Classical and Opera

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Arkansas Chamber Singers

The Arkansas Chamber Singers (ACS) is vocal ensemble dedicated to performing and promoting classical and contemporary choral repertoire. Membership in the nonprofit group is by audition. The ACS began when Bill Clinton, elected as the state’s governor in 1978, appointed Massachusetts resident Paul Levy to head the Arkansas Department of Energy. Levy’s wife was Barbara Abramoff Levy, director of the Newton Choral Society and the conducting assistant to the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, an adjunct to the Boston Symphony Orchestra. She wanted to continue her involvement in music, and in 1979, with the support of the Bill and Hillary Clinton, she joined the faculty of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock (UALR) and organized a new chamber ensemble named the …

Arkansas Symphony Orchestra

The Arkansas Symphony Orchestra, based in Little Rock (Pulaski County), provides opportunities for the residents of the state to hear and to perform quality instrumental music. The current orchestra, which incorporated in 1966, is the successor of several previous and shorter-lived attempts to create a sustainable performing group. Most reports of musical performances in early Arkansas history are of vocal performances, brass ensembles, concerts by amateur groups, recitals by pupils of individual teachers, or church-sponsored events. No regularly performing instrumental groups available for public enjoyment appear in reports until after the turn of the twentieth century. During the early years of 1900s, music clubs over the state, as well as individual music lovers, became vocal about the desirability of musical education for …

Boston, Gretha Denise

Gretha Denise Boston is a celebrated mezzo-soprano and Tony Award–winning actress. She made her Carnegie Hall debut in 1991 in Mozart’s Coronation Mass and won the 1995 Tony for Best Featured Actress in a Musical for her role as Queenie in the Broadway revival of Show Boat; she was the first Arkansan to be so honored. The same role earned Boston the Theatre World Award as Outstanding Debut Artist. She was also nominated for the Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Non-Resident Production for the 2000–01 season at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC for her performance in It Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues. Gretha Boston was born in Crossett (Ashley County) on April 18, 1959, the …

Caldwell, Sarah

A member of the Arkansas Entertainers Hall of Fame, Sarah Caldwell was an internationally recognized American opera director, conductor, producer, and impresario. She was known for emphasizing the dramatic elements of opera in her productions with innovative stagings that often included spectacular visual effects. She also was known for performing and staging obscure operas that were performed only rarely because of their difficulty. Sarah Caldwell was born on March 6, 1924, in Maryville, Missouri, but grew up in Fayetteville (Washington County). Her parents divorced when she was young, and her mother—piano teacher Margaret Carrie Caldwell Baker—later married Henry Alexander, who taught political science at the University of Arkansas (UA) in Fayetteville. Recognized as a child prodigy, she was performing in public on violin …

Classical Music and Opera

Although Arkansas is generally better known for its blues, gospel, folk, country, and rock and roll performers, classical and opera music have deep roots in Arkansas history and culture, often appearing in interesting ways in unusual places. Internationally famous Arkansan composers of classical music include Scott Joplin, Florence Beatrice Smith Price, William Grant Still, and Conlon Nancarrow. Sarah Caldwell, who grew up in Fayetteville (Washington County), was a longtime opera director in Boston, Massachusetts, and the first woman to conduct an opera at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City. Arkansas has been home to opera singers Mary Lewis, Barbara Hendricks, Susan Dunn, Marjorie Lawrence, Mary McCormic, Robert McFerrin Sr., and William Warfield. Classical music figures prominently in academic music degree …

Hardin, Louis Thomas “Moondog”

aka: Louis T. Hardin
Louis Thomas “Moondog” Hardin Jr. grew up and learned to play the piano in Independence County. He later became a musician and composer admired in jazz, classical, and rock circles. He was also known for living on Manhattan streets dressed as a Viking and banging a drum. Louis Hardin was born on May 26, 1916, in Marysville, Kansas, the son of an Episcopal minister, Louis Thomas Hardin Sr., and Norma Alves, a homemaker and teacher. He had one sister and one brother. The family moved around the Midwest when he was young. Playing tom-tom at a Wyoming Arapaho dance at a young age fostered a life-long affection for Native American rhythms. As an adult, Hardin performed with the Blackfoot tribe. While …

