A Guest of Honor

Scott Joplin receives a celebratory homecoming with Opera Theatre of St. Louis' revival of Treemonisha

Kent is as broadly built as Smith is thin and compact. Kent dresses conservatively; Smith shows a bit of flash. On the day of opening introductions with the cast and crew of Treemonisha, Smith is in a shiny brown shirt, his dark pants cinched with a Western-style belt, and shiny brown cowboy boots complete the dapper outfit. Kent is in tan khakis and a dark plaid polo shirt.

Yet as different as they appear, Kent and Smith both have achieved significant success in the competitive world of opera. Kent has just received a full-ride scholarship to the prestigious music program at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor. He completed his undergraduate studies at Washington University this spring. At 27, two years Kent's senior, Smith holds undergraduate degrees from the University of Missouri-St. Louis and now attends the New England Conservatory in Boston.

Both attended Roosevelt High School and studied with choral instructor Dello Thedford there. Both were pushed into OTSL's Artist-in-Training program by Thedford, with great resistance. Kent says Thedford "was a huge influence. He noticed my voice early. He tried to guide me in that direction, although at first I was reluctant. After my freshman year in high school, he asked me to be in choir, and I said no. Every time I saw him, I ran from him. I was running from him constantly, because there was no way I was going to sing. No way.

Scott Joplin
Archive Photos
Scott Joplin

"I just didn't want to be onstage. I was admittedly kind of shy. When I was a freshman, I walked in between classes really fast."

Smith was playing in Roosevelt's jazz ensemble as a percussionist and had already geared his studies toward computer science and mathematics. But one day the chorus and band were returning from performing at another school on the bus. Smith recalls: "I was making fun of opera singers. My extent of knowledge at the time was" -- and he sings in faux-operatic style -- "'I want some pizza/with mozzarella.' He (Thedford) heard me, turned around and said, 'Who was that?'" Thedford told Smith he felt the teenager had potential as an opera singer. "I thought that was so hilarious," Smith says. "My knowledge of opera was very little. As a matter of fact, I didn't think of blacks even singing opera at the time."

Smith took part in OTSL's Artist-in-Training (AIT) program in its first year, 1990. Smith remembers that when he entered the program, Thedford instructed him, "I want you to do it, and you're going to do it." Smith had his doubts and figured he'd prove his instructor wrong. Smith's first vocal coach was the mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves, who also grew up in the inner city (Washington, D.C.) without a knowledge of opera before taking possession of roles such as Carmen and Delilah on stages around the world. Her presence made an impact on Smith the first day. "I was amazed to see this beautiful black woman singing opera," he says. "It captured my attention right away, because this was the first time I saw a black sing opera. It was so beautiful that it just made me want to sing."

Smith's newfound interest didn't receive the greatest encouragement from those closest to him. His younger brother and cousins called him "little Pavarotti" and tried to steer him to more familiar music: "Sing something like Luther Vandross," they'd say.

Smith notes that opera "is not exactly part of the community" of North St. Louis where he was raised. "It was, like, taboo." When he practiced in the house, his mother would tell him, "That's enough singing." He'd move out to the porch before she would again tell him, "OK, that's enough." Even the backyard proved too close for his mother's ears, he says, "so I'd go all the way across to the lot."

At the end of the year, however, Smith's perseverance proved worthwhile. He sang for judges in competition for a Monsanto scholarship fund. He was ill that day but performed anyway, hoping for at least an honorable mention. When his name was called for first place, he says, "My mother was crying. It was so amazing. It was such a surprise. I felt like Miss America."

Kent relates a similar experience in the AIT program. He initially didn't take the program seriously: "It was just something to do. The opera I experienced was probably in the cartoons, like Bugs Bunny. I thought of it as this stuffy art form, but I fell in love with it. I finally found something that was mine, something that I could really do."

Kent also acknowledges the importance of working with African-American artists and remembers some of the ribbing he took from his peers as well. "My name was Opera Man. I'd walk through the halls and they'd" -- he makes an operatic warble -- "'Hey, Opera Man!' I really enjoyed it, actually. That was my shtick; that was my little thing. My friends supported me in their own comical way."

He looks back on the AIT experience as a "fantastic program. It changed my life completely. I had no intention of going into singing, singing opera. It changed my life." Like Smith, Kent competed for the Monsanto award in the spring of his first year with the program. "My first year I entered, they started calling up names for third place, second place. There were two first-place awards. I was sitting there, and they were calling up all these names. They called up the second-to-the-last name, and I was thinking, 'They forgot about me. Oh my God, they forgot about me.' They called me up for the grand prize. That's when I first realized that I had some kind of talent. It was truly a total shock."

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