Adrienne Danrich : Be the Light

Adrienne Danrich is a singer but also so much more: a poet, composer, and creator in the arts who cannot be contained by a single definition. Her artistry lights the way for others in the field, and her example leads others to share their musical message in a plethora of ways.

 

When onstage, artists are often directed to “find the light,” to be illuminated at all times to be seen by the audience. Some artists simply are the light. They possess that special something that draws you in, a radiance that fills a room. And that brightness, in turn, illuminates all those around them. Adrienne Danrich is one of those singers that carries that light. She is a force of nature, having accumulated so many titles that no one word can fully describe her personality or her contributions. This Emmy award-winning singer, poet, composer, and innovator just keeps growing, continually finding and creating meaningful ways to connect through art. 

Growing up in St. Louis, MO, Ms. Danrich was constantly surrounded by both family and music. By the time she was 8, she was singing onstage with her father, blues legend Roland Johnson. “He taught me how to hold a mic, how to banter, how to present a song, and really use the words. I know this all influenced me in my later performances.” Danrich was accepted into a visual and performing arts high school, where she met choir teacher Aquilla B. Tinglin. Danrich says, “This lady changed my whole life.” Tinglin was also the organist at All Saints’ Episcopal Church, and she encouraged Danrich to sing in her church choir, Danrich’s first paying singing job. Seeing a talent in Danrich, Tinglin became her mentor. “She took me to my first opera, Don Giovanni, drove me everywhere, taught me about music, and was a stickler for proper grammar. And she entered me into vocal competitions.” 

One such competition had a unique award—an opportunity to study with a teacher at a local university. Danrich won, and at 15 she started taking lessons at Washington University with Mary Henderson Stucky, who is still her teacher to this day. “Mrs. Stucky taught me everything I know, everything I still utilize. I still quote her to my own students.” Stucky speaks fondly of Danrich as “such a good little student! Even at that age you could tell potential was there. She was enthusiastic and full of expression.”

Tinglin and Stucky encouraged Danrich to go to Tanglewood Music Festival, and All Saints’ Episcopal Church raised the money to send her. Danrich remembers, “I came from a predominantly black neighborhood, and Tanglewood was a culture shock. I started a daily diary, focusing on all the things that were going well. I said to myself, if I like this after eight weeks, I’m going to study classical music.” Performing that summer with Barbara Hendricks, Bobby McFerrin, Michael Tilson Thomas, and Leonard Bernstein, she learned how artistry becomes a craft. “The last day of the festival, we were working on Duruflé’s  ‘Ubi caritas’ and we were told to stand in a circle with our eyes closed, holding hands, and to sing together by feeling the energy of the singers around us with no guidance from the conductor. I cried the whole time. It was the most spiritual connection to music and my fellow singers. This was when I made my first conscious choice to explore classical music as a viable career path.”

Adrienne in Aida– Tulsa Opera

Danrich decided she wanted to teach music. Following in her teacher’s footsteps, she chose Eastman School of Music, Stucky’s alma mater. Danrich was a hard worker, earning her Bachelor of Music Education (BME) degree while adding enough classes to fulfill the requirements for a Bachelor of Music (BM) degree as well. She immersed herself in classical music but never gave up the other styles close to her heart, alternating between classical recitals, jazz, and her funk band, Swingin’ Beef and the Meat Factory. She notes, “I’ve always had a love for the music I grew up singing. I love all types of music and I feel that no music is above or superior to another—it’s all music.” 

Pivoting between genres is one of Danrich’s super powers, and her training has only strengthened this ability. Stucky agrees, saying, “Technique is technique, but style is something to hone in on. Classical technique has stayed Adrienne in all styles. Reaching people with inspirational messages requires singing in different styles and genres. There is a message and text that needs to be told. Adrienne communicates a form of communication that is necessary for her. She touches so many people with her singing.”

By the time Danrich graduated from Eastman, Stucky was on the faculty at The University of Cincinnati College–Conservatory of Music (CCM). Danrich was accepted into the Master of Music (MM) and, later, the Artist Diploma Programs. Initially intimidated by opera auditions but wanting to gain stage experience to pass on to future students, she decided to go for it. She recalls, “I cried before and after that audition, and I got a tiny little role. And I thought, people who know something like my singing.” This was a career turning point: “Mrs. Stucky told me, ‘There is a time to teach and a time to sing. You will know when it’s your time to teach, but this is now your time to sing.’”

