Opera Ebony: The Benjamin Matthews Vocal Competition

Opera Ebony: The Benjamin Matthews Vocal Competition

The Benjamin Matthews Vocal Competition honors the accomplished bass-baritone Benjamin Matthews who—along with conductor Wayne Saunders, Sister Mary Elise Sisson, and conductor Margaret Rosezarian Harris—founded Opera Ebony in 1973. Opera Ebony, the longest continually operating Black opera company is the U.S., is “guided by its mission to mentor and afford opportunity for underrepresented talent on, off, and behind the stage.” Opera Ebony was created to champion Black artists by presenting them in standard repertoire as well as works that celebrate historical figures like Fredrick Douglas and Harriet Tubman.

Benjamin Matthews was born in Prichard, Alabama, in 1933 and spent his formative years in Chicago. After a stint in the military, Matthews went on to study voice at the Chicago Conservatory, then made his debut with the Chicago Civic Opera. He later went on to study with Boris Goldovsky and soon found his way to New York. He made his New York City Opera debut in Lily by Leon Kirchner before making his Metropolitan Opera debut in Virgil Thomson’s Four Saints in Three Acts. He was also a frequent soloist with the Collegiate Chorale. 

Matthews’ repertoire included opera, oratorio, and recital, often performing spirituals and music by African American composers. His discography includes a 1980 recording of Porgy and Bess in concert with the Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra and a 1982 recording of Thomson’s Four Saints in Three Acts.

Marquita Lister, Opera Ebony Artistic Director and Eldric Bashful, Opera Ebony General Director

In a bid to preserve the legacy of Benjamin Matthews, former Artistic/Executive Director Gregory Sheppard, a student of Matthews, founded the competition in 2014. Since that time, numerous singers have been prize winners and honorable mentions, including baritone Justin Austin (Met, Cleveland Orchestra, Opera Theatre of St. Louis), soprano Leah Hawkins (Met, Santa Fe Opera, Philadelphia Orchestra), baritone Will Liverman (Met, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Opera Philadelphia), baritone Brian K. Major (Met, Columbus Symphony, Boston Lyric Opera), soprano Brandie Sutton (Met, Palacio de Bellas Artes, National Symphony Orchestra), soprano Meghan Picerno (Christine in The Phantom of the Opera on Broadway, Detroit Symphony Orchestra, New York City Opera), and soprano Lauren Michelle (La Scala, Grand Théâtre de Genève, Dutch National Opera). While the competition was created to offer financial support to singers of color, artists of all nationalities are encouraged to apply.


The 2023 vocal competition announced 23 semifinalists in the Emerging Artist Division, ages 25–35, and nine singers in the Young Artist Division, ages 18–24. The current crop featured exciting young talents who are already working professionally and are in major programs around the country. One of the distinguishing components of the vocal competition is its repertoire requirements. This year, contestants had to prepare a spiritual, an art song by a Black composer, an operatic aria, and a selection from the “Golden Age” of musicals.

Neal Goren, Melissa Wegner, Denyce Graves, Wayne Sanders, and Ken Benson judged the final round of the 2023 competition.

Advancing to this year’s Young Artist Division finals (held on Sunday, October 29) were Jade Etienne, Sofia Farrell, Morgan-Andrew King, Demetrius Sampson Jr., and Justice Yates. Emerging Artist Division finalists were David Morgans, Daniel Rich, Shavon Lloyd, Kyaunnee Richardson, Marquita Richardson, and Randall McGee.

Soprano Kyaunnee Richardson—a young professional soprano recently seen as Adele in Die Fledermaus with Opera in Williamsburg (Virginia), a soloist with the Brevard Symphony Orchestra, and a member of the Studio Artist Program with Teatro Nuovo—shared her reason for entering the Benjamin Matthews Vocal Competitions. Richardson discovered the competition after watching the PBS program called Aïda: Black Brothers and Sisters in Opera. “Everyone should check it out! Here I learned about Opera Ebony. To see that there is a company that embraces and celebrates people of color and showcases them is beautiful and celebrates a rich history and a hope for the future.”

She adds, “This competition is unique because it allows one to explore and discover other pieces within and outside one’s own heritage beyond the typical four to six opera arias (that are required in other competitions) while still bringing one’s own flavor and personality to said pieces. I hoped to learn about myself through this process to see what more as an artist I can bring to tell a story but also give even more of myself to the music as a true servant.”

Announcing the Winners

Richardson went on take First Prize in the Emerging Artist Division, with Second Prize going to the Met’s Lindeman Young Artist, baritone Daniel Rich. Third Prize went to tenor David Morgans, with baritone Shavon Lloyd receiving an Encouragement Award. In the Youth Division, bass-baritone Justice Yates took First, tenor Demetrius Sampson, Jr., took home Second, and receiving Third Prize was bass Morgan-Andrew King.

In opera, artists of color have broken barriers, helped create a new vocal standard, and served as inspiration for the many of us who are now in the field. With a new focus of diversity, equity, and inclusion—and a noted shift in the demographics of many cities where opera is being produced—opera companies are discovering that the addition of different perspectives is not just about gaining an understanding of diverse cultures, but also about creating audiences and programming that allow for many voices to be heard.


Even with a “who’s who” of former competition winners and a lineage of being New York’s longest Black opera-producing organization, Opera Ebony, like many arts organizations, must still work hard to “develop a strong and consistent donor base,” says Eldric Bashful, current general director of Opera Ebony and producer of the Benjamin Matthews Vocal Competition. “These challenges, in part, have to do with the organization’s lack of active measures for modernizing structurally until the pandemic. Post pandemic, we find ourselves in the same situations as most nonprofits, where the trends in gifting are much slower than expected. Of course, this effects the competition as well.”

Winners of the Benjamin Matthews Vocal Competition

But Bashful, ever hopeful, does have a plan in place. Looking forward, the company sees “collaborations as the way of today and the future. Opera Ebony has started to rely on coproductions, especially in the way of new works and commissions.” 

To learn more about Opera Ebony’s 50th-Year Anniversary and the Benjamin Matthews Competition, visit www.operaebony.org

Eric McKeever

Eric McKeever is a New York-based opera singer whose 2022–23 season includes performances with Opera Columbus, On Site Opera, Opera Delaware, the Penn Square Music Festival, and the Casals Festival of Puerto Rico. He is also a passionate arts educator having worked as a teaching artist for the Met Opera Guild and served as the manager of education programs for Kentucky Opera. He holds a Master of Music degree in Vocal Performance from The Ohio State University and obtained his bachelor’s degree in Vocal Performance from Capital University.