Opera star Denyce Graves to perform at National Memorial Day Concert

WTOP's Jason Fraley chats with Denyce Graves (Part 1)

The annual National Memorial Day Concert returns Sunday at 8 p.m. on PBS.

The lineup features Emmy- and Grammy-winning opera mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves.

Graves told WTOP she first performed at the Memorial Day concert about 10 years ago, but this year “feels very different.”

She will perform “American Anthem,” which she performed last year at the U.S. Capitol as the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg lie in state.

“With everything the world has gone through, with the pandemic, with recent events in Washington, the changing of power, this incredible turning of the pages — this is a particularly poignant moment for this song.”

She also performed it in 2005 at the second inauguration of George W. Bush, who also invited her to perform at the Washington National Cathedral for a post-9/11 service in September 2001 and made her a cultural ambassador for the U.S. “It’s a tremendous honor for me to be asked and be associated with these important historical moments,” Graves said.

Born in D.C. in 1964, Graves graduated from the Duke Ellington School of the Arts in 1981.

“My mother used to say when I was little, ‘You have to live your life as if your grandmother was watching,'” Graves said. “Attending [Ellington] is really what exposed me to classical music and changed my life and put me on the path that I’m on now. … It was really my nourishing ground.”

After graduating from the Oberlin Conservatory of Music and the New England Conservatory, Graves made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera in 1995, launching a career of signature opera roles in “Carmen,” “Samson & Delilah” and Toni Morrison’s “Margaret Garner.”

But “probably the most impactful moment” of her career came in the late 1980s when she performed in a prison. “That was quite something,” Graves remembers. “It was something I was very hesitant to do. I was afraid to do it actually; I didn’t know how it would be received.”

That’s high praise, considering she performed in the slave cemetery at Mount Vernon for PBS’ “Great Performances,” won an Emmy for producing “Denyce Graves: Breaking the Rules” in 2003, and won a Grammy for the Metropolitan Opera’s “Gershwin: Porgy & Bess” in 2020.

“That [‘Porgy & Bess’] opera had been away from the theater for more than 30 years, so it was a historic moment,” Graves said. It was even more significant because three of her students joined her in the cast: “That was a full-circle moment. Every time I looked at them, I felt like my heart was going to explode. … You want to be able to impart and share what you learn.”

She passed on her knowledge to kids again on “Sesame Street.”

“That made me the coolest mom, the coolest aunt, the coolest daughter — cool points for me flew off the charts when we did that,” Graves said. “We filmed for nine hours, but what joyful work! Even though you can see the puppeteers, they’re contortionists … it feels like these characters are real and alive. … I feel like I had an experience with Elmo!”

She teaches at the Juilliard School, the Peabody Conservatory and the University of Toronto, and launched The Denyce Graves Foundation in January.

“Working with young people, working with the voices and talents of tomorrow, working with hidden figures that have been left out of the history books,” Graves said. “One of our main focuses is on the National Negro Opera House in Pittsburgh … run by this African-American woman, the longest-running, most successful opera house of its time. She’s considered the First Woman of Opera.”

Her portrait is in the permanent collection of the National Portrait Gallery, and Graves remembered posing for painter Nelson Shanks.

“Isn’t it crazy?” Graves said. “Nelson Shanks came to my home, he came to my closet and said, ‘I want to choose what you’re going to wear.’ It was seven weeks standing there! He would not work from a photograph, so that was live standing in heels the whole time. To have it in one of the greatest museums in my hometown is a tremendous honor … to have that there in perpetuity.”

She’s as busy as ever, recently getting an opportunity to direct a production of “Carmen,” a chance to play National Negro Opera House founder Mary Cardwell Dawson at the Glimmerglass Summer Opera Festival in August, and an upcoming film role.

“My life has been bursting,” she said; “my cup runneth over in terms of the amount of joy and beauty in my life.”

WTOP's Jason Fraley chats with Denyce Graves (Part 2)

Listen to our full conversation here.

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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