When most think music at Jackson State University, the Sonic Boom of the South is typically what comes to mind. Many are surprised to learn that JSU has a diverse and extensive music program that ranges from jazz to opera and crosses all musical points in between.
On Sunday, April 23, several graduating seniors expressed bittersweet emotions while other students referenced nervousness as the College of Liberal Arts Department of Music’s opera-musical theatre ensemble and University Orchestra presented their last music performance of the year – “From Mozart to Motown.”
Dr. Phyllis Lewis Hale, director of the opera-musical theatre ensemble, walks swiftly into a dressing room giving final instructions to the group of students before they take the stage. She then requests a young man lead them in prayer. A circle is formed, hands clench tightly to one another, eyes are closed, heads are bowed and the prayer begins.
Hale explains that the performance was back not only by popular demand but in honor of the Opera/South Company and Scott Joplin – the first African-American to compose an Opera.
“When I was a student in the 1980’s, I first got my chance with opera at Opera/South of Jackson and because of that company so many students went on to have famous careers in opera and musical theatre.” She said, “I wanted to pay homage to that company and make sure we can continue that legacy at Jackson State University.”
Sister Mary Elise Sisson started the non-profit company Opera/South to provide professional opportunities, especially for young black artists. Opera/South was chartered by the State of Mississippi in 1971 under the parent name of Mississippi Inter-Collegiate Opera Guild, Inc. The Guild was initially sponsored by Jackson State University, Tougaloo College and Utica Junior College. In 1984, Jackson State University became the first historically black institution to house a professional opera company when the Opera/South office relocated from the Mississippi Museum of Art to the HBCU.
According to Dr. Hale, Opera/South played a significant role in shaping and elevating the cultural aesthetics of the Mississippi community, and its primary objectives were:
1) to provide students and local artists with the opportunity to work in professional opera;
2) to provide a showcase for young American artists; and
3) to introduce opera to new audiences of all ages and cultural backgrounds; “take opera to the people.”
Hale’s voice fills with enthusiasm as she discusses the goal of “From Mozart to Motown.” “People from across the nation came right here in Jackson to perform with Opera/South.” She said, “We want to make sure that Jackson State University, even though it’s not the Opera/South Company, can still provide the same kind of advantages and opportunities for our students to grow and for our community to see our students developing in various art forms.”
“From Mozart to Motown”
“My major is music education with a concentration in voice. I want to sing professionally. I also want to teach on the side. My favorite genre is Christian contemporary because of how much more intimate it is with God. Gospel is fiery and more religious, but Christian contemporary really emphasizes a relationship with God.” ~ Gavin Hughes
“We left it all out on the stage. My favorite performance? I would hate to say my solo, but I really enjoyed myself doing it. Whatever the character calls for that’s what I’m about for the moment.” ~ Kayla Wilson, vocal performance major
“Today, we know that all Arts are relevant. We want to make sure our students, whether it’s opera, musical theatre, R&B, gospel, jazz, get an opportunity to showcase under this roof at Jackson State University and show the diversity that we have.” ~ Dr. Phyllis Lewis Hale
“We’ve put a lot of work into it. Dr. Hale is a really good teacher, she screwed it into us, screwed it into us and screwed it into us until we got it.” ~ Elijah Middleton, junior, vocal performance major
”I came to study with Dr. Hale. I’m about to finish my master’s, and this is my last week. Dr. Hale is really active in the singing community and has had an international career. She has had such a huge background in teaching, going to the Cincinnati Conservatory and being an artist in residence up in Philadelphia. There aren’t a log of singers in the state of Mississippi with those kinds of accolades attached to their name. She’s really made it her mission to find talent at Jackson State because it’s her alma mater and to let students know they can pursue their dreams. As a music education major, I wanted to study with her and grow my own voice, but also to learn about teaching from her and be able to inspire my future students like she inspires all those around her.” ~ Roberta Duhs, graduate student
I really want to go to the Manhattan School of Music. I want to sing Opera, and I want to teach Opera. Leaving is bittersweet. I love JSU. Hopefully, I can come back and perform. ~ Victoria Renee Norwood, elementary education major
“Yeah, I’m a little nervous but, I feel it’s going to be a great show.” ~ Jabarrie Evans, freshman, music education major with an emphasis in voice
“Lionel Richie, that’s more me. With Motown, I can lay back and let it do what it do.” ~ Elijah Middleton