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JSU alums form traveling opera company ‘Opera Unique’, hosts debut concert at alma mater

Dr. Karen Laubengayer, pianist, stand with members of Opera Unique, LLC (L-R) Edwin Jhamaal Davis, Gavin Hughes, Tiffany Williams-Cole, and GeDeane Graham with Dr. Phyllis Lewis-Hale, who narrated the event.

Dr. Karen Laubengayer, pianist, stand with members of Opera Unique, LLC (L-R) Edwin Jhamaal Davis, Gavin Hughes, Tiffany Williams-Cole, and GeDeane Graham with Dr. Phyllis Lewis-Hale, who narrated the event. (Photo William H. Kelly III/JSU University Communications)

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Jackson State University’s Department of Music alums recently returned to their alma mater to host a benefit concert at JSU’s F.D. Hall Music Center in the Jimmy James, Jr. Recital Hall.

The concert was a collaboration between the Department of Music and Opera Unique, LLC, featuring talents and performances by the JSU opera/musical theatre workshop, vocal jazz ensemble, and concert chorale, fulfilling the organization’s mission to dedicate opportunities for students and others in a nontraditional sense.

GeDeane Graham, Tiffany Williams-Cole, Edwin Jhamaal Davis, and Gavin Hughes formed Opera Unique, LLC, a traveling opera company, and are all graduates of JSU’s opera/musical theatre program, respectively.

“We’ve been talking about it for years. It actually came about as a vision between GeDeane and I. Basically, we just wanted to give people, whether they are singers or musicians, opportunities that weren’t previously available,” says Williams-Cole, a soprano. “It’s hard being in the classical arts industry when you look like us, and you come from the places we’re from. So we want to change that narrative.”

As an ode to creating new and inclusive spaces for classical arts, Williams-Cole says that Opera Unique LLC will also feature shows with a variety of arts and music genres, such as jazz, gospel, and more, making opera relatable and modern to help fans and audience members feel more connected and engaged.

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Hale and Laubengayer receive their flowers and are honored on stage by their former students. (Photo William H. Kelly III/JSU University Communications)

“The official definition of opera is listed as a dramatic piece of work set with instruments. When you think of the word dramatic, that could be classical opera, R&B, because it doesn’t get any more dramatic than that, or it could actually be Hip-Hop or any other genre.”

The art of opera showcases stories through the eyes and background of characters adjacent to languages such as German, Spanish, Italian, and French, immersing viewers in a multicultural and time-bending experience.

“We want to be that platform where, if you feel like you don’t fit the traditional stereotype, artists can be their authentic selves and not sing with their institutionalized voice,” says Graham, a mezzo-soprano. “That way, you can express yourself freely and not worry about diction, breathing, emoting, and so forth, as critically.”

Hughes is the youngest and most recent JSU graduate of the group. He attributes part of his inspiration as a vocal artist to some of the same individuals he stands by today, including Williams-Cole and Davis.

“I remember being a student here, and they call me the baby because I really am the baby, and they had already graduated. But, I had the chance to see them come back,” said Hughes, a tenor. “I can tell you. It was remarkably impactful to see what the program had produced and to see how great it was. So, I think when you see people who look like you and people you can relate to and have that point of reference, it’s encouraging.”

During closing remarks, the quartet honored their former professors, Phyllis Lewis-Hale, DMA, and Karen Laubengayer, Ph.D., with flower arrangements, origin stories, and humorous impersonations.

“Dr. Laubengayer is always so encouraging, and even though I wasn’t a music major, they took me in, and that family continues to grow and we’re able to do things like this,” said Davis, a bass. “Had it not been for Dr. Hale, I would not be doing this at all. I wouldn’t even be here, but I want to make sure that we give you your flowers while you’re able to receive them.”

Laubengayer, a retired JSU professor of music, joined her former students on stage as one of the collaborative pianists for the show. Hale, an assistant professor of music voice and the director of opera and musical theatre, narrated the event.

“I felt such pride and joy seeing the students and my former students, who’ve gone off and now have wonderful careers in the field of opera, come back to the recital hall stage where it all started for them,” said Hale. “To see them as full-grown artists, being communicative and telling a story with their instruments, while painting pictures and using their voice in a way that is drawing people to stories and languages that they may not have experienced before, made me feel happy that we gave them such a wonderful foundation here at Jackson State.”

Opera Unique, LLC made their debut at Jackson State University. The traveling opera company seeks to create spaces and offer opportunities for up and coming musical artists, composers, singers, and more to be authentic and unique on stage.

Opera Unique, LLC made their debut at Jackson State University. The traveling opera company seeks to create spaces and offer opportunities for up and coming musical artists, composers, singers, and more to be authentic and unique on stage. (Photo William H. Kelly III/JSU University Communications)