Running to the Noise, Episode 4

Helping Others Reach the Spotlight with Denyce Graves

Cover art of Running to the Noise featuring Denyce Graves Emmy- and Grammy-winning opera singer Denyce Graves is one of the greatest classical music stars of the 21st century. After studying at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, she went on to perform in the world’s most storied opera houses and concert halls. Along the way, she has sung at the White House, harmonized with the Muppets, and performed at the memorial for her friend and fan, Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

But before the acclaim and the accolades, she was a little girl from Washington, D.C., who loved music and had this passion nurtured by one of her first teachers. That teacher became a long-lasting mentor and helped inspire Graves to leverage her fame to create the Denyce Graves Foundation, which aims to uplift young artists of world-class talent from all backgrounds.

In this episode of Running to the Noise, Graves returns to campus and joins host and Oberlin College and Conservatory President Carmen Twillie Ambar to discuss the transformative power of mentorship and how her foundation is recognizing hidden voices and shaping the next generation of performers.

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[00:00:00] Carmen: I'm Carmen Twillie Ambar, president of Oberlin College and Conservatory. And welcome to Running to the Noise, where I speak with all sorts of folks who are taking on some of our toughest problems and working to spark positive change around the world and on our campus. Because here at Oberlin, we don't shy away from the challenging situations that threaten to divide us. We run towards them.


Before she won an Emmy and a Grammy, before she performed at the White House, harmonized with the Muppets, and sang at the memorial of a friend and fan, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Denyce Graves was a girl from a neighborhood in Washington, D.C. that wasn't known for producing world famous opera singers. Her mother, who raised Denyce and her two siblings alone, told them they were special, children blessed and touched by God.

Her music teacher saw something in Denyce, too, a fierce talent that deserved to be nurtured. With that teacher's support, she was accepted to D.C.'s Duke Ellington School of the Arts, a highly selective public high school for gifted city kids, and later to Oberlin's Conservatory of Music and the New England Conservatory.

She spawned those early opportunities into a celebrated debut at the Met in one of my favorite operas and my namesake, Carmen. It launched her career that has spanned decades and has taken her to the world's most storied opera houses and concert halls. Today, the renowned mezzo-soprano holds teaching posts at the Juilliard School and Peabody Institute.

Beyoncé may be Queen Bey, but Denyce is operatic royalty, one of the greatest classical music superstars of the 21st century. She has leveraged her fame to create the Denyce Grace Foundation, and I consider it the quintessential mentorship program, because it helps others reach their place in the spotlight.

As the Diva herself will tell you, she wouldn't have achieved such greatness without these early mentors. But how do we find those people? What qualities does a successful mentor have? How can we take the lessons we've learned from our mentors and pay it forward, becoming a mentor to others? We'll explore these questions and more on this episode of Running to the Noise, with none other than Denyce Graves, role model and one-woman inspiration factory. Welcome, Denyce. We're honored to have you.

[00:03:04] Denyce: I am so tickled. I mean, as I pulled in this afternoon, I was, like, oh my gosh, there's The Rock, you know.

[00:03:12] Carmen: That's right.

[00:03:13] Denyce: There's the movie theater that's still there, you know. Oh, it's just, it's a real blessing for me and a real gift to be back here again on these grounds.

[00:03:22] Carmen: That's so great, you know, we always love it when all the folks who are connected to Oberlin come back and they have this nostalgic feeling of the institution, but also hopefully the sense that what is happening here is continuing the legacy that you've left here. So, we're so glad you're here.

[00:03:38] Denyce: Thank you for having me.

[00:03:39] Carmen: So, I'm excited about this conversation because I have been just deeply impressed with what you've done with the Denyce Graves Foundation and that mentoring program. But I guess what I should do first is really just take the audience to, probably, the moment that I've read about in your career that, maybe, changed the way you thought about things.

So, maybe you could help us know, like, what was the first aria or opera performance that you heard that made you think, you know, “I can do that?”

[00:04:12] Denyce: Well, I don't know that I thought I could do that. I certainly thought I want to do that. 

[00:04:17] Carmen: Mm.