Stucky recognized the power of Danrich’s artistry. “Adrienne immediately went to professional roles after CCM. Her voice was always very lyric and full, and she was a wonderfully engaged, artistic singer from the beginning. She has great energy, and I have so enjoyed her spirit.” Danrich debuted as Micaela in San Francisco Opera’s Carmen and went on to perform over 30 roles, from Fiordiligi and Contessa to Aida, Cio Cio San, and Tosca. 

Danrich has also carved out a niche creating roles in world premiere contemporary operas, such as Annina in Kamala Sankaram’s Looking at You, Mrs. Dickson in Ricky Ian Gordon’s Intimate Apparel, and in Rob Handel and Kamala Sankaram’s Only You Will Recognize the Signal, a live virtual opera aired during COVID-19 with the H.E.R.E Arts Center—filmed utilizing a green screen in her living room! 

Upcoming 2022 engagements include Danrich creating the role of Miriam in Picker’s opera Awakenings for her Opera Theatre of St. Louis debut, a return as Mrs. Dickson at Lincoln Center Theatre, and a world premiere of Music Kitchen Food for the Soul: Forgotten Voices at Carnegie Hall.

Danrich has a way of making the music come straight off the page into the audience. She explains, “When I step onto the stage, my job is to communicate. Composers have done all the work, and our job is to deliver it. I was taught that when you’re in your coaching, lessons, and practice rooms, that is your time to concentrate on being studious and true to what is on that page. When you step onto that stage, your job is to communicate all those things.”

In 2007, Cincinnati Opera commissioned Danrich to write a show about two renowned and ground-breaking opera singers, Marian Anderson and Leontyne Price. Stepping outside a traditional concert format, Danrich created “a multimedia one-woman musical tribute” to honor these legendary artists. This Little Light of Mine: The Stories of Marian Anderson and Leontyne Price is a musical journey through time. She combined her incredible storytelling with her beautiful singing and decided to add “poignant multimedia images [to] creatively document the lives of these two internationally renowned artists who overcame many racial barriers from the Jim Crow era through the Civil Rights Movement and beyond.” The show was an immediate success. According to Stucky, Danrich has “always been entrepreneurial, and her one-woman and thematic shows really touch people. They have become outreach vehicles.”

This Little Light of Mine took off, with over 100 performances and two separate televised productions. During a performance in Yellow Springs, OH, Danrich met composer Drew Hemenger, who was premiering one of his compositions. Both admiring the other’s work, they decided to collaborate. They were commissioned by the Indiana University–Pennsylvania to write a show including students and faculty, and An Evening in the Harlem Renaissance was born. This celebration of the era includes Hemenger’s original compositions based on Langston Hughes’ poetry, as well as poems and songs from the 1920s and 30s. 

Hemenger recounts, “It’s fun to work with Adrienne because she’s clear about what she wants, but she’s open to thoughts. She’s not afraid to share her opinions, she’ll just tell you. But she will also listen. She has a vision.” The show premiered in 2011, the same year Danrich was awarded an Emmy for This Little Light of Mine.

Not long after her collaboration on An Evening in the Harlem Renaissance, Danrich met another composer, Dave Hall. “I heard her sing and I loved her voice. Adrienne’s a lot of fun and she’s got a great sense of humor—such an energy,” Hall remembers. He was interested in setting some of her poems, and they discussed collaborating musically. The two created the dramatic song cycle Love and Trouble: Five Personas ~ One Voice, Danrich’s solo debut album. Hall says, “It was very easy to set her poems because they were natural and accessible. She was mostly interested in my folk style of writing and she guided me in terms of writing for her voice.” 

The song cycle is the story of five different lovers, combining compositions of both Hall and Danrich. Hall adds, “We looked over sketches and found a story arc of what held these songs together. It was her first real stab at writing songs that she would sing, and it was very exciting for me to be a part of that. She has a nice touch as a composer.” 

During the summer of 2020, in reaction to mounting social injustices and the murder of George Floyd, Danrich found herself confronted with rage and hopelessness: “I had no idea what to do with these emotions that were so foreign to my being. And I found a cathartic release in writing poems and songs. One night, I woke up from a deep sleep at 4:00 am, took my phone into the kitchen so as not to awaken my husband, and sang the melody and words, all at once, into my voice recorder. I finished the song before the sun came up. That song turned into ‘Breathe.’ 

