Classically Trained Series

Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate, Chickasaw classical composer

Pictured: Jerod Impichchaachaaha Tate/©ALANAROTHSTEIN.COM

Friday, November 27 is Native American Heritage Day. In celebration, we’re highlighting the Chickasaw classical composer Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate, an acclaimed artist “dedicated to the development of American Indian classical composition.” Jerod is one of countless Native American, American Indian, and Indigenous artists to leave a lasting impact on the classical music art form. You can read more about these musicians and find additional resources at the end of this article. 

Are the terms “Native American” and “American Indian” interchangeable?
While both terms are frequently used, identity is personal, and no single term will work best for everyone. Though some identify with terms like Native American, American Indian, or Indigenous, many people identify with tribal names or traditional ways of referring to one another. Jerod Tate has expressed that his identity is American Indian, specifically a member of the Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma. Want to make sure you get someone’s identity right? Ask them! 

Video: Jerod Tate – Chickasaw Classical Composer
A Musical Upbringing

Chickasaw classical composer Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate’s earliest years were steeped in the arts. Born and raised in Oklahoma, Jerod was immediately immersed in theater and dance through his parents: his mother, a professional dancer and choreographer, often brought Jerod along to rehearsals, and his father, a Chickasaw tribal judge, lawyer, and classically trained baritone, introduced him to Bach and Rachmaninoff. 

In a National Endowment for the Arts feature, Jerod noted that he “was probably two or three months into piano lessons when I announced to my parents I was going to be a concert pianist.” Years later, Jerod earned a BM in Piano Performance from Northwestern University with the intention of doing just that. In fact, he never imagined a career in composition until after his undergraduate studies, when his mother asked him to write music for an original ballet based on American Indian stories

“It was the first time I actually thought of marrying the two very strong identities that I have,” Jerod recalled in an interview with Minnesota Public Radio. “One is being a Chickasaw Indian, and the other one is being a classical musician. My mother presented the perfect opportunity for me to express both of those together.” Jerod completed the ballet, Winter Moons, during the first semester of his MM studies at the Cleveland Institute of Music and took the next semester off to tour the work with his mother. Encouraged by an enthusiastic response from both his American Indian and classical music communities, Jerod explains that he “decided specifically to become an American Indian classical composer… everything that I compose is based on American Indian history and culture.”

The More You Know: Jerod’s middle name, Impichchaachaaha’ (IM-pi-chuh-CHA-ha), is an inherited Chickasaw house name meaning “his high corncrib.” A corncrib is “a small hut used for the storage of corn and other vegetables.

Development and Notable Works

Though Jerod felt enormous pressure when he began to compose American Indian classical music, he was inspired by the way composers like Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, and Bartók incorporated their identities into their music. Jerod was particularly influenced by Bartók, who he describes as “the first ethnomusicologist that was aware of his own folk music; he did it so naturally and so joyfully that I felt the same impulse to do the same thing from where I come from.” 

Though his music is written in Western classical forms and styles, Jerod weaves songs, dances, instrumentation, percussive patterns, and other musical traditions from American Indian cultures into everything he composes.  He is also passionate about the representation of American Indian languages and stories in the classical music realm: 

“I have incredible pride in bringing American Indian identity onto the classical stage, and I love bringing our languages into the same stage as Latin, Italian, French, Chinese, and Russian… I have written pieces in a lot of different tribal languages, and I am very, very on fire in my passion for bringing our language and culture to the concert stage. We belong there, just like we belong in a genetic engineering lab or in agriculture changing the world, just like we do being astronauts. We belong on the concert stage as well.”


In 2008, Jerod’s work Iholba’ made history as the first time the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra had performed a work in any Native American language. Recent works include Chokfi’ (2018), a character sketch for youth orchestra based on “an important trickster legend,” and Muscogee Hymn Suite (2017), “an orchestration of three traditional Muscogee (Creek) church hymns.” As a film composer, Jerod has scored numerous documentaries and feature films including “Searching for Sequoyah” (2020) and “To the Wonder” (2012). A full list of Jerod’s works can be found here

Describing identity as “the most important thing to every human alive,” Jerod is proud to represent his Chickasaw culture through his music.  “I encourage composers to find their personal identity,” Jerod explained in an interview with the Dallas Morning News. “I believe that human beings are born brilliant and creative. There are 8 billion people, and there are 8 billion ways to be creative.”

Video: Chokfi’, by Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate – Seattle Pacific University Orchestra
Awards, Acclaim, and Recent Projects

Earlier this year, Jerod premiered the commissioned work Ghost of the White Deer, a bassoon concerto based on the story of a young American Indian hunter, with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. In 2018, his music was selected to be featured on the hit HBO series Westworld.