[00:04:17] Denyce: I grew up in Washington, D.C. and was a student at the Duke Ellington Performing Arts High School. I ran into a girlfriend of mine. I was late for class, and I was at my locker, and I was racing to class, and she said, “Denyce, I've just heard something you've got to hear.” And I said, “I can't, I'm late. I've got to get to class.” She said, “No, no, no, you've got to come listen to this.” And so, we went to the listening library. And she'd found a recording of Leontyne Price singing Puccini arias. And so, we sat. And this was back in the day, you know, we sat with the LP. So, we put it on. We sat there in complete silence. And both of us just stunned when it got to the end of that album, said, “Play it again.”

[00:04:56] Carmen: Oh, wow.

[00:04:57] Denyce: And the same thing happened, said, “Play it again.” Some time later, there was a knock on the door. And it was a custodian telling us that they were closing the school. It was 8:00 p.m. We'd spent the entire day and time seemed to be just completely suspended.

And we listened to her, and we both said, “Who is this woman? I mean, who is this amazing goddess?” And we said, “That's what we want to do.”

[00:05:25] Carmen: Wow.

[00:05:26] Denyce: And so, she and I both, sort of in tandem, went to… did an exchange program from the Ellington School to Germany at one of the gymnasiums there in Munich. And we both left there and we both came to Oberlin.

[00:05:39] Carmen: Oh, wow.

[00:05:39] Denyce: And we both studied in the conservatory. Yep, we were roommates in South Hall.

[00:05:43] Carmen: Oh, my goodness. From that moment [crosstalk 00:05:45].

[00:05:45] Denyce: From that moment on. From that moment on, something was… there was…

[00:05:48] Carmen: Something was born that day.

[00:05:50] Denyce: Without a doubt. Without a doubt, it was… it just gave direction and clarity to, certainly, to my life and helped crystallize what it… I felt like I had found my reason for being on the planet.

[00:06:04] Carmen: Wow. You know, it's so incredible, those moments. And when you meet really accomplished people or people who've had greatness, they can talk about those moments, and you wonder sometimes, what if that moment had been missed?                  

[00:06:14] Denyce: I know. I like to believe, perhaps, it would have happened differently, another way if we're called to… I certainly feel like this is a profession that chooses you.

[00:06:24] Carmen: Yes. If you're called to it, the Divine has it chosen for you, that plan will work out.

[00:06:28] Denyce: I think so.

[00:06:29] Carmen: Well, you know, I want to talk a little bit about your time at Oberlin, just because I'm president of Oberlin College and Conservatory.

[00:06:35] Denyce: I know, I can't even believe it. I'm looking at you since I've walked through the door. And for me, it feels like that kind of incredible pride that I felt listening to Leontyne Price, you know, looking at you, I'm like, “Oh, my goodness, look at this now. Oberlin has this beautiful, you know, queen, you know, running the whole…” And this, and I'm sure, I am sure that this is an enormous, it's an enormous undertaking.

[00:07:06] Carmen: Well, you know it is. As I say to people, it's challenging in all the right ways, but I take such pride in shepherding this institution because of its historical significance of admitting Black students so early and women and… I'm the 15th president of Oberlin, the first African American president. And I think that this question about mentors and role models, when you're a woman of color in a space where there hasn't been very many women of color, it means something, I think.

[00:07:35] Denyce: Yes, it does.

[00:07:36] Carmen: And I hope that I do something with it. 

[00:07:39] Denyce: You already have.

[00:07:40] Carmen: I appreciate that. So, Oberlin, how did you come to Oberlin?

[00:07:44] Denyce: So, talking about mentorship, I was a student at this performing arts high school. I graduated a year early. There were two of my professors who were graduates of Oberlin College. And they were very supportive of, you know, the budding little Denyce Graves who wanted to become an opera singer. And they were both telling me, “Listen, when it's time to start to consider a school, really consider Oberlin. It's a great place.” And they both told me such fantastic stories. And the weekend that I came as a prospective student, it rained the entire weekend.

[00:08:15] Carmen: Oh wow.

[00:08:17] Denyce: But again, going back to that idea of being divine providence, it was one of the most magical times of my life. It rained the entire weekend. And the moment I stepped foot in the Con, I knew, I said, “This is where I'm supposed to be.” I knew it straight away. And the decision was made for me. It was one of the greatest decisions that I've ever made.