Hendricks, Barbara Ann

Barbara Hendricks is an internationally recognized leading lyric soprano. Whether performing light soprano roles in traditional operatic repertory, demanding premieres of twentieth-century vocal music, song recitals, or jazz, Hendricks has been recognized as a leading artist since the mid-1970s. In addition, she is recognized internationally for her work for human rights and world peace. Barbara Hendricks was born on November 20, 1948, in Stephens (Ouachita County). The child of a Methodist minister, she lived in various small towns in Arkansas and Tennessee. She graduated from Horace Mann High School in Little Rock (Pulaski County). She enrolled at Lane College in Jackson, Tennessee, and transferred to the University of Nebraska as a chemistry major. She graduated in 1969 with a BS …

Hot Springs Music Festival

The Hot Springs Music Festival is a non-profit organization whose dual mission is, first, to provide exceptionally talented young musicians with intensive mentoring to prepare them for the early stages of their professional careers, and, second, to have them share the music they make with people in central Arkansas. To fulfill its mission, the festival organization produces a two-week annual event by the same name every June in the historic downtown district of Hot Springs (Garland County). The festival was founded in 1995 by Richard Rosenberg, an orchestra conductor and music educator, and Laura Rosenberg, an arts administrator. Prior to founding the festival, Richard Rosenberg had been acting director of orchestras at the University of Michigan, associate conductor of the …

Hynson, Hazel Shanks

Hazel Shanks Hynson was a classically trained pianist who served as the choir director at Arkansas Baptist College in Little Rock (Pulaski County) and taught many musicians in her studio who went on to be well known. Hazel Shanks was born on August 8, 1903, in Atlanta, Georgia, to Christopher Columbus Shanks, who worked as an insurance auditor, and Luna Craig Shanks; she had one younger brother. She attended private schools, studying music, and she received her bachelor’s degree in music, with a major in piano, from Atlanta University. She later traveled to England to pursue further musical studies at Oberlin College in Ohio and at the University of London. She also studied at the renowned Juilliard School in New …

Lawrence, Marjorie Florence 

Marjorie Florence Lawrence, an Australian native and star soprano with the Metropolitan Opera Company of New York City, became an exemplar for endurance when she rebuilt her career after being stricken by poliomyelitis (commonly known as polio). Despite the professional opinion that she would never sing again, she started over, first by singing from a wheelchair or platform, and then by managing to stand and sing. The subject of an Oscar-winning motion picture, Interrupted Melody, she later taught at Sophie Newcomb College at Tulane University and for an extended time at Southern Illinois University (SIU) at Carbondale. Beginning in 1941, Lawrence lived outside of Hot Springs (Garland County) and held summer opera coaching sessions at her ranch, Harmony Hills, which advanced …

Lewis, Kristin Allison

Opera singer Kristin Lewis of Little Rock (Pulaski County) is recognized for her richly hued voice capable of subtle emotional inflection. Based in Vienna, Austria, since 2005, Lewis has established herself in the opera houses of Europe as a lirico-spinto soprano specializing in Verdi’s heroines. She was inducted into the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame in 2019. Kristin Lewis was born in Little Rock in 1975 to the Reverend Bettye Lewis and Dr. Raphael Lewis. Lewis credits her mother as one of her earliest musical influences, as Rev. Lewis played organ for church and encouraged Kristin in her musical pursuits. After graduating from high school, Lewis followed her older sister, Tamara Lewis, to the University of Central Arkansas (UCA) in Conway (Faulkner …

Lewis, Mary Sybil Kidd

Mary Sybil Kidd Lewis was possibly the most publicized singer of the 1920s. Using her childhood training, she climbed her way to grand opera, gaining stage experience through vaudeville and operetta. Her career included radio performances and recordings with His Master’s Voice (HMV), Victor, and RCA. Mary Kidd was born on January 29, 1897, in Hot Springs (Garland County) to Charles and Hattie Kidd. Her father died about the time her brother was born two years later. Her impoverished mother moved with the children to Dallas, Texas. After the children lived in a series of foster homes, her brother was sent to Chicago, Illinois, to live with relatives. Her mother remarried but was unable to care for her children, and …