A sought after artist, Jerod has received commissions from numerous symphony orchestras and organizations including the National Symphony Orchestra, the American Composers Forum, and Chamber Music America. He is the recipient of the Cleveland Institute of Music Alumni Achievement Award, an Emmy award winner for his work on the documentary “The Science of Composing,” and a governor-appointed Creativity Ambassador for the State of Oklahoma. 

Outside of his composition career, Jerod has performed with the Broadway national tours of Les Misérables and Miss Saigon as First Keyboard and has regularly served as a guest pianist and accompanist for ballet and dance companies. He is the founder and artistic director of the Chickasaw Chamber Music Festival and has been an adjunct instructor at OKlahoma City University since 2011. 

Jerod’s accomplishments as a composer are multifaceted and numerous, making it impossible to include every important detail in this article. A more complete list can be found at his official website.

Video: Standing Bear: A Ponca Indian Cantata in Eight Tableaux
Sources and Further Reading

Official Website – Jerod Tate

Art Talk with Composer Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate (National Endowment for the Arts)

Jerod Impichaachaaha Tate: Native Composer (New Music Box)

Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate (Wikipedia)

Composer Jerod Tate will bring American Indian legend to the Dallas Symphony (Dallas News)

Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate coloring page (WDAV’s Coloring Classical Music activity page)

Spotify playlist
  1. Tracing Mississippi: Shilombish Anompoli’ (Talking Spirits) – Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate, San Francisco Symphony
  2. Tracing Mississippi: IV. Hashi’ Hiloha (Sun Thunder) –  Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate, San Francisco Symphony
  3. Pisachi (You See) – Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate
  4. Iholba’ (The Vision): II. Iholba’ (The Vision) – Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate, San Francisco Symphony
Additional Resources

Native American classical composers charting new musical territory (The National Museum of the American Indian)

Teaching Appreciation and Understanding for Native American Music and Culture (Video)

Chickasaw Chamber Music Festival

Native American Composer Apprentice Project

Louis Wayne Ballard (1931 – 2007)

Raven Chacon

Dawn Avery, Mystic Cellist & Vocalist

Brent Michael Davids


Classically Trained: Rayna Gellert

Pictured: Rayna Gellert, by Filberthockey at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0.

By Marisa Mecke

Discover something new today! This series explores the lives and contributions of classical artists with connections to the Carolinas. Intended as quick “brain breaks” for learners of all ages, these educational features can be divided into sections for daily reading or used as lesson plans for students at home.


NAME: Rayna Gellert

PROFESSION: Folk musician

FUN FACT: Rayna has made several videos of fiddle tunes played at different speeds available at her website as a resource for beginners and “fiddle geeks.”

A Musical Upbringing

Asheville-based fiddler and singer Rayna Gellert grew up surrounded by rural string music, gospel songs, and old-time ballads. Born into a musical family in Elkhart, Indiana, Rayna was particularly influenced by her father, multi-instrumentalist and old-time music legend Dan Gellert. 

Rayna called on inspiration from her upbringing for her 2012 album Old Light: Songs from My Childhood & Other Gone Worlds, a mixture of original tunes and songs she listened to her parents sing throughout her childhood – but not without hesitation. “My reverence for the music and my complicated relationship with it, being so deeply tied to family and childhood and lots of emotion, made me skittish,” Rayna explained in a Huffington post interview, “Part of my process in recent years has been recognizing that creating a new or different version of a song isn’t disrespectful or dismissive of any other version of that song… My singing a song isn’t me saying ‘My way is best.’ It’s just me saying, ‘I want you to hear this song.’” 

Originally trained as a classical violinist, Rayna picked up fiddling in 1994 when she moved to North Carolina to attend Warren Wilson College in Swannanoa. Through participating in countless jam sessions and square dances, Rayna sharpened her fiddle skills – and soon enough, she began to tour the world. 

Audio: Playlist of “Old-Time Music Favorites” curated by Rayna Gellert

Ensemble and Collaborative Work

In January of 2000, Rayna joined the old-time string band Freight Hoppers and later became a member of the all-female old-time band Uncle Earl, a group that aims to introduce new audiences to the “beauty and limitless potential” of old-time American music while “inspiring the explorations of the next generation of root musicians.” During her time with Uncle Earl, the group released their first EP, Going to the Western Slope, soon followed by a second EP (Raise a Ruckus) and two full-length albums (She Waits for Night and Waterloo, Tennessee). 

Rayna has toured extensively with her Uncle Earl bandmate Abigail Washburn and songwriter Scott Miller, whose paths collided when they were booked as part of the same Mountain Stage show in 2010. Adding to her extensive discography, Rayna and Scott released an EP entitled Codependents in 2012. A frequent collaborator, Rayna has worked with a host of musicians from different backgrounds throughout her career, including Jamie Dick, Jon Estes, Robyn Hitchcock, Sara Watkins, and her “favorite musician on the planet” – her father, who is featured on a handful of Old Light tracks. 