[00:08:35] Carmen: So, let's talk a little bit about mentorship. I read something that I want to, sort of, recount to you and give you my instant reaction and then hear what you have to say about it. So, there was a New York Times piece recently where there was a student of yours, Symone Harcum. She's a soprano in her 30s. And she said something that really struck a chord with me. And I have been waiting to talk to you about this. She said that she was doing really well. She was singing before you. And you said to her, “Your voice is beautiful, but it's not enough.”

[00:09:12] Denyce: Mmm hmm.

[00:09:13] Carmen: And she says she was, sort of, baffled by that, like, “What is she talking about?” And you said to her, “It's not enough to be good. You have to be great.”

[00:09:22] Denyce: That’s right.

[00:09:24] Carmen: And that struck such a chord with me because I totally understood what you were saying in that moment.

[00:09:31] Denyce: Mm-hmm.

[00:09:31] Carmen: Because I feel like, that when you're from some of these striving communities sometimes, that people let you know that it's not enough to just be very good.

[00:09:42] Denyce: That's where everybody's starting.

[00:09:44] Carmen: You have to be great.

[00:09:45] Denyce: It's not good enough to be good enough.

[00:09:46] Carmen: It's not good enough to be good enough. And so, I was like, “I totally get this.”

[00:09:50] Denyce: Mm hmm.

[00:09:51] Carmen: Because when I read that little vignette between you and your student, a searing memory, that is, that I know has shaped who I am came back to me. So, I'm a child of the South, I grew up in Arkansas, I have incredible parents, and they had us swimming really early on since we were really young, two or three years old. We were on an all-Black team. That was all that was possible. And we used to get these letters sometimes that said, “Don't bring your Black swimmers,” right?

So, I was a good swimmer. And I was really young, probably four years old. And I was swimming in this race in which I won the race. But it was kind of touch, touch. And so, they decided to not give me the first place medal but to give me the first place ribbon, as if I won the heat but did not win the overall. 

The challenge here was that I was the only Black swimmer and the young girl who got the medal, it was clear to everyone in the swimming pool that I had beat her. 

And so, we're in this pool. And I'm so young that I'm small enough to hold on to the rim. I'm looking at my dad. My dad's like 6’3”. So, it's a looming figure. The woman comes around, and she tries to hand my dad this ribbon and my dad says, “If you're not going to give her the medal, we don't want the ribbon.” And he, kind of, threw it at her. And I can remember the ribbon, kind of, floating down like a feather.

I didn't really know what was going on, but I knew that people were angry and I knew something happened that wasn't right. And I knew that I had gotten first, but I didn't understand what was going on.

So, we are this Black family in a sea of White families. And my parents packed up all of our things. We go, get in the car. And I can remember the doors, the door, you know, boom, slamming. And my dad turns to me and says, “That was your fault. You did not win by enough. If you had won by enough, it would have been clear.” That was your, “make it impossible for them to say no.” That was that message in that moment. Make it impossible for them to say no. And so, he was saying to me, “You have to be great.”

[00:12:14] Denyce: You better believe it.

[00:12:15] Carmen: You better be great, because the world's not going to give you something and it might not give you what you deserve, but you sure won't get it if you're not great.

[00:12:24] Denyce: Right.

[00:12:25] Carmen: And so, when I read that story, I understood exactly what you were saying to that student.

[00:12:32] Denyce: Right.

[00:12:33] Carmen: And in that world, when I tell that story sometimes, and I tell it often when I'm speaking, lots of different reactions to it. People gasping. “Oh, my goodness. How could they blame you?” type of feeling. And what I try to say to people, it was about them trying to protect me from a victimhood. It was like you have to succeed in spite of. You cannot be caught up in that because the world's not going to bend itself to you, Carmen.

[00:13:01] Denyce: Right, right, right.

[00:13:02] Carmen: So, you have to make the world bend itself to you by striving and performing and being great. And I don't know how to explain that sometimes to students, because I know students react to that in very different ways. They go, “Make the world not be racist.” I'm not disagreeing with them, necessarily, but I do know that that message to me from my parents has served me. It has allowed me to focus in the way that we talked about — to be dedicated and committed to this task, to strive for greatness, to be the best.

How do you have that conversation with this generation of students? Because I find sometimes that, when I say that to students, they turn to me and say, “Yeah, but you have to make sure society understands that I'm really good. Why are you saying I have to be great? Why do I have to be super person in order to get what I deserve?” So, I've been waiting to ask you that question.

