One day when Denyce Graves was a ninth-grader at DC’s Duke Ellington School of the Arts, a friend pulled her into the library to play some music she’d discovered. Graves didn’t know much about opera at the time, but when she heard the voice of Leontyne Price, she was transfixed. The two students proceeded to listen to Price recordings for the next eight hours. From that moment, Graves says, “that’s what I wanted to do.”
Now, 35 years into her opera career, the Washington native has sung on the most notable stages in the country. You might remember her moving performance in honor of longtime friend Ruth Bader Ginsburg when the justice was lying in state at the Capitol in 2020. On top of her busy performance schedule, the mezzo-soprano also runs the Denyce Graves Foundation, which promotes diversity in the world of classical vocal music.
For her latest project, Graves is bringing some of that activism to the stage. She’ll star in The Passion of Mary Cardwell Dawson, a play with music that’s being staged at the Kennedy Center on January 20 and 22. Mary Cardwell Dawson, who founded the National Negro Opera Company in 1941, is an underappreciated figure—so much so that Graves hadn’t heard of her. But in 2021, a student of hers did a performance spotlighting Dawson’s story, and Graves was intrigued. Sometimes referred to as the First Lady of Opera, Dawson—who died in 1962—was a performer and educator who worked to create opportunities for Black classical vocalists. Her well-known company performed at the Metropolitan Opera in New York and other prominent places. “The First Lady of Opera in the United States was this little teeny-tiny Black lady,” says Graves. “It’s just not the visual you conjure up.”
Graves and her students soon launched a social-media campaign to raise awareness of Dawson’s story. It worked: Washington National Opera artistic director Francesca Zambello approached Graveswith an idea for a project about Dawson. Together, they assembled the team behind the new play. Graves is starring as Dawson.
“We are the benefactors of all her work and effort and blood and sweat,” says Graves. “I see it as a duty. There’s no other choice—I have to be up there and tell this story.”
This article appears in the January 2023 issue of Washingtonian.