Audio: Listen to Rayna Gellert and Scott Miller Live on West Virginia Public broadcasting and NPR Music on Mountain Stage 

Collaboration with Kieran Kane

Through his work with the O’Kanes and Kane Welch Kaplin – and co-founding the independent label Dead Reckoning Records – contemporary Americana musician Kieran Kane has had a massive impact on the genre. In 2017, Kieran joined forces with Rayna after the two met at San Francisco’s Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, and the pair began to release collaborative work soon after: Kieran appeared on and co-produced Rayna’s 2017 album Workin’s Too Hard, followed by two duo albums: The Ledges (2018) and When the Sun Goes Down (2019). 

Though Kieran and Rayna’s collaboration is ongoing, their scheduled 2020 tour of Australia was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In a newsletter to their followers, Gellert expressed her disappointment, but shared her hope of finding online avenues to connect with the music community. 

Video: Kieran Kane & Rayna Gellert Folk Alley Sessions 
Solo Work and Accolades

Outside of her work in ensembles and collaborations, Rayna has regularly performed and recorded as a solo act. In 2003, Gellert was a featured performer at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, an annual exposition of “living cultural heritage” on the National Mall in DC, and has been a finalist several times at the Appalachian String Band Music Festival in Clifftop, West Virginia. 

Though her work is inspired by the music of decades and centuries before her time, Rayna’s music never fails to strike a clean balance between tradition and revolution. Until 2012, Rayna’s singing experience was mostly limited to backup harmonies – but since the release of her Old Light album, which prominently features her singing and songwriting prowess, Rayna’s voice has been a signature component of her work. Her second solo album, Workin’s Too Hard (2017), continues the tradition she solidified in her first solo album – masterfully mixing the old and new – and paves the way forward for American folk music. 

Video: The Stars- Rayna Gellert 
Spotify Playlist   
  1. “Workin’s Too Hard” – Rayna Gellert
  2. “Nothing” – Rayna Gellert
  3. “Swannanoa Waltz” – Rayna Gellert
  4. “What Would You Do” – Kieran Kane, Rayna Gellert
  5. “Shoulda Been Done” – Kieran Kane, Rayna Gellert
  6. “Grey Bird” – Rayna Gellert
  7. “The Stars” – Rayna Gellert
  8. “Last Train” – Abigail Washburn
  9. “Coll Mackenzie (Archie Fisher)” – Nathan Salsburg
  10.  “Ships” – Tyler Ramsey
Sources and Further Reading

About: Kieran Kane & Rayna Gellert (official website)

Images: Kieran Kane & Rayna Gellert (official website)

Rayna Gellert: From Violin to Fiddle (Musika Kaleidoskopia)

Freight Hoppers (Harmony Ridge Music)

Uncle Earl (official website)

The Memory Project: Rayna Gellert (Our State Magazine)

Rayna Gellert: Workin’s Too Hard (Folk Radio)


Classically Trained: Anthony Roth Costanzo

Pictured: Anthony Roth Costanzo by Asdielman – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0.

By Mary Lathem

Discover something new today! This series explores the lives and contributions of classical artists with connections to the Carolinas. Intended as quick “brain breaks” for learners of all ages, these educational features can be divided into sections for daily reading or used as lesson plans for students at home.


NAME: Anthony Roth Costanzo

PROFESSION: Countertenor

Video: Anthony Roth Costanzo NPR Music Tiny Desk Concert
Broadway Beginnings

Hailed as “vocally brilliant and dramatically fearless,” countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo is a consummate artist among the greatest talents of his generation. Growing up in Durham, North Carolina, Anthony’s musical path began at the piano. He struggled to read sheet music as a young student, leading his teacher to try a unique approach: rather than sight reading on the piano, Anthony was instructed to sing from the music instead. The exercise worked – and a passion for singing was born. 

Anthony quickly discovered an affinity for musical theatre. By the age of 11, he had appeared in 20 productions in his home state and began to set his sights higher. After convincing his parents that he should give the New York City theatre scene a try, Anthony found rapid success on Broadway and performing in Broadway national tours. He recalls his time in musical theatre in an episode of the video series Living the Classical Life: “It was amazing… I had this breadth of experience which was really illuminating in terms of my understanding of the dramatic arts.”

Video: Anthony Roth Costanzo sings Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm”
Making a Splash

Anthony’s first brush with opera arrived when he was cast in a production of Benjamin Britten’s The Turn of the Screw, making a lasting impression on music director and conductor Michael Pratt. “He was thoroughly professional, completely prepared, and had excellent musicianship,” Michael later remarked, “It was like working with a pro when I first met him at age 13.” While preparing for the opera, someone pointed out that Anthony had retained a high natural singing voice despite having gone through puberty – the first sign that he might be a countertenor. 

