A Shy ‘Carmen’ and Preserving Black History: Reflections from Denyce Graves-Montgomery

Amid the country’s turmoil about racism, mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves-Montgomery is happily enjoying quiet time on her porch in early summer. “We’re in an incredible historical moment, but nothing happening now is any different, except that people have cameras on,” she says. “In this moment of global interruption [caused by the pandemic]—a pause, a time of reflection and quietude—people have the time to listen and look at what’s important.”

Taking advantage of self-reflection, Graves-Montgomery senses that her career to-date has passed by too quickly since she reached the international opera scene as Carmen. “I was fortunate that my voice type and my voice color lent itself to an opera that is worldly popular,” she reflects. “If you do it well, you’re not going to have to worry about work because the opera itself has won such worldwide approval. I was very fortunate and grateful to be able to sing it.” But she and Carmen are two different people—one has always been shy and the other . . .

“I am not a gregarious extrovert—I can be if I have to ‘turn it on.’ Carmen gave me a shield. It was very easy for me to hide and let her be up front. I was not comfortable on stage, but I learned over the years how to ‘turn it on.’” That shyness pervaded her formative years in Washington, D.C., but it diminished slightly at home when Graves-Montgomery and her two siblings sang, danced, and made up songs, which—at their mother’s urging—they also sang in church, with her older brother taking the solos. Until he became ill one Sunday. The task of substituting fell to Graves-Montgomery as the next-oldest child, so “something was born.”

Around the same time, she adored her elementary school music class with teacher Judith Grove because of the beauty of the songs she learned. Later, while in junior high school, she joined the All-City Chorus (Grove drove her to rehearsals). When the time came for high school, Grove recommended that Graves-Montgomery audition for the Duke Ellington School for the Arts, an institution dedicated to performing arts. There, Graves-Montgomery fell in love with all types of music, especially opera. A key moment—this shy student sang in a recital, surprising people with her voice because nobody had heard much from her. After the Duke Ellington School, Graves-Montgomery studied voice at Oberlin Conservatory of Music.

By the time she reached New England Conservatory of Music, people knew her name and she studied with John Moriarty (now Faculty Emeritus at NEC). “I always felt he could see what was inside of me and pull that out,” she remembers. “It’s really to his credit and his teaching that I’ve had a career as a singing actor—he brought out my ability to become someone else on stage.” And she had the epiphany that she needed to set aside some of the rules about etiquette from her upbringing.

“If there’s one thing I can say about being black, it’s that we’ve had to be quiet. We were raised to be quiet, raised to respect authority, raised not to buck the system, only speak when spoken to, so that we wouldn’t cause ourselves any problems. The fact that I had been quiet, shy, and uneasy with being in public—that didn’t help me. The love of singing and the business of singing are different,” she says. “And you have to become your own advocate because the only person looking out for you is yourself . . . The constant bookings, without much thought of long-term plans, can run you ragged—but I also realized that that was the dream.”

Traveling from one engagement to another has contributed to Graves-Montgomery’s sense that her international career has flown by. “I’m still singing, but it’s different now,” she observes. “It’s fun now. In the beginning, I was trying so hard to prove myself, to be worthy, to live up to my reputation, to stay in the game. There was so much expectation and stress, to prove that I deserved a place. I’ve been so worried my whole career, but a lot of that has fallen away. Now, I’m in it for my pleasure and to bring people pleasure.”

That “place” is partially a reference to operatic legacy. When Graves-Montgomery made her Metropolitan Opera debut in October 1995 as Carmen, the audience included a group of over 200 of her family, friends, and former teachers and classmates. “They knew I had set out on this path [all those years ago] that isn’t easy. They knew they were at the pinnacle of all opera houses. And I knew that many amazing women, like Leontyne Price, Kathleen Battle, and Marian Anderson, paved the way for my being there. I was so proud and excited that night.”

In the context of the current racial uprising, she adds: “My package has been a blessing and a gift. There’s nothing wrong with being white. There’s nothing wrong with being black. We’re having a moment, but there’s nothing different except that it feels like people are listening, which you can see in the mixed crowds at protests. There was an all-white rally in my little town. Yes, every life matters, but we’re talking about a disproportionate amount of black lives that have been taken.”

Graves-Montgomery is also philosophical about history’s role in benefiting future generations, mentioning, as an example, the late Nelson Shanks’ painting of her that hangs in the National Portrait Gallery—a painting that preserves her legacy. “So much black history has been lost because nobody cared, or they didn’t write it down, or they wrote it inaccurately. Black history has mostly been an oral history. But written [and other documented] history will survive. Black history is American history—it’s all our history.”

Greg Waxberg

Greg Waxberg is a writer and magazine editor for The Pingry School and an award-winning freelance writer. He can be contacted at GregOpera@aol.com.