Kishna Davis moves beyond `Bess'

Soprano from Columbia takes on variety of roles

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 - has 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 blacks 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 blacks since sensation Marian Anderson became the first black singer to perform at New York City's Metropolitan Opera in 1955. Today, black 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." 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 Porgy and Bess, which some charge is full of negative stereotypes about blacks.

"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'd had enough of her being a cheerleader and acting crazy.

She was steered 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, 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."

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

Davis and fellow soprano Angela Brown 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' second Columbia show will be at the 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.

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

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