In his teens, Anthony’s career flourished on and off the stage; notably, he earned the chance to perform alongside Luciano Pavarotti in the Opera Extravaganza at Philadelphia’s Academy of Music. During a “detour into the world of film,” he also received an Independent Spirit Award nomination for his role in the 1998 film A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries.

While pursuing a Bachelor’s degree at Princeton University, Anthony embarked on an ambitious senior thesis project: co-writing and starring in the avant-garde performance piece The Double Life of Zefirino, a fictional account of an 18th-century castrato opera singer. The piece – and its creation – became the subject of the documentary Zefirino: The Voice of a Castrato, which was selected for the Cannes Film Festival and won a Director’s Choice Award at the Black Maria International Film Festival in 2007. Anthony later earned a Master’s degree from the Manhattan School of Music, where he received the Hugh Ross Award for singers of exceptional promise. 

Early Accolades and Achievement

A standout among his peers, Anthony’s post-grad years are marked by accomplishment after accomplishment. In 2008, Anthony received the top award at both the Opera Index Vocal Competition and the Sullivan Foundation Auditions. The following year was even better: Anthony won a Richard F. Gold Career Grant, took first place at both the Jensen Foundation Competition and National Opera Association Vocal Competition (Artist Division), and became a 2009 Grand Finals Winner of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions. Among other awards, Anthony cinched first place at the international opera competition Operalia in 2012. 

 Video: 2012 Operalia Competition – Anthony Roth Costanzo – Tolomeo (HD)

As Anthony notes in a 2016 interview with the Los Angeles Times, countertenor roles are largely limited to “two ends of the spectrum: before 1750 and after 1950.” Equally versed in both extremes, Anthony made his Metropolitan Opera debut as Unulfo in Handel’s Rodelinda in 2011 and sang in the world premieres of two major American operas in 2015: Jimmy López’s Bel Canto at the Lyric Opera of Chicago and Jake Heggie’s Great Scott at the Dallas Opera (opposite mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato). Anthony and Joyce appear together on the original cast recording of Great Scott, released in 2018. 

Performer, Producer, Curator, Collaborator

Now nearly three decades into a life on the professional stage at 38, Anthony has never been satisfied to take the most obvious route. As a performer, he has held engagements with many of the world’s leading opera houses (to name a few, the Metropolitan Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, and the English National Opera), but his boundless creativity has led to numerous projects outside an opera singer’s typical comfort zone.

Anthony became the first American opera singer to appear in a Kabuki play, a traditional Japanese drama form, in Kyoto in 2014 after forming a friendship with writer Toyoshige Imai. The play, a new adaptation of the 11th century classic The Tale of Genji, melded the Kabuki and Western opera forms to create something “palpably new” – and all 26 performances sold out. 

In 2018, Anthony teamed up with Visionaire to create the multimedia installation Glass Handel to coincide with the release of his studio album ARC, which features the works of Philip Glass and G.F. Handel. A jaw-dropping melding of music, fashion, live painting, dance, and film, the project brought together many of Anthony’s former colleagues to create an interactive experience intended to introduce new audiences to opera. A set of highly original music videos, filmed to sync with Anthony’s singing during the performance, are available to view on YouTube. ARC would later receive a Grammy nomination for Best Classical Solo Vocal Album in 2019. 

As curator and producer, Anthony has worked with National Sawdust to create a new production of Handel’s Aci, Galatea e Polifemo and the compilation piece Orphic Moments. “Interdisciplinary collaboration, growing audiences, and creating interesting art, whether I’m producing it, or curating it, or just making introductions among opera companies and directors, are all important to me,” Anthony explains in an interview, “As an opera singer in today’s world, you can’t just sing your roles well; you have to be a creative spirit and a driving force.”

A Career 

In 2016, Anthony took on his most challenging engagement to date: the title role in a new production of Philip Glass’s Akhnaten. In Anthony’s words, his role in the opera – a physically and vocally demanding spectacle of over three hours – “goes beyond athletic to Olympic.” He premiered the production with the English National Opera and has since performed the role at the Los Angeles Opera and the Metropolitan Opera (opposite mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges). 

Video: How an Opera Gets Made

Recently named Musical America’s 2019 Vocalist of the Year, Anthony continuously makes strides as a champion of opera’s place in the present and future. “This is something that can connect to all different kinds of people,” he explained in an interview with NPR. “I feel like the emotional sweep of opera is what we need to give us some perspective on our lives, on this time we’re living in, on all of that. We need that kind of catharsis.” Though any one of Anthony’s accomplishments could be the pinnacle of a life in the arts, the sense emerges that his career is just beginning – and what comes next will surprise, delight, and inspire. 