[00:14:11] Denyce: So, I think it's really interesting what you said about this generation. And one of the things that I hear them voice a lot, which can often cause a great amount of dissonance, is that the kind of care… and I think that we're in that era where we're all being incredibly sensitive and aware of how we address people, and we want to make sure that we're looking at the whole of the individual. And at the same time, I am careful that we don't coddle them, that we don't make them weak. I heard someone say at the beginning of my career, if you can be discouraged, then you should be.

[00:14:52] Carmen: Mm.

[00:14:53] Denyce: And I also said earlier that I think that this is a profession that chooses you. No matter the path, we're all going to be challenged.

[00:15:00] Carmen: Yeah. It’s going to be tough.

[00:15:01] Denyce: It's going to be tough for everybody.

[00:15:03] Carmen: Right.

[00:15:04] Denyce: No matter who you are, no matter what you do, I mean, that's part of the price that you have to pay. That's a toughening. That is a conditioning that has to happen to prepare you for the journey of this. And if we are so super, super careful, I'm not sure-

[00:15:24] Carmen: That we'll prepare them.

[00:15:25] Denyce: … At all. You know, oftentimes, when I have these talkbacks, I'm often asked the same question, right? And that is, well, you know, “What, what did you find difficult along your path? And has it been difficult for you as a Black woman,” and all these things. And I said, “listen,” and this speaks to what you were talking about earlier. “I believe that our work is to be so great that you make it impossible for them to say no. That's your work. That's the job. It's not anything else. Keep focused on your work. And when you are great, everybody recognizes that. It cannot be denied.”

[00:16:10] Carmen: It's such an incredible message. And I guess I would further ask you, what do you think are the kind of qualities that you think are necessary for a good mentor?

I will tell you some of them for me, and you can say, “Yeah, you got it right, Carmen,” or, “Here's some additional ones.” You need to find a mentor who is invested in your success. But they are invested in a way that they still allow you not to take their advice.

[00:16:35] Denyce: Oh, I love that you said that.

[00:16:37] Carmen: They're invested in you, so they're willing for you not to take their advice. They love and care for you, no matter whether you take that advice or not.

And you have to be able to hear their complete honesty. They shouldn't have to couch it for you. So, I say to the students sometimes. “You know, I need someone that's going to be able to tell me that is the worst thing I have ever heard, Carmen.” And I have to be able to hear that and not feel like that there is any pain associated with it.

And I think sometimes people who are looking for mentors are not really willing to hear that.

[00:17:14] Denyce: You know, I would say that I hear a lot of beautiful voices that come through the door. And one of the things that's been really surprising for me as a teacher, because I think that the pursuit of this profession, one has to, sort of, become myopic because it does require…

[00:17:31] Carmen: Right, it requires that level of intensity.

[00:17:33] Denyce: 100%. Sometimes, you can see somebody come through the door with a magnificent talent. And that doesn't mean, that just means that they've got a magnificent talent. 

[00:17:42] Carmen: Mm-hmm.

[00:17:43] Denyce: And I tell some of the young people that, I say, “You have a glorious gift that's been given to you. Now, you've got to do your part.”

[00:17:49] Carmen: Yeah. 

[00:17:50] Denyce: Right? And you've got to nurture that. I had this one student who was phenomenally gifted. I mean, just really, when she sang, you could just see the face of God. She was amazing. But she had a fatal flaw in that she could not, to your point, take criticism, constructive, of any kind. She just fell to pieces. And it really became a deciding factor in what happened.

[00:18:20] Carmen: Didn't allow her to take that gift to its next place.

[00:18:23] Denyce: Exactly. And so, it's about having many, many pieces together. Many pieces that, I mean, you've got to have the mental strength. That's why I also think that it's important that we are realistic, you know, to your point, even if you don't want to hear it. 

[00:18:39] Carmen: Yes.

[00:18:40] Denyce: You know, you need somebody that you could… you need some ears that you can trust, a heart that you can trust, to say, “I am completely invested 100% in your success. And I see that you have a lot to offer. But I also see that this is something that we need to look at, and we need to develop this part, right? This needs a lot of strengthening. I know this was not as good as it… It needs to be better.”