McBeth, William Francis

William Francis McBeth was a world-renowned composer and conductor. He was the Trustees’ Distinguished University Professor and resident composer at Ouachita Baptist University (OBU) in Arkadelphia (Clark County), where he served as chairman of the Department of Music Theory and Composition. The governor appointed him composer laureate of Arkansas in 1975. McBeth’s compositions include works for all media, but was influential in the development of the literature for wind symphony. Francis McBeth was born on March 9, 1933, in Ropesville, Texas, to Joseph Phinis McBeth, a Baptist minister, and Lillie May Carpenter McBeth. He spent his youth in western Texas, where he began his musical training at an early age, studying piano with his mother and taking up the trumpet in …

McFerrin, Robert, Sr.

Robert McFerrin Sr. was an African-American baritone opera and concert singer who became the first black male to appear in an opera at the Metropolitan Opera house in New York City, his debut following by less than three weeks the well-publicized breaking of the color barrier by contralto Marian Anderson. However, McFerrin’s career at the Met was brief, being limited to ten performances in three seasons over three years. Although he sang in European opera houses and performed concerts extensively, he failed to attain major prominence. He is best remembered as the father of singer and conductor Bobby McFerrin, with whom he sometimes performed. He was inducted into the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame in 1995. Robert McFerrin was born on March …

McKissic, James Henry (Jimmy)

Jimmy McKissic was a world-renowned pianist from Pine Bluff (Jefferson County) who spent much of his life in France but performed throughout the world, including more than two dozen events at Carnegie Hall in New York. He was inducted into the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame in 1994. James Henry McKissic was born on March 16, 1940, in Little Rock (Pulaski County) to the Reverend James E. McKissic and Rosa Daniels McKissic; he had five brothers and five sisters, including one sister who was adopted. Growing up in Pine Bluff, McKissic was playing the piano by the age of three. He played in his father’s church and for other local congregations as a youth; his mother taught him until he …

Moorman, Charlotte

aka: Madeline Charlotte Moorman Garside
Charlotte Moorman was a cellist, avant-garde performance artist, and founder of the New York Avant Garde Festival. Madeline Charlotte Moorman was born on November 18, 1933, in Little Rock (Pulaski County) to J. R. and Vernan Moorman; her father was a sales manager. Moorman began playing the cello at the age of ten, going on to perform with local symphonies while enrolled at Central High School. A member of the National Honor Society and a Central High debutante group called the Southernaires, Moorman graduated in 1951 and attended Centenary College in Shreveport, Louisiana, on a music scholarship. After receiving a BA in 1955, Moorman earned a master’s degree in 1957, studying under illustrious concert cellist Horace Britt at the University …

Nancarrow, Samuel Conlon

Samuel Conlon Nancarrow composed innovative music and produced a body of work largely for player piano. According to musicologist Kyle Gann, who has published a study of Nancarrow’s compositions, they are the most rhythmically complex ever written by anyone anywhere, featuring up to twelve different tempos at the same time. Gann describes “whirlwinds of notes…joyously physical in their energy.” The wealth of ideas in Nancarrow’s works has had a lasting impact on other composers. Conlon Nancarrow was born in Texarkana (Miller County) on October 27, 1912. His father, Samuel Charles Nancarrow, was a businessman and mayor of Texarkana from 1927 to 1930. His mother was Myra Brady Nancarrow, and he had one brother, Charles. At the insistence of his father, …

Newbern, William David

William David Newbern, who chased the twin passions of music and law, devoted a career to soldiering, teaching, judging, and being a troubadour. He taught law, spent eighteen months as a judge on the first Arkansas Court of Appeals, served fourteen years on the Arkansas Supreme Court, and was a state utility regulator, a special master for the Supreme Court, and manager of a folk music and cultural center in the Arkansas Ozarks. He retired from the Supreme Court in 1998 to devote more of his energies to music. He sang and played several instruments in many groups covering many genres. David Newbern was born on May 28, 1937, in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. His father, Charles Banks Newbern, was a …

