Davóne Tines | Photo by Bowie Verschuuren

Closing the Distance

Posted by:  Sofiya Abena Ballin on October 27, 2021

Davóne Tines is on a journey to unearth the truth.

Even if it means turning your world upside down.

“We always use these platitudes like ‘music is the universal language,’” said Tines, the highly acclaimed bass-baritone. “But what are we saying with that?”

In his latest piece presented by The Philadelphia Orchestra in Verizon Hall (November 5–7) and on its Digital Stage (November 24–December 1), Sermon, he has a lot to say. Tines marries three pieces in one with the voices of author James Baldwin and poets Langston Hughes and Maya Angelou fusing it. Their words become scripture and he uses song to expound on that scripture, like well, a sermon.

Sermon begins with a quote from Baldwin’s 1963 bestseller, The Fire Next Time:

Any upheaval in the universe is terrifying because it so profoundly attacks one’s sense of one’s own reality. Well, the Black man has functioned in the white man’s world as a fixed star, as an immovable pillar: and as he moves out of his place, heaven and earth are shaken to their foundation.

It could be said that this is often the experience of Black performers in classical music, where in all major orchestras only 1.8% of musicians are Black.

“It’s an opportunity for me to embody that moving Black person that Baldwin describes. By the very nature of me standing here,” Tines said. “I am out of the conception of what you think should happen in the universe. So I am ripping apart expectations. I am shaking apart your reality by the simple act of existing in my full humanity.”

Sermon on the Digital Stage with Davóne Tines, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, and The Philadelphia Orchestra. Photo by Jeff Fusco

However, growing up, being a professional opera singer wasn’t on his radar. Tines was born and raised in northern Virginia and first began singing in church. Even though he took piano lessons with his next-door neighbor, poured himself into the violin, and was the concertmaster of his high school chamber orchestra, he didn’t fully commit to singing.

“My grandfather was the person who realized I could sing,” Tines said. “And slowly, it kind of became a path of least resistance, which is a beautiful way for it to unfold.” At his grandfather’s insistence, he auditioned for the school choir and got in. He became a member of several choirs and auditioned for school musicals. He went on to study sociology at Harvard University (where he now guest lectures) because he wanted to understand human behavior, specifically why they create and consume art. After graduating, he worked in arts administration and freelanced as a stage manager and production manager for a few years. Then he got accepted into the Juilliard School in New York City. It was there that Tines was able to get the tools to hone his skills.

“Any performer has to close the distance between themselves and the material,” said Tines. “But I found it was very important to always acknowledge what that distance was because it is shorter for some people and the closing of that distance is work.”

As a Black gay man in America with a unique vocal tone, Tines has often bridged a large gap between himself and the work of Western European Germanic composers. “I’ve had the blessing and the privilege, but also the complication of existing between many different contexts,” he said. “It’s led to the advantage of being able to translate between, but also see commonalities. I’ve been really inspired by the opportunity to share those commonalities with people.”

It’s been the work of living composers that especially excited him, he said, because “they’re shaping where the art form is going.” In 2015 he was a lead in the premiere of Matthew Aucoin’s opera Crossing. In 2016 he made waves in John Adams’s El Niño, and in 2019 he starred in Terence Blanchard’s Fire Shut Up in My Bones, which is based on journalist Charles Blow’s moving memoir about coming-of-age in the South as a Black boy. Tines also co-created and starred in The Black Clown, an adaptation of Langston Hughes’s powerful poem by the same name, andhe had a lead role in the premiere of Adams’s Girls of the Golden West, where he performed an aria inspired by Frederick Douglass’s famous speech “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?”

The speech, which was delivered in 1852, acknowledges the American double standard of who are the real recipients of equality, liberty, and justice for all. While Americans were celebrating freedom and independence, many were slave owners or supporters of slave labor. It tackles not only who is considered American, but also who is considered human in this country.

“What is this celebration to me? The Fourth of July is yours, not mine,” Tines sang.

It’s a sentiment he deeply connects with. After Breonna Taylor was murdered, in her home, by Louisville police in March 2020, he co-wrote (with Igee Dieudonné) and performed “Vigil,” which Tines calls “an exercise in empathy.” The original digital piece features a tight shot of his face, his eyes and voice swelling with emotion as the words “pay attention to your breath” and “remember how you slept last night?” flash across the screen. It’s meditative until the slate reads: “Breonna Taylor was shot dead in the middle of the night in her own home. She was unarmed. She was innocent.”

It first makes you acknowledge your own existence and feel the life within you before coming face to face with the fact that Taylor’s life was cut short. It’s a call to action that begins with introspection.

Davóne Tines with his grandfather

With Sermon, Tines wants audiences to face the hard truths of American society, especially those who consider themselves allies in the journey for equality and liberation. The operatic triptych features Adams’s “Shake the Heavens” from El Niño, “Vigil,”and the aria “You Want the Truth, but You Don’t Want to Know” from X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X by Anthony Davis.

“To know the full truth you have to contend with how you’ve been complicit in the systems that uphold oppression,” said Tines. “And the hardest thing for a person to do is acknowledge when they’re wrong. I hope Sermon invites people to look at their hands in the larger problems of the country. Why are people still out here having to prove that they are human?”

For Tines, classical music is his avenue to asking and answering that question, and to putting it at the forefront of the audience’s mind. “I’m given the blessing and privilege of holding the attention of many people,” he said. “I don’t underestimate the importance of that, the privilege of that. If I am given the space to stand in front of people and say something, I want to say something respectful of what that weight means.”

Sofiya Abena Ballin is an award-winning journalist, writer, and producer. Follow her: @Sofiya Ballin

Photo credit of Davóne Tines (top): Bowie Verschuuren

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