[00:19:02] Carmen: Yeah. And I know you had a very important music teacher early on in your life that saw something in you. Tell us about her.

[00:19:12] Denyce: Isn't that beautiful? We'd spoken earlier about everybody, or most people, if you're really lucky, having a teacher, that teacher that makes the difference in your life. And for me, she was that very, very special individual who went above and beyond anything that was expected and really took me under her wing.

So, I was this really shy, awkward little kid, five years old, coming to school at W.B. Patterson in Washington, D.C., Southwest Washington, and very attached to my mother and didn't want to be at school, and cried and cried and cried and cried the first day. And I remember it very well until they started playing music. And she was playing music. And she sat at the piano. She played and she sang. And I thought that she hung the moon. I just thought that this woman was amazing. And so, I loved going to school because of that. And so, from kindergarten through sixth grade, she was my music teacher.

When I graduated elementary school to go off to junior high school, I went to a different school, this new school. And one day I'm walking down the hall and I ran into her, and I said, “Oh, my goodness.” She said, “You're here.” I said, “You're here. I thought you were at the other school.” And so, she said, “Are you going to sign up for the choir?” I said, “Absolutely,” and signed up for choir.

And then, she told me about All City Chorus. And All City Chorus is exactly what it sounds like. And it's when you gather kids from all over the city and they make up this big chorus. And we used to do concerts at Constitution Hall in Washington D.C. And she'd come and pick me up Saturday from my house, take me to rehearsal, stay there during the rehearsal, which was several hours, and bring me back home.

And then, she said, “What are you going to do for high school?” And I said, “I haven't decided.” She said, “There's a performing arts high school in Washington called the Duke Ellington School of Performing Arts. And Denyce, you've got a pretty voice. I think you should audition.” So, she got the application, filled out the application together. I set up the audition, did the audition, got accepted. And she became vice principal of the school. 

[00:21:08] Carmen: Oh, my gosh. 

[00:21:09] Denyce: And this woman was literally my guardian angel from kindergarten through the time that… I took a meeting in her office just before graduation. I said, “I don't want to see you at Oberlin.” That's it. That's it. That's right.

[00:21:23] Carmen: [Laughing] You thought, “She is coming to Oberlin because she’s poured into my life in every way.” Oh, my gosh. But I have to say that it'd be interesting just to ask her what she saw in you, because when people decide to pour into your life with that depth, they see something.

[00:21:41] Denyce: Years ago, Regina King, she accepted an Oscar for something. And she said, “This is what it looks like when people pour in love, belief, dedication, steadfastness. This is what it looks like.” This is how

[00:21:57] Carmen: It manifests itself, yeah.

[00:21:58] Denyce: … it manifests itself when you have that kind of investment from your parents, from a community. And absolutely, 100%.

[00:22:07] Carmen: I mean, it doesn't surprise me at all that you have created this Denyce Graves Foundation with this deep mentoring program, because it's only from people who have had this deep pouring into them that they can understand the power of it. And they recognize that it comes from lots of different places, some deep, deep, deep, long pourings, some shorter, but still resonating. And it's only when you have that happen in your life that you can see how powerful it is. So, it doesn't surprise me at all that you've created this foundation. I'm so thankful that the students at Oberlin get a chance to participate and be a part of it. 

So, tell, just tell the audience how awesome the Denyce Graves Foundation is, because they will want to support it and be involved.

[00:22:59] Denyce: And I hope that they do. And so, everybody do go to, and learn about what it is that we're doing, because we are crafting and shaping and refining more and more every day. And I'm proud of what we've been able to put together.

And so, the Shared Voices Program is the HBCU Conservatory Exchange Program. And I’ll just, I'll give a little bit about the genesis of this program, because, you know, when we were on the lockdown, when we were, when the whole world...

[00:23:28] Carmen: In the midst of the pandemic and no one was going anywhere.

[00:23:30] Denyce: Exactly. But there was a student of mine who was singing on the steps of what was formerly known as the National Negro Opera Company.

