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Music professor receives grant from Mississippi Humanities Council to host music exposition

Dr. Phyllis Lewis-Hale is an assistant professor of music and director of the Opera workshop at Jackson State University. (Photo by Aron Smith/JSU)

Dr. Phyllis Lewis-Hale is an assistant professor of music and director of the opera workshop at Jackson State University. (Photo by Charles Smith/JSU)

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Dr. Phyllis Lewis-Hale, assistant professor of music, has received a $6,500 grant from the Mississippi Humanities Council for her project “From Delta Blues to Opera News: A Mississippi Musical Exposition.”

The proceeds will fund the two-day event set to open on Feb. 28, 2021, in the F.D. Hall Music Center (tentative location) at JSU.

“I am very excited about receiving this grant. This event aims to pay homage to the African-American performers and arts organizations in Mississippi who have made major contributions to the field of music in the genres of Negro spirituals, blues, gospel, jazz and opera,” explains Hale, also the director of the opera workshop at Jackson State University.

The project’s primary focus is to demonstrate the historical contributions of select Mississippi artists and arts organizations to American music and opera from the past and present.

Hale shares that it is appropriate to assist the Mississippi Humanities Council with stimulating meaningful community dialogue, attracting diverse audiences, and promoting learning about the past and interpreting the present.

“This event will also showcase the talent of students and local amateur and professional musicians. The multi-faceted proposed project has significant relevance to the minority community and the general public,” Hale explains. “Not only does the project portray the African-American cultural experience and contributions to American music, but it also brings to bear classic repertory that has stood the test of time and is recognized universally as American music.”

Additionally, Hale says, the exposition will assist JSU in honoring the legacy and importance of the performing arts and organizations in Mississippi, including JSU’s historic Opera/South Company.

The Opera/South Company was started as a non-profit by Sister Mary Elise Sisson to provide professional opportunities to artists, especially young Black artists. The State of Mississippi chartered the company in 1971 under the parent name Mississippi Inter-Collegiate Opera Guild, Inc. The guild was initially sponsored by JSU, Tougaloo College and Utica Junior College.

In 1984, JSU became the first historically black institution to house a professional opera company when the office relocated from the Mississippi Museum of Art to the HBCU.

Day one of the exposition will feature a pre-concert panel discussion that will focus on Mississippi’s involvement in American music’s origin and development and select African-American musicians and arts organizations that helped pave the way.

Guest panelists will include the Rev. Jerry Mannery, executive director of the Mississippi Mass Choir, and John Spann, curator of education for the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum.

The panel discussion will be followed by a concert honoring notable African-American performers and arts organizations native to Mississippi, such as blues singer and songwriter B.B. King, professional opera singer Leontyne Price, the Mississippi Mass Choir, and gospel, blues and R&B singer Dorothy Moore, among other choice artists.

Day two will have a second-panel discussion designed for high school and college students, yet open to the public.

“The topic of discussion will be geared towards the importance of younger generations exploring, appreciating and embracing genres such as the Negro spiritual, jazz, blues, gospel and opera as they are often neglected or underrepresented in many circles today,” says Hale.

Day two will also include a series of masterclasses and two panel discussions exploring the various genres performed the previous day. High school and JSU students will have an opportunity to work first-hand in the masterclasses with guest artists such as jazz and blues artist Rhonda Richmond, opera and Negro spiritual performer DeAnna Tisdale-Johnson, and traditional and contemporary gospel artist Lannie Spann McBride.

“New audiences who normally would not attend an opera would probably be inclined to attend a musical exposition, highlighting the Mississippi Delta Blues classics. Gospel music lovers, as well as jazz connoisseurs, will also be attracted to this musical event,” she says.