Opera is no Monolith

Young American opera singer Davone Tines talks about opera, his lead role in Only the sound remains and working with Peter Sellars for OFF.

“It was my grandfather who first realized I had a voice. He was a military navy captain and a very charismatic man. When he would come over, he always greeted us using an opera voice singing: ‘How aaare you?’ One day I sang back to him: ‘I ammm fine’. That’s when he said: ‘I think you got a voice, Davone’.” 

Davone Tines’ (29) career as an opera singer took off after his acceptance at the prestigious Juilliard School of Music. Now, Tines is starting to gain recognition as a charismatic, full-voiced bass-baritone. His range is wider than that, however: ‘When your singing voice is determined, it is mostly by technical reasons such as at what range can you sing most comfortably for the longest.’ 

Recently, Tines has worked with various ensembles while he also creates musical plays himself. The most recent one, American Gothic, has toured the United States. Tines’ own productions often address heavy-hitting issues, such as the dark side of the American dream and racial inequality.

At the Opera Forward Festival, Tines will be working with progressive director Peter Sellars and world famous counter tenor Philippe Jaroussky, in the opera Only the sound remains.  

What can we expect from your performance in Only the sound remains during the Opera Forward Festival?

In the first half of the piece I will play the role of a Buddhist priest named Tsunemasa. Tsunemasa is performing rituals in which he will try to call back the spirits of the dead. Philippe Jaroussky, who plays my counter part, is an angel who I initially get in a fight with. The angel is one step ahead of my mortal weaknesses. The question that arises is: is it our place as human beings to engage with the unknown? Or must we just let things be as they are? It’s a very timeless question that will relate to many people. I’m very excited to play this piece. 

Foto by: Allen Hargrove

What’s it like, working with Peter Sellars?

Most directors will want you to audition with one of the standard aria repertoires. So you usually bring four of five selections of standard songs that you can choose from. But what I really love about Peter, is that he always says: ‘sing what you want to.’ For the audition of Only the sound remains I sang a song that was originally meant for a pop singer. Straight after he heard my audition he asked if I would like to sing the role. That was also unique. Then I had to wait for Kaija Saariaho, the composer of the piece because, obviously, she had to agree as well. Luckily, she did. I got a phone call from Peter and he simply said: ‘You got the job’.

Have you worked with your co-singer Philippe Jaroussky before?

No, I have never met him in my life, but I’m really looking forward to be working with him. He is an extremely accomplished counter tenor and since it will be a two-man show, we are going to spend a lot of time together. I’m looking forward to seeing how we will ‘melt.’

As a young opera singer, how do you view opera and where would you like to see the art form heading?

Contrary to what some people may think, opera is not a monolith that exists without change. It has to be malleable, and it always has been. People got excited about opera in the 16th century because it was a medium that engaged with our existence. Of course, opera is centuries old and has countless beautiful, classical pieces which many people love and are nostalgic about. And that’s wonderful, because the older generations set a foundation for the art world as it exists now. But then there is the other side of it, a new generation that wants opera to grow and go forward. Sometimes it’s difficult to immediately prove how wonderful new operas can be, because you need to invest in order to find out where it might go. I believe it is very important to keep creating new opera. People didn’t stop living and people didn’t stop having stories. I would never want opera to be just a museum.

Foto by: Gretjen Helene Photography

It looks like you are contributing to creating new opera with your own musical plays. 

Right now I am working on The Black Clown, a musical play that will be produced by the American Repertory Theater in 2018. The Black Clown is a piece written by Langston Hughes, an influential African American poet from the early 20th century. Hughes didn’t only write the poem, but he also gave descriptions on how it should be performed; by an African American male, wearing a clown custome.

Some people see Hughes as the beacon of the Harlem renaissance, a cultural and political African American movement around the 1920’s. The funny thing is, that he was kind of torn. He was a true artist, as well as part of a minority group. He wanted to think: ‘my art is what it is,’ but he was also in the middle of the Harlem renaissance movement in which people were claiming their rights. He wondered if his art had to be about that, or if it could be separated from the social issues his community endured…  This poem is one of the only times he forcefully and very directly addresses the issue of oppression. It’s a very straight forward proclamation of a man identifying with oppression, coming to terms with it and then overcoming it.

Do you identify with that? As an African American, is it hard to perform in an art form that is dominated by Caucasians?

Hmm… Yeah. You could say it’s hard. I really love my job, and I’m fortunate to be here. The hard part is, that I wouldn’t want skin color to be a factor. Unfortunately, it is. If you are serious about what you do, and if you’ve got the talent, you hope that it will make you successful. However, that’s not always the case. There are certain opinions, systemic issues, or other factors that lead to non-diversity. Even in this particular age. Luckily we are at a stage, also through the internet, where we can more easily interrogate these issues. As well in the art world, and I feel at the Opera Forward Festival too. We are now at a place where those kind of questions can finally start to be asked more widely.

So do you feel inclined to speak out about diversity issues, through opera?

Yes. A hundred percent yes! If I have the opportunity to stand on stage with an incredible artist as Philippe Jaroussky and under the wonderful direction of Peter Sellars, I should also engage in things in which I feel like I can maybe make a difference. Some people call that activism in art, but I just call that honesty, really.

What makes opera a suitable art form to engage the audience with current, or pressing matters such as inequality? 

It’s suitable I think because it’s an extreme form of story telling. Opera kind of gives you a four dimensional experience. I sing it to you, I’m going to present it to you physically, visually and there is music wrapped around all of those words. So there is a huge ‘Take This In’ force. As opposed to reading, where you have your own interpretation of things, or when somebody is giving you a lecture, opera creates an immediate draw for people to pay attention, to be fully emerged and engaged. This leads to a meaningful and productive exchange.