And I saw her doing this, and I said, “Chantal, what are you doing?” She was outside of the National Negro Opera Company, now called the National Opera Company, that was founded by Mary Cardwell Dawson. She talked about this great American hero who is considered to be the first woman of opera. The first lady impresario was a Black woman. Who knew that this woman who wanted to become an opera singer went to the New England Conservatory? She graduated in 1925. She wanted to get out and make her mark in the world. 1925, for a Black woman at that time, was not going to happen, you know.

[00:24:10] Carmen: Unacceptable.

[00:24:11] Denyce: Unacceptable. So, her response was, “Well,” and I love this about her. She said, “Well, I'll create my own opera house.” So, she created her own opera house there in Pittsburgh, which is still standing. And it's being rebuilt as we speak.

First of its kind, longest running, most successful, and run by a woman. And so, what she did, she hired 1,800 Black singers and orchestra, conductor, director, everybody. And she took them everywhere. She had chapters in Chicago, in Detroit, in Washington, D.C, where she lived, Pittsburgh, of course, where the opera house is, New York, New Jersey.

I spoke earlier about Leontyne Price. There wouldn't have been a Leontyne Price, had it not been for Mary Cardwell Dawson. So, it started out by being outraged, these incredible women, incredible artists who have contributed to our cultural fabric, who have made the art form what it is, and we don't know anything about them.

[00:25:03] Carmen: Yeah, no one knows them.

[00:25:04] Denyce: And it started with this outrage. And it really started with my really wanting people to raise awareness around this woman. Because I was doing this online cooking show called Cooking with Denyce. So, you can look it up, it's on YouTube.

[00:25:16] Carmen: That's right. So, audience, make sure you go and see Cooking with Denyce. We want to see it.

[00:25:19] Denyce: And so, what that was, was a way during the pandemic for me to build community with my students, because the singers were considered to be the super spreaders. The theaters were shut down. I thought, “Oh, my God, what am I going to do with my kids who have just, who are just out there starting to make a name for themselves? And how are they going to survive?”

[00:25:36] Carmen: Survive, yeah.

[00:25:37] Denyce: And one of the things that I would do if they were preparing for a recital or preparing for an audition tour, I would have them come to my house. We'd have a small audience. They would run through their materials. We would have a master class of sorts. And then, I would cook.

So, I recreated that online and started speaking because I thought we've all got to eat, started speaking to the students when they were in their kitchens, when everybody was in the heart of their homes, right? And then, we would start talking about their projects.

Well, simultaneously, I'd learned about this great American hero, Mary Cardwell Dawson. So, I started talking about her on the cooking show. We had over 250,000 people watching the cooking show. So, I had an incredible audience. So, people started getting in touch with me saying, “Who is this? Who is this woman? What is it you're talking about, this Mary Cardwell Dawson?” I didn't realize we were standing up a foundation.

That's how the entire thing happened. It was Francesca Zambello, who's the artistic director from Washington National Opera, got in touch with me and said, “Denyce, let's have an opera created about her.” And I was like, “Wow. Yeah. Great. Let's do that.”

And we did that. And so, Carlos Simon, who is a composer in residence at the Kennedy Center, is the composer. And Sandra Seaton is the playwright. And we… they created a piece called The Passion of Mary Cardwell Dawson. We premiered that at Glimmerglass in ’21. They did it again in ’22. And then, in ’23, for the launch of our Hidden Voices… so, we've got Shared Voices, we've got Hidden Voices, and we've got Generational Voices. So, the Hidden Voices is about bringing into rightful prominence those great artists who have been intentionally left out of the telling of the American story. We knew that Mary Cardwell… she was not unknown, but it was not covered by the mainstream at all.

[00:27:14] Carmen: Right, the depth of her contribution was not acknowledged.

[00:27:17] Denyce: Some of the Black dailies had some information about her in the churches and that sort of thing. But no, the general public had no awareness of this woman and what she did. And I started saying something earlier about one of the difficulties, one of the many, many difficulties, was trying to find a place to perform. So, she used to perform on this barge in the Potomac, on this floating barge. Well, wouldn't you know that that is where the Kennedy Center sits today? She nourished that ground from the very beginning and lifted those voices up. And it's the spirit of those ancestors that are there. And that is where they built the Kennedy Center. And they had no idea.

[00:27:59] Carmen: Right. That she was the voice beforehand.