Spotify Playlist
  1. Dixit Dominus, HWV 232: 1. Soli & Chorus “Dixit Dominus” – G.F. Handel
  2. Heggie: Great Scott, Act I: Break – Jake Heggie
  3. ARC, 1000 Airplanes on the Roof: The Encounter – Philip Glass
  4. ARC, Liquid Days – David Byrne, Philip Glass
  5. ARC, Rinaldo, HWV 7: “Lascia ch’io pianga”
Sources and Further Reading

Video: “Perfection is deeply boring.” – Anthony Roth Costanzo, Living the Classical Life

Anthony Roth Costanzo (Official Website)

A life in opera” (Princeton Alumni Weekly)

Four Singers Win $15,000 Prizes in Metropolitan Opera’s 2009 National Council Auditions” (Opera News)

Vocalist of the Year: Anthony Roth Costanzo” (Musical America)

Road Show – Anthony Roth Costanzo in Kyoto” (Opera News)

Visionaire presents GLASS HANDEL” (Visionaire)

The falsetto pharaoh: The story behind the powerfully high voice in L.A. Opera’s ‘Akhnaten’” (Los Angeles Times)

Anthony Roth Costanzo: A Countertenor For The 21st Century” (NPR)

Classically Trained: David Charles Abell

Pictured: David Charles Abell By Tom Kilworth – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0/Wikipedia.

By Mary Lathem

Discover something new today! This series explores the lives and contributions of classical artists with connections to the Carolinas. Intended as quick “brain breaks” for learners of all ages, these educational features can be divided into sections for daily reading or used as lesson plans for students at home.


David Charles Abell (b. 1958)


Fun Fact: Famed Italian-American opera composer Gian Carlo Menotti once gave David this advice: “Don’t ever conduct Broadway. You will never be taken seriously again as a conductor.” Things didn’t exactly turn out that way.

An Early Start – And A Debut Like No Other

David Charles Abell’s path to classical music’s highest ranks accelerated more quickly than most. Born in Jacksonville, North Carolina in 1958, David spent the majority of his childhood in Philadelphia, where his musical education took root as a member of both the school orchestra and a local boys choir. In 1971, David was chosen to be part of the Berkshire Boy Choir, a summer national choir described in the New York Times as “a phenomenon… an assemblage of some of the best boy voices in the country.” 

In the same year, the beloved American composer-conductor Leonard Bernstein was preparing for the premiere of his theatrical work Mass, which had been commissioned by first lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis for the opening of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts – and the Berkshire Boy Choir was selected to perform. David had a chance to meet Bernstein at a recording session after the performance, but it wasn’t the last time their lives would intersect. 

David went on to pursue musical training at Yale University, the American Conservatory in Fontainebleau, and the Juilliard School, learning from masters including John Mauceri, Nadia Boulanger, and – you guessed it – Leonard Bernstein. As an undergraduate student at Yale, David reconnected with Bernstein through Mauceri and began to work with him as an editor and protégé. Bernstein was later responsible for David’s extraordinary professional conducting debut: at just 23 years old, David conducted the European premiere of Mass at Berlin’s Deutschlandhalle in a true full circle moment. 

Video: Notes From a Master
Notable Projects and Developing Interests

David made his American debut in 1983 at a Washington National Opera performance of Britten’s The Turn of the Screw, stepping in for Mauceri with only a few hours’ notice. After a series of high-profile opera engagements throughout the 1980s, David accepted an offer to conduct the 1989 national tour of Claude-Michel Schönberg’s Les Misérables, the beginning of a lifelong reputation as a master conductor of musical theatre. His work on the show impressed Schönberg, and in 1995, David was tapped to lead the televised 10th anniversary concert version of the musical. Fifteen years later, he returned to conduct the 25th anniversary broadcast at London’s O2 Arena. 

After officially relocating to London in 1996, David maintained a bustling calendar of opera, musical theatre, and concert appearances, including regular guest conductor slots at the BBC Proms. In fact, the 2010 celebration of Stephen Sondheim’s 80th birthday at the Proms was David’s brainchild: having adored Sondheim’s work since a trip to see A Little Night Music at 16, David successfully argued that the composer’s music belonged in front of the Proms’ “knowledgeable and enthusiastic” audience. 

Preserving an Art Form

Throughout his career, David has shown a keen interest in preserving Broadway shows with the same dignity granted to the classical “greats,” often partnering with his husband Seann Alderking, a pianist and musicologist. David and Seann notably worked together to produce a clarified version of Bernstein’s West Side Story for the composer after multiple poorly organized iterations created “a mess.”

While preparing to conduct the Broadway musical Kiss Me, Kate at the Glimmerglass Festival in 2008, David began to search for the show’s original manuscripts, hoping to create a full orchestral score – something of a rarity for Broadway classics. “Having conducted a lot of Broadway shows, I knew that the orchestra parts and scores are usually in terrible shape,” David explained in an interview with Opera North, adding that parts are often handwritten and may not match one another as versions are mixed together over the years.

