Entertaining Washington area audiences with innovative, exciting, engaging and thought-provoking opera, is what IN Series has been about since its founding by Carla Hübner in 1982; and at the arts organization’s gala on May 23 at Planet Word Museum in Northwest D.C., it was evident the legacy of inspiring through art continues.
In a post-pandemic world, IN Series Artistic Director Timothy Nelson has furthered and elevated the organization’s mission of “disrupting expectations” and “deepening the conversation,” with the Denyce Graves Awards Gala, which not only honors artistic achievements but salutes arts advocacy and bravery.
Tenor Lawrence Brownlee, 50, is the first recipient of the Denyce Graves Award, and while the award’s namesake couldn’t be present, she offered a statement emphasizing why the tenor was the perfect person to receive the honor.
“He has already left an indelible mark on our industry and in addition, he’s a down-to-earth-, fun, un-tenory, kind of tenor,” a spokesperson read on Graves’ behalf– which was answered with a roar of laughter. “Larry sees his platform and career as tools to use for good, which resonates with me because during the pandemic, artists were made aware, more than ever, that we must contribute to elevate people, raising consciousness, and healing.”
The renowned mezzo-soprano, who grew up in Washington, D.C., emphasized the importance of arts advocacy, and noted that the award acknowledges artists who are also changemakers.
“What really thrills me is that the award recognizes current, world-class artists, who view their careers as opportunities to sing into the light… using repertoire to advocate for equity and justice. We cannot dismiss history and we cannot avoid the truth. What do we do? We can present programs for the purpose that speak to the times in which we live,” she said, before highlighting IN Series’ bold work and highlighting the evening’s guest of honor.
“Thank you, IN Series for awarding my name and a tremendous artist like Lawrence Brownlee as the first recipient.”
Brownlee has spent more than two dozen years in show business ensuring he shows up as his best self, offering his unique flair and proudly advocating for diversity, equity and inclusion not only in classical music, but across the arts and all fields— values he said that began as an adolescent in church and continued through college. The singer isn’t new to arts advocacy, but the pandemic became an opportune time to ensure his voice was heard even when opera houses were dark.
“Of course we all witnessed George Floyd and industry leaders started to reach out to me to say, ‘Where is it, what can we do, to make the change? How can we be advocates, allies for what you seem to be speaking out for?’ And I said, I will take that challenge on and I want to be… not that I have all the answers, but to be a voice that people can begin to work together to find our way so that we can find more equity,” the celebrated artist emphasized.
“I want to see the audience be like it is today,” Brownlee added, referencing the diverse, intergenerational gala crowd. “This place is so beautifully diverse, and people are getting along, because that is just part of society.”
Brownlee encouraged the young artists in the room to continue on their artistic journeys with the goal of bettering the world.
“I witnessed all of the young singers here tonight… Great, keep going,” he said. “I applaud you. I pray for you. I want you all to see your dreams to the fullest.”
In outstanding, unforgettable and unique performances artists wowed the audience in a night that also included a cocktail reception and opportunity to view the Planet Word Museum and delectable, filling three-course dinner.
Soprana Teresa Ferrara, an IN Series artist who, like Graves, grew up in the D.C. area and attended her alma mater Duke Ellington School of the Arts was one of the singers for the evening’s festivities.
“I sang a spiritual ‘I Hear Music Over My Head,’ which is one of my favorite pieces of all time. I first heard Kathleen Battle sing it and it’s very near and dear to me,” Ferrara told the Informer. “I’ve sung it at a number of events, actually, for the IN Series, and it’s very meaningful to me, and I’m so grateful to have opened the evening with it tonight.”
Ferrara said it was an honor to perform at an event celebrating, not only the engaging work of IN Series, but the important work of the phenomenal talent that is Brownlee.
“The fact that I am in here in a room and a space honoring Lawrence Brownlee, honestly it feels like a dream to me because of everything that he has done,” she said. “It’s a dream to be here to honor him, to honor his work, to honor his legacy.”