Oberlin Conservatory Joins Consortium Created by the Denyce Graves Foundation

The unique program, entitled “Shared Voices,” partners with the Metropolitan Opera, four elite Historically Black Colleges and Universities, and four of America’s preeminent conservatories to provide unparalleled musical and professional development opportunities for young singers from diverse backgrounds.

September 28, 2022

Cathy Partlow Strauss ’84

Side-by-side headshots of students Ava Paul (L) and Travis Guillory.
Ava Paul (L) and Travis Guillory.

On Friday, September 30, two Oberlin Conservatory vocal performance students will travel to Howard University in Washington, D. C., to participate in the launch of Shared Voices, a new classical music student exchange program created by Oberlin alumna Denyce Graves ’85, an Emmy and Grammy award-winning mezzo-soprano.

The mission of the Denyce Graves Foundation is to contribute to a more dynamic and diverse classical vocal arts landscape across the country. Graves’ work is focused on championing the hidden musical figures of the past, while uplifting young artists of world-class talent from all backgrounds.

Second-year Oberlin Conservatory students, Ava Paul and Travis Guillory, were selected from an application round to be among the inaugural cohort of singers for the program, which centers shared learning and performance opportunities for the next two years. They will join two students as well as faculty and administrators from each of the seven other schools in the program, which include Howard University, Fisk University, Morgan State University, and Morehouse College as well as the Juilliard School, Manhattan School of Music, and the Peabody Conservatory of Johns Hopkins University.

Ava Paul is a 19-year-old soprano from Colorado. She is a politics and vocal performance double degree student in the studio of Kendra Colton. Paul was also selected to deliver a speech as the cohort representative at the September 30 opening event. In her application for this opportunity, Paul wrote that she is “passionate about sets of political and social rules and how they shift over time. Like these political and social changes, she hopes to offer ways to re-assess and re-imagine the scope of what is considered standard repertoire in the opera world.” 

Oklahoma native Travis Guillory is pursuing a major in vocal performance in Salvatore Champagne's studio, and a minor in African American Music. He is a winner of the George-Shirley Vocal Competition, Grady-Rayam Prize Negro Spiritual Competition, and NAACP ACT-SO Classical Division. Travis is set to perform in the Oberlin Opera Theater’s double-bill fall production, playing Guillot in Offenbach’s Le mariage aux lanternes and Don Eusebio in Rossini’s L’occasione fa il ladro.

"Oberlin Conservatory is honored to partner with the Denyce Graves Foundation and with the seven other partner schools," says Dean William Quillen. "This is a meaningful opportunity to work in partnership to help develop and sustain a more diverse landscape for classical music in our country.  Additionally, through this extraordinary consortium, we hope to help shed light upon and deepen awareness and understanding of the very deep historical connections between Oberlin and several of the partner schools."

Shared Voices has been made possible by a generous gift from the Ford Foundation. “A well-rounded and diverse education is the foundation we build upon to achieve our goals, and it's crucial that all young people continue to have opportunities and access to build networks, exchange ideas, and expand their horizons," says Ford Foundation President Darren Walker. "We are thrilled to partner with the legendary Denyce Graves, one of the greatest opera voices of a generation, to pave broader pathways for young artists of all backgrounds."

Shared Voices offers participating students access to the Metropolitan Opera. The Met will provide coaches from its music staff to support a series of master classes on the campuses of the colleges, as well as master classes at the Met, in the spring of 2023. They will also deliver a new online learning series, "Behind the Curtain," where Met administrators from a variety of disciplines will introduce students to the broad range of career opportunities within arts administration.

portrait of Denyce Graves
Denyce Graves. Photo by Devon Cass

Oberlin alumna Denyce Graves ’85 created the Denyce Graves Foundation in 2021 to focus on issues at the intersection of social justice, American history, and the arts. She was inspired to develop the foundation when she learned about an extraordinary singer and entrepreneur, Mary Cardwell Dawson, and the all-Black opera company she founded in Pittsburgh in 1941, the National Negro Opera House. Dawson’s legacy had largely vanished into obscurity, until one of Graves’ voice students led a call to action to save the historic site.

Since then, Graves has invested her energy in fundraising for the restoration of the opera house, so that it can serve as a resource for emerging artists and a performance stage, and she has been leading an initiative for research and education about the achievements of America's hidden musical figures and their remarkable stories of courage and persistence. Shared Voices is the most recent evolution of the foundation.

“After speaking with my students over the years and hearing what they felt they needed to advance their careers, I knew we would have to develop a program where students of all backgrounds could learn and expand their perspectives in an environment that fosters excellence, inclusion, and belonging. I am so excited to welcome our first cohort of students and have great expectations for how their careers grow and blossom as a result of this program,” says Graves.

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