After what felt like an “archaeological dig,” David and Seann uncovered 75-80% of the original orchestrators’ manuscripts on the shelves of the law office that protects the Cole Porter Trusts. Thrilled to discover that the majority of Kiss Me, Kate still existed in its first iteration, David secured support from the Cole Porter Trust to produce what’s known as a critical edition, a comprehensive version of a work intended to be as faithful as possible to the original form. Over the next four years, David and Seann meticulously edited and compiled a complete, error-free version of over 1,000 pages, allowing audiences to hear the show’s original sound for the first time in decades. With David at the podium, Kiss Me, Kate’s new critical edition had its first fully-staged performance at Opera North in 2015. 

Video: Compiling a NEW critical edition of Kiss Me, Kate | David Charles Abell
Recent Work and Career Developments

Described as “a protean talent” possessing “impeccable and inspired” conducting skill, David’s most recent projects include appearances with Opera Philadelphia, the Cincinnati Opera, the Glimmerglass Festival, and the English National Opera, where he conducted a critically acclaimed 2015 production of Sweeney Todd starring Bryn Terfel and Emma Thompson. David has been lauded as an “authoritative interpreter” of the works of Stephen Sondheim, leading the French premieres of Follies, Sweeney Todd, Sunday in the Park with George, and Into the Woods between 2011 and 2014. David was appointed Music Director and Principal Conductor of The Philly POPS in February 2020 and remains in the prime of his career. 

“If I hadn’t (conducted Broadway musicals), my career might have been easier, but I don’t regret it. It taught me about storytelling,” David expressed in a 2019 interview with the Cincinnati Opera, noting that conductors who work in musical theatre are often pigeonholed in the genre. “I do think of all music as storytelling, even a Mahler or Beethoven symphony… if you can bring that alive for an audience, you can engage them.” 

Spotify Playlist
  1. “Eternal Source of Light Divine” – Enlightenment: Music for the Opening Ceremony of the London 2012 Paralympic Games, 2012
  2. “So In Love” from Kiss Me Kate – Simon Keenlyside: Something’s Gotta Give, 2014
  3. Madama Butterfly: Act II, “Un bel di vedremo” – Highlights from Puccini’s La Bohème and Madama Butterfly, 2009
  4. Tobias and the Angel: “Time to get up” – Tobias and the Angel, 2010
  5. Die Fledermaus: Act II, “Mein Herr Marquis” – Diana Damrau: Forever, 2013
  6. Mass, I: VI. Gloria, 1. Gloria tibi – Bernstein: Mass, 1971
Sources and Further Reading

David Charles Abell: Storytelling (Cincinnati Opera)

Biography: David Charles Abell (David Charles Abell Official Website)

Interview with David Charles Abell, Conductor of the 2010 Sondheim Prom (The Art of the Torch Singer)

Music: Berkshire Choir (New York Times)

Mass (Bernstein) (Wikipedia)

David Charles Abell (Wikipedia)

Philly Pops fan fave David Charles Abell is a ‘Kiss Me, Kate’ music sleuth — come hear his restoration of the original 1948 score (The Philadelphia Inquirer)

Conductor David Charles Abell Prepares For A Season of Sondheim

Reviews: David Charles Abell (David Charles Abell Official Website)

Classically Trained: Carol Brice

Pictured: Carol Brice by Carl Van Vechten, Public Domain.

By Mary Lathem

Discover something new today! This series explores the lives and contributions of classical artists with connections to the Carolinas. Intended as quick “brain breaks” for learners of all ages, these educational features can be divided into sections for daily reading or used as lesson plans for students at home.


NAME: Carol Brice

PROFESSION: Contralto (opera singer)

CONTRALTO: The lowest female voice type in classical singing, with a vocal range between mezzo-soprano and tenor. 

FUN FACT: While enrolled at the Palmer Memorial Institute, Carol had the opportunity to meet the esteemed contralto Marian Anderson when she visited the school. Marian famously performed a concert from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to a crowd of 75,000 in 1939 after she was denied the chance to sing to an integrated audience at Washington, D.C.’s Constitution Hall. 

First Signs of a Special Talent

From opera’s most famous venues to the Broadway stage, contralto Carol Brice’s remarkable story began here in the Carolinas. At 18 months old, Carol was sent to Sedalia, North Carolina to live with a cousin of her mother, Dr. Charlotte Hawkins Brown. Dr. Brown was the founder and president of the Palmer Memorial Institute, the only finishing school for African-Americans in the country – and the place where Carol’s musical gifts were first nurtured

Carol performed at some of the nation’s most prestigious venues while still in high school as a member of the Palmer Institute’s Sedalia Singers, including New York City’s Town Hall and the White House. She later earned a Bachelor of Music degree from Talladega College in Alabama and set off for New York City, where she continued her vocal studies as a fellowship recipient at the Juilliard School of Music. 