Opera in the Ozarks at Inspiration Point

Opera in the Ozarks at Inspiration Point is a summer program that trains opera singers and stages performances at Inspiration Point, overlooking the White River seven miles west of Eureka Springs (Carroll County). The company has always performed in repertory style, with each student learning several roles over the season. Generally, three operas make up the summer season, with at least one being performed in the original language. Charles Mowers, a German-born engineer and inventor, came from Texas to the Ozark Mountains around 1900 to hunt wild game. He bought the land known as the Big Rock Candy Mountain in 1928 and began construction of a “castle” based on his memories of buildings along the Rhine River. Using stone quarried on …

Price, Florence Beatrice Smith

Florence Beatrice Smith Price was the first African-American female composer to have a symphonic composition performed by a major American symphony orchestra. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra performed her Symphony in E Minor on June 15, 1933, under the direction of Frederick Stock. The work was later performed at the Chicago World’s Fair as part of the Century of Progress Exhibition. Florence Smith was born in Little Rock (Pulaski County) on April 9, 1887, to James H. Smith and Florence Gulliver Smith. Her father was a dentist in Little Rock, while her mother taught piano and worked as a schoolteacher and a businesswoman. As a child, Smith received musical instruction from her mother, and she published musical pieces while in high …

Still, William Grant

William Grant Still grew up in Little Rock (Pulaski County) and achieved national and international acclaim as a composer of symphonic and popular music. As an African American, he broke race barriers and opened opportunities for other minorities. He was strong advocate for the performance of works by American composers. William Grant Still was born on May 11, 1895, in Woodville, Mississippi, the only son of William Grant Still Sr. and Carrie Lena Fambro Still. Still’s mother moved to Little Rock with her infant son shortly after the death of her husband in 1895. Still and his mother lived with his grandmother, and his mother worked as a teacher. In 1904, Still’s mother married a railway postal clerk, Charles Benjamin …

Thebom, Blanche

Blanche Thebom was a world-renowned operatic soprano, opera director, and educator. With her trademark six-foot-long hair, she was among the first American opera singers to have a highly successful international career, spending more than twenty years with the Metropolitan Opera in New York. She also appeared in Hollywood feature films. Thebom conducted a groundbreaking tour of the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War. After retirement from the Met, she brought her talents to Arkansas when she taught and directed opera productions at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock (UA Little Rock) for almost a decade. The daughter of Swedish immigrants, Blanche Thebom was born in Monessen, Pennsylvania, on September 19, 1915. She was raised in Canton, …

Warfield, William Caesar

William Caesar Warfield was a noted African-American bass-baritone concert artist who had an extensive career that included major roles in two Hollywood films as well as stints on stage and on television. Probably no one ever performed “Ol’ Man River” from Jerome Kern’s Show Boat more times than Warfield, who performed it in several languages. William Warfield was born on January 22, 1920, to Robert Warfield and Bertha McCamery Warfield in West Helena (Phillips County). He spent only a few years in Arkansas; however, because of a strong family background in Arkansas and Mississippi, he described himself as “an Arkansas boy from tip to toe.” His multiracial ancestry included a paternal grandfather who appeared in photographs to be a white man …

Williams, Sterling B.

Dr. Sterling Williams was a groundbreaking leader in the field of obstetrics and gynecology (OB-GYN) who served in several important roles in national organizations dedicated to medicine and medical education. In addition, he was a gifted vocalist who performed with numerous choral groups. Sterling B. Williams was born in Little Rock (Pulaski County) on April 3, 1941. He grew up in Little Rock and graduated from Horace Mann High School. He earned a bachelor’s degree in zoology from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, followed by a master’s degree in physiology from Northern Illinois University in 1966 and an MD from what is now the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS) in 1973. He also completed work toward his …

Zellner, Ferdinand

Ferdinand Frederick Zellner lived in Fayetteville (Washington County) from 1852 until 1863 and wrote a piece of music called “Fayetteville Polka,” which is believed to be the first Arkansas composition to be published as sheet music. Ferdinand Zellner was born in Berlin, Prussia (now a part of Germany), in August 1831 and reportedly came to the United States in 1850 as part of the orchestra that toured with Jenny Lind, the “Swedish nightingale.” After the tour ended and Lind returned to Europe, Zellner and his brother, Willhelm Emil Zellner, stayed in America and settled in Fayetteville. Ferdinand Zellner filed paperwork with Washington County in 1852 to become an American citizen and was hired by Sophia Sawyer as a music teacher …