[00:28:02] Denyce: That’s right. That's right. So, the foundation came about, about learning about these great incredible hidden figures. And I just thought, there's no way that I would have been able to have had the career that I had, had it not been for this mighty woman who did this amazing work. And we don't know anything about her.

[00:28:21] Carmen: So, I know, Denyce, that you starred as Mary Cardwell Dawson. Tell me what that experience was like.

[00:28:26] Denyce: Amazing. I wanted to get it right. I wanted to do justice for her. I was thinking she died really too young in Washington, D.C. of a massive heart attack. And I just wondered what she gave this world, you know, that she probably died not knowing what her legacy would be.

[00:28:48] Carmen: You know, it's interesting. Sometimes, we talk about mentorships as these kind of really personal relationships, and they are. But oftentimes, people of color find mentorship in people that they've never met because the image that they look to, to know that what they want to achieve, is possible.

And so, sometimes, when you're in these fields where you don't necessarily have people who look like you, who are right there, sometimes you have to find them. You have to discover them. And I can imagine that in some ways, as you were performing, you were living off that kind of mentorship that she didn't even know she was giving at the time.

[00:29:25] Denyce: I know. Isn't it something? One of the things I'm perhaps most proud of is that back then, well, I don't remember, so when did the pandemic happen, in 2020?

[00:29:34] Carmen: Yeah, 2020. We closed down campus here at Oberlin in March of 2020.

[00:29:38] Denyce: Exactly, exactly. It was around March 7th, 14th that everything started —if you, if you Googled Mary Cardwell Dawson, there was one entry. And now, there are over 17,000.

[00:29:48] Carmen: Oh, wow.

[00:29:49] Denyce: And I'm proud of that.

[00:29:50] Carmen: You should be.

[00:29:51] Denyce: I'm incredibly proud because now there's been this resurgence and also, simultaneously, an unearthing happening, certainly in this country and I think around the world, where we embrace this ideology of belonging and inclusivity and diversity.

[00:29:50] Carmen: Yeah, affirmation and belonging.

[00:30:10] Denyce: Exactly.

[00:30:11] Carmen: The same thing is happening here at Oberlin. Mary Church Terrell, this, you know, huge figure, now part of our library named after her, because she was part… because everyone's unearthing these folks that have been underrecognized and undervalued.

So, talk a little bit about the Shared Voices and whatever you want us to know about how that mentoring piece happens.

[00:30:30] Denyce: So, you came to the launching of the Shared Voices. And I'm proud to say that we have three Oberlin students, Elizabeth Hanje, Travis Guillory, and Ava Paul, here at Oberlin who are part of the program.

Shared Voices is an HBCU Conservatory Exchange that's not just for the students, but it's also for the faculty and also for the administration. When you came to our launch at Howard University, it was the first time, you know, Dean Fred Bronstein is the dean who's lovely at Peabody Conservatory. Well, we've got President David Wilson, who is president of Morgan.

[00:31:07] Carmen: That’s right.

[00:31:07] Denyce: They're 15 minutes apart. They didn't know each other. In the consortium, we've got Fisk, we have Morehouse, we have Morgan and Howard, and then we have Oberlin, Peabody, Manhattan School, and Juilliard.

And so, they all are committed to working together and learning from each other, right? And so, we created this digital calendar where we ask Oberlin, what are some special programming that you've got going on? Okay, so let's say you're doing The Ordering of Moses, and you're doing an event at Finney Chapel with Fisk Jubilee Singers, or there's a wonderful jazz class, or… and we have each one of the schools populate the calendar with offerings.

[00:31:46] Carmen: Mm-hmm.

[00:31:46] Denyce: So, if it's Tuesday at 1 pm, our students can go online into our portal and say, “What's going on at Morehouse? What's going on at Oberlin? What's going on at Fisk?” It’s non-matriculative but they have the opportunity to sit in and participate in those classes.

[00:32:03] Carmen: Awesome.

[00:32:04] Denyce: And so, that's one thing that we're doing. Then, there's another thing that we're doing that we call Industry Days. And that happens on Saturdays. That's when we bring in experts from the field to talk about finance, to talk about mental health, to talk about acting, to talk about auditioning skills. And then, we have partnered with the Metropolitan Opera and the Smithsonian. The Smithsonian is our performing space, where last year what the students did was they took a hidden figure, whether it was William Grant Still or, let's say, Nathaniel Dett, or someone like that, or Sissieretta Jones, or Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield, and they would study about that particular individual and do a report on that, and then perform their music.

