Rising Voice

A success in New York and in life, April Haines returns to Baltimore this weekend with a song in her heart to benefit the Municipal Opera Company.

July 16, 2005|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

April Haines is the quintessential local girl who made good.

From a modest start singing in the choir at Roland Park Presbyterian Church in the 1980s, she launched a career that eight years ago took her to one of the most prestigious jobs in music - that of a full-time member of the Metropolitan Opera Company chorus in New York.

Even when she was singing in churches, Haines, a striking African-American woman with a wild mane of jet black hair and a rich soprano voice she herself describes as "chocolate-y," seemed born for the stage.

The first time she auditioned for the chorus at the Baltimore Opera Company's 1983 production of Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, John Lehmeyer, who directed that show, hired her instantly, comparing her to "a magnificent lioness."

In recent years at the Met, the Baltimore native has pursued a typically frenetic Big Apple schedule that includes performing in at least 16 opera productions a year under the baton of the company's renowned music director, James Levine.

She's constantly learning new scores, polishing her diction - in Italian, French, German, Russian and even Czech - and spending innumerable hours at rehearsals, makeup studios and costume fittings.

She has also continued her musical studies with some of the city's top voice teachers and vocal coaches, and in the little time that's left over she has even given several solo recitals.

Haines is so busy she hardly has time to slow down.

But tomorrow at 4 p.m. she'll make time for a cause that's close to her heart when she gives a benefit concert for the Municipal Opera Company at Lochearn Presbyterian Church in West Baltimore.

The company was founded in 1991 by Dorothy Lofton Jones, a veteran soprano and passionate music lover who dreamed of creating a place where African-American and other minority artists could hone their skills. She gave Haines one of her first chances to perform opera.

"Dorothy was one of my earliest and greatest champions," recalls Haines with obvious delight. "This is my way of giving something back to all the people who've helped me along the way."

The Municipal Opera Company, which puts on two or three productions annually, has long struggled on a shoestring budget of less than $100,000 a year.

Jones says she hopes to raise at least several thousand dollars at tomorrow's benefit, where Haines' program will include works from the operatic repertoire by Verdi, Charpentier and Menotti as well as a concert aria by Samuel Barber and settings of Negro spirituals by the African-American composer John Carter. She'll be accompanied by pianist George Peachey.

"April was there when we first started the Municipal Opera," Jones recalls. "Her first role with us was in 1991, when she sang the role of the heroine Magda Sorel in Gian Carlo Menotti's opera The Consul."

Menotti composed the work, a tale of lost love and political intrigue set in Eastern Europe, in 1949, and in the following year, it premiered in New York and won both a Pulitzer Prize and the Drama Critic's Circle Award. It was also the first of the 22 productions the Municipal Opera Company has mounted since its founding.

Since then, Haines' path from Baltimore to New York has taken her to the pinnacle of her profession. But in the beginning, a lot more than geography separated her from her goals as an artist.

She grew up in an impoverished West Baltimore neighborhood where she had to learn to fend for herself from an early age.

She never knew her father. At the age of 9 she became an orphan after having watched as her mother was beaten to death by a drunken boyfriend.

And as a young woman, she suffered the terrible anguish of watching helplessly as her younger brother slowly died from AIDS.

So much tragedy might have crushed many artists. But Haines was determined to persevere. She started working at 15 and put herself through college at Morgan State University, where she sang in its famous choir.

After graduating from Morgan with a degree in business - a field she chose for the financial security it promised - Haines got a job as a computer analyst. Later, she met her husband and raised a family, always having to balance the demanding roles of wife, mother, career woman and aspiring artist.

"She started out with a regular job because she had a husband and son to help support, and she worked very, very hard to get her musical career going," Jones recalls.

"But once she got a foothold in the professional music world, she decided to go for it," Jones adds.

When Haines was hired by the Metropolitan Opera in 1997, she had been singing in the choir at Roland Park Presbyterian for a dozen years. She had also performed in the choruses of the Baltimore Opera Company and the Washington National Opera and had appeared in scores of performances of Porgy and Bess, both as a chorister and as the leading lady, Bess.

She'd paid her dues, and then all her hard work and dedication paid off.

Still, it took her a while to get used to life in the big city.

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