Fun Fact: The Palmer Memorial Institute, which closed its doors in 1970, officially became North Carolina’s first African-American state historic site in 1987 as a memorial to Dr. Brown.

A Career in Motion

It didn’t take long for Carol’s star to rise after her arrival in New York. Her debut in the musical The Hot Mikado at the 1939 New York World’s Fair made a splash with the public, and just two years later, Carol was selected to sing at the third inauguration of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In 1943, Carol became the first African-American person to win the prestigious Naumberg Award. 

Carol soon began to tour the country extensively as a recitalist and concert soloist, including regular engagements with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. In the 1950s, her career expanded to the international stage with a summer tour to South and Central America and a 1954 appearance with the Berlin Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra.

 Fun Fact: Carol often collaborated with her brothers Eugene, a fellow Juilliard graduate, and Jonathan, her preferred accompanist and an accomplished singer. The siblings eventually formed the Brice Trio and performed together at New York City’s Town Hall in 1958. 

Video: A Carol Brice Recital (1947)
Broadway Breakout and Continued Success

It’s never too late to discover something new about yourself – and after her critically-acclaimed performance in the 1958 New York City Opera production of Marc Blitzstein’s theatrical work Regina, Carol transitioned seamlessly into the world of musical theatre at the age of 40. Carol’s Broadway roles include Kakou in Howard Arlen’s Saratoga (a role she originated), Maude in Finian’s Rainbow, Queenie in Showboat, and Maria in Porgy and Bess. 

Carol’s operatic career progressed throughout the 1950s and 60s, particularly through lengthy engagements with the New York City Opera and the Vienna Volksoper. In Vienna, she met the South Carolina-born baritone Thomas Carey, and the pair soon married and began a life together.

Fun Fact: In 1976, Carol starred as Maria in a Houston Grand Opera production of Porgy and Bess. The cast won a 1977 GRAMMY Award for Best Opera Recording, and the entire production transferred to Broadway, where it won the 1977 Tony Award for Most Innovative Production of a Revival. 

Video: Carol Brice sings “The Lonesome Valley”
Later Years and Legacy

When Thomas accepted a teaching position at the University of Oklahoma in 1969, Carol joined him and became a member of the University faculty in 1974. In the following year, the couple founded the Church Circuit Opera Company, now known as the Cimarron Opera. The opera company was created to “serve as a platform for Black artists during a time when (the) town of Norman, Oklahoma was not yet racially integrated” and now provides aspiring artists of all backgrounds with training and performance opportunities.

Revered for her warm, resonant voice and musical sensitivity, Carol was a frequent recipient of awards and recognition throughout her career. She was awarded an honorary doctorate from Talladega University in 1955, and in 1963, she received the National Association of Negro Musicians’ (NANM) Emancipation Proclamation Award. In 2012, North Carolina branch of NANM adopted the name “Carol Brice Music Association” to honor her role in “break(ing) down the racial barriers hindering Black classical artists.” Carol passed away in 1985 at the age of 66, leaving behind a legacy of excellence as a performer, teacher, and leader. 

Spotify Playlist
Spotify Playlist: Carol Brice
  1. Falla: El amor brujo, Ballet-pantomime: No. 3, “Canción del amor dolido” – Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra (Fritz Reiner, Carol Brice)
  2. “Night could be time to sleep, night could be time to weep” from Regina – Carol Brice, Elisabeth Carron
  3. “Necessity” from Finian’s Rainbow –  Carol Brice, Finian’s Rainbow Ensemble
  4. “Goose Never Be a Peacock” from Saratoga – Carol Brice
  5. “Gettin’ A Man” from Saratoga – Carol Brice
Sources and Further Reading

Historical Note: Brice, Carol (1916-1985) (Amistad Research Center)

Carol Brice (MasterWorks Broadway)

CAROL BRICE (1918-1985) (Black Past)

Our Founders: Carol Brice Carey (Cimarron Opera)

Carol Brice, Contralto (Bach Cantatas Website)

Carol Brice: Contralto Excellence (Amistad Research Center)

Carol Brice, 68, a Contralto Who Sang Many Lead Roles (New York Times)

About Our Branch (Carol Brice Music Association)

Classically Trained: Carlisle Floyd

Pictured: American opera composer Carlisle Floyd; By Rena Schild/Shutterstock.

By Siân Lewis

Discover something new today! This series explores the lives and contributions of classical artists with connections to the Carolinas. Intended as quick “brain breaks” for learners of all ages, these educational features can be divided into sections for daily reading or used as lesson plans for students at home.


Name: Carlisle Floyd (b. 1926)

Profession: Opera composer and librettist

Fun Fact: Carlisle completed his first opera, Slow Dusk, as a project toward his Master’s degree in Piano with a minor in Composition. 