I called Drew Hemenger the next day to ask him if he’d like to collaborate with me to make ‘Breathe’ into the beautiful art song that it is today.” This powerful song, combining Danrich’s rich spinto color with her floated upper register, is a passionate piece that evokes the pain of that moment. After premiering “Breathe” in New York City at the Cell Theatre, Danrich performed the work with the Fargo-Moorhead Symphony, and soprano Nicole Heaston 

later performed it with Houston Grand Opera for their Giving Voice Series.

A conversation among friends created another spark of inspiration for Danrich. “During the George Floyd protests, Adrienne really wanted to do something,” says Emily Manzo, director of development for The American Opera Project (AOP). Danrich spoke with AOP Artistic Director Mila Henry during the first week of June 2020, and they quickly organized a virtual concert, Hold On: A Vigil for Broken Spirits. Manzo recalls, “It was so powerful and it really helped the people who attended. There’s something about Adrienne—she lets people be in the place they are now. She has a way of working through a heavy time with a lightness. Adrienne’s energy is one of a healer.” 

The effect of the concert was palpable, and Danrich recognized the need for this healing musical experience to continue. She approached AOP, who immediately came onboard to produce Music as the Message (MaM) in association with Opera on Tap (OOT), with Danrich as the creator, host, and executive producer. Danrich does not view MaM as a performance “but rather as a musical experience, where we all come together on Zoom and commune through music. One of the ways we do that is by encouraging the viewers to keep their videos on, to clap along, dance along and sing along—on mute, of course—to create a sense of togetherness and community, even in our isolation.” Dave Hall remarks, “Adrienne is a master of pulling people together.” 

Past MaM programs have included a variety of international artists, multiple genres, poetry readings, and newly commissioned works. One recent composition is a setting of Danrich’s poem “The Melodious Feast” by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Paul Moravec. MaM’s fourth show, Sing Together, Children!, is a celebration of Juneteenth and livestreamed on June 13, 2021.

Danrich’s creation of MaM provides a needed means of opportunity and employment for artists during COVID-19 and has raised funds that additionally help the surrounding community. “The exciting elements of MaM are the commissions and the partnerships that we develop each time with different charities,” Manzo says, such as UnLocal and Gift Passion Purpose Project. “This program is funded by grants and individual donors so that it remains free and accessible to all. We want to keep the community focus on fundraising. That is what continues to set this program apart from others.” 

Danrich focuses on gratitude, which helps fuel her work. “I practice the discipline of gratitude, reveling in each happy moment, not just the big ones. When I create, I allow myself to write and sing with no judgment. Maybe this is the COVID era talking, but I have released myself from trying to be perfect. I immerse myself in the music and allow it to speak through me. It is when we see the light in all things that we can be whole, happy and, most importantly, content with the gifts that have been bestowed upon us.”

Adrienne in Looking at You– HERE Arts Center

This past year, Danrich has been busier than ever. In addition to creating MaM productions, composing new works, and maintaining her busy performing schedule, she has spent much of her time working with young singers: Danrich facilitated master classes for NATS NYC, The William Warfield Scholarship Foundation, and Adelphi University; appeared as a guest speaker for The Ohio State University School of Music and the Mentoring Forum for Emerging African American Vocal Artists, coached students and Miami University School of Music in preparation for a concert featuring female composers; and adjudicated for the Corbett Competition and Undergraduate Voice Competition at her alma mater, CCM. 

Especially when it comes to the next generation, Danrich knows how to inspire. Concluding a recent lecture with music students at Ohio State, Danrich offered parting words of encouragement: “Be authentically you. That means embracing your own individual voice while learning how to sing, act, and present yourself in the proper manner. You can still draw within the lines and love your whole self and be your authentic whole self. Many times, we try to make ourselves—put on a face, a mask—when we are performing. Don’t put on the character: robe yourself in the character. That way, you are cocooned inside of it and you become that character in your authentic body and expression. We will never fit into a box that someone else created for us. Embrace your own special individualism when creating art. Create and be the light.”

Laura Portune

Soprano Laura Portune is a singer, teacher, stage director, writer, and mom. She has performed regionally and internationally in over 60 opera and concert productions, including world premieres in the Czech Republic, Italy, and San Diego. A frequent guest clinician and stage director, Portune is a Senior Lecturer of Voice at The Ohio State University School of Music. For more, go to www.lauraportune.com.