And so, what we had the students do, and they… we pair an HBCU student with a conservatory student. They work together on that project that they present then at the Smithsonian, and we get our coaching from the Metropolitan Opera. Thank you very much.

[00:33:03] Carmen: And you can't do better than that.

[00:33:05] Denyce: You cannot do better than that. So, we're interested in young artists, developing artists who are serious, who are clear that this is what they want to do. And it is an artist-shaping program.

[00:33:17] Carmen: I was talking to our Dean Quillen, our dean of the conservatory here, who is fantastic.

[00:33:21] Denyce: He is.

[00:33:23] Carmen: And we were just talking about how these seeds of mentorship, they grow in unexpected ways, but they're lasting. They will serve these students for their lives.

[00:33:35] Denyce: That’s right. I know that to be true. We all have those stories, right? I still remember every masterclass that happened here at Oberlin. I remember every single solitary, one of them. And the interactions I had with my professors here, you know, all of that stuff, it imprints on you. And it becomes a part of who you are.

[00:33:55] Carmen: And the power of it is that, you know, we never know. We never know what's going to happen with that seed, but it produces a Denyce Graves. It produces this person that impacts the world. And it's such a powerful thing. 

I guess the last thing I wanted to ask—because I get asked this question a lot, and at the beginning of our conversation, we talked a little bit about what it means to be a woman of color, the impact that we have—do you feel any special obligation because of your gender, because of your background, to do this work?

[00:34:29] Denyce: Yes. Yes, 100% I do. Why were these people forgotten? I mean, we just had something happen not so long ago as we celebrated or acknowledged the 100 years of the Tulsa race massacre. People did not know that story, the unbelievable horror, people had no idea. And I believe that we are the descendants, and that we have a responsibility and an obligation. But for me, it doesn't feel like that. It doesn't feel heavy in that sense. For me, it's a sense of pride and wanting to share. . .

[00:35:02] Carmen: Oh, wow.

[00:35:03] Denyce: … with the world. I think that's also important, because one of the slogans that we have at the foundation, we say educating is activism. And one of the things that we watched happen, unfold during the pandemic, we saw a lot of activism happening out in the streets. And I know, just from being a mother, if I yell at my children for something, they don't hear what I said. They just know that I yelled.

[00:35:30] Carmen: Hmm.

[00:35:32] Denyce: And so, I want people to hear what it is we have to say. I want them to hear something beautiful and say, “That's gorgeous. What was that?” Well, that was Chevalier de Saint-Georges…

And so, we are going through the lane, which I think music is a language, is a universal language, in a way that I think people can hear it and receive it, because I think that, when you hear something beautiful, when you see something beautiful, when you taste something beautiful, the judgmental mind stops, right? And you just know that that was beautiful.

And that's what we want to do. That's what I want to do. We want to correct a lot of these things, but do it in a way that people can… everybody can hear and see and receive it. And that's through celebration. That's through pride. It's not… you know, there are lots of ways to, to get things done. But the lane that we choose is the universal language of music.

[00:36:33] Carmen: Well, there you have it, Denyce Graves, opera singer extraordinaire, but just an extraordinary human. So, thanks. Thanks for coming back to Oberlin.

[00:36:42] Denyce: Just sitting here looking at your gorgeous face, I could… my heart could jump out of my chest cavity. I just can't even believe it. It's so fabulous.

[00:36:51] Carmen: Thanks for doing this. Appreciate it.

[00:36:53] Denyce: You're welcome.

[00:37:06] Carmen: Thanks for listening to Running to the Noise, a podcast produced by Oberlin College and Conservatory and University FM, with music composed by Oberlin professor of Jazz Guitar, Bobby Ferrazza, and performed by the Oberlin Sonny Rollins Jazz Ensemble, a student group created to the support of the legendary jazz musician.

If you enjoyed the show, be sure to hit that Subscribe button, leave us a review, and share this episode online so Obies and other folks around the world can find this. I'm Carmen Twillie Ambar, and I'll be back soon with more innovative thinking for members of the Oberlin community on and off our campus.

Running to the Noise is a production of Oberlin College and Conservatory and is produced by University FM.