader and acting crazy.

So she let herself be steered away from cheering and toward the choir by Mary West, her Hammond adviser, who literally took her by the hand and pulled her to the music teacher, Jean Carter, who happened to be Nathan Carter's wife.

"I knew she sang in her daddy's choir," West says, "but we didn't know she had all this talent in her."

Once she heard Davis sing, Jean Carter set the teen on a path that led to meeting Nathan Carter, earning a scholarship to study music at Morgan, and moving on to Juilliard and singing fame.

Davis' time at Morgan, particularly touring with its choir, is what really sparked her interest in diversifying opera's appreciators. The group would perform for enthusiastic audiences in all sorts of venues, from church halls to Carnegie Hall, and the set list always incorporated an array of music that included classical, spirituals and even show tunes.

"It showed me the variety of music we can offer as a black people and still have it accepted," Davis says.

"In the African-American community, we've got jazz and rhythm and blues and the roots of rock and roll," says Kishna's father, Robert Davis, who founded the Columbia-based Long Reach Church of God with his wife, Doris, in 1973. "But on the classical side, it's not as it should be. The balance isn't there. Kishna's goal and desire is to see more of us on that side, not just performing, but supporting, too."

Kishna Davis' first effort to bring opera to black communities was a collaboration with fellow soprano Angela Brown at Brown's church in New York City last year. This time, the duo will perform the show, Opera From a Sistah's Point of View, at Davis' father's church next week with Victor Simonson of Three Mo' Tenors. Davis says she chose churches because African-Americans are largely comfortable there.

"That's our environment, that's what we're used to," she says. "It's where we used to go when we weren't allowed to go anywhere else, when we weren't allowed in the opera houses. And to be able to bring [opera] into churches is all I want."

Davis' second Columbia show will be at Jim Rouse Theatre on May 4. Called Music of African-American Artists, it explores a range of African-American musical expression and features the Columbia Pro Cantare chorus, baritone Lester Lynch and works from Duke Ellington.

"We didn't grow up with this," says Davis, who lives in New York City. "They didn't write this music with us in mind, which is why we're putting on these shows from a sistah's - that's S-I-S-T-A-H - point of view."

And to make her parents proud.

"Giving back is what I learned from my father," she says. "If I didn't bring what I've learned in the real world back to my own, it wouldn't be worth anything to me."

"Opera from a Sistah's Point of View" will be presented at 7:30 p.m. May 3 at Long Reach Church of God, 6080 Foreland Garth, Columbia; 410-997-2088. Admission is free. "Music of African American Artists" is at 8 p.m. May 4 at Jim Rouse Theatre, 5460 Trumpeter Road. Tickets are $20 to $25. Information: 410-465-5744.

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