Beginnings and Early Influences

Little did he know, but a South Carolina boy who begged his mother for piano lessons at the age of three (only to quit when he realized that there was “work involved”) would one day be called the “Father of American Opera.” Luckily, the admired opera composer and librettist Carlisle Floyd regained his interest in the piano at 10 – and this time, he excelled.

In 1943, Carlisle earned a scholarship to attend Converse College in Spartanburg, SC, where he studied piano under Ernst Bacon, a respected composer, pianist, and conductor. When Ernst took a position at Syracuse University in New York, Carlisle followed him and received a Bachelor of Music from Syracuse at the age of 20. Shortly after his graduation, Carlisle began his teaching career at Florida State University and remained on the faculty for thirty years, eventually becoming Professor of Composition.

Carlisle was exposed to the ever-evolving world of American classical music through Ernst, who championed the development of American musical independence. Not only did the American “camp” of classical composition resonate with Carlisle stylistically, it also empowered him to explore composition through his own unique lens. Inspired by lessons his creative writing teacher imparted at Converse (“write what you know” and “mine your experiences of the locations and the people that you have come across”), Carlisle would go on to use his rural upbringing and experience with the working class as fodder for his operas.

Why Opera? 

Although his preliminary training was in piano, Carlisle explains in an interview with NEA Opera Honors that there was never truly a question for him when it came to what he would compose. As a graduate student with a burgeoning interest in composition, the combination of dramatic and musical elements drew him to theatrical works, and his use of text for nearly every project revealed opera to be the “natural arena to spend (his) creative life.”

Although his first two operas, Slow Dusk and The Fugitives, were not particularly successful, these explorations paved the way to his most beloved and well-known work: Susannah. Carlisle sees his musical journey as one of growth and development; in his own words, The Fugitivesbombed royally,” and “Susannah would not have been possible” had he not had this experience with failure.

Susannah: Based on the Apocryphal tale of Susannah and the Elders, Susannah tells the story of a spirited young woman of humble origins who is faced with unjust hostility from her church community.

Featuring Appalachian folk melodies interwoven with Protestant hymns and “traditional” elements of classical music, Susannah officially premiered at Florida State University in 1955. Just one year later, the New York City Opera produced the groundbreaking work to significant acclaim – and the opera world took notice. Over 65 years after its premiere, Susannah remains the second most-performed American opera behind George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess.

While searching forsingers for Susannah, Carlisle was surprised that Phyllis Curtin, already an established New York City Opera star, was so willing to listen to the work of a relatively unknown composer. After a brief phone meeting, Carlisle visited her house to read through the two main arias with her. Phyllis, who would be cast as the original Susannah, fell in love with the piece immediately: born and raised in West Virginia, Phyllis felt “sympathetic” to the character and related to her in ways she had never experienced with an operatic role. Phyllis reprised her performance in the New York City Opera production and went on to sing the title role many times, including the 1958 World’s Fair production in Brussels.

In an interview, Carlisle explained his desire to “redress the balance (of opera) with drama and music,” creating an art form that anyone can enjoy – and by all accounts, Susannah was “very easily accepted” by audiences in its earliest days. Not only is the story widely accessible, but its musical influences resonate with the American experience, particularly in the rural South and Appalachia. In Phyllis’ words, Susannah “exemplifies what real opera is… a remarkable coming together of people and music.”

Video: Renée Fleming sings “Ain’t it a pretty night” from Susannah 
Other Works

Following the success of Susannah, Carlisle went on to compose numerous other operas such as Wuthering Heights (1958) and Of Mice and Men (1970). After a hiatus of almost twenty years, Carlisle completed the opera Cold Sassy Tree (2000), based on the novel by Olive Ann Burns. As his only venture into comedy, Cold Sassy Tree was a completely new experience for Carlisle; he notes that he once told his wife he felt like he’d “never written an opera before” while piecing the work together. Carlisle’s most recent opera, Prince of Players, was commissioned by the Houston Grand Opera and premiered in 2016. 

Video: “I Yearn So T’Know Things” from Cold Sassy Tree  
Recognition and Legacy

Credited with creating “a distinctly American idiom for opera”, Carlisle has often been recognized for his vital contributions to the field. A recipient of the coveted Guggenheim Fellowship in 1956, he would go on to receive numerous awards for his work in the arts.

“I think anything that is expressed directly and as honestly as possible will last.”

– Carlisle Floyd

Some of the most notable include: 

1957: Citation of Merit from the National Association of American Conductors and Composers

1983: National Opera’s Institute Award for Service to American Opera

2004: National Medal of Arts from the White House

2008: National Endowment for the Arts Opera Honoree

2010: Anton Coppola Excellence in the Arts Award from Opera Tampa

2011: Induction into the South Carolina Hall of Fame

2012: Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia Man of Music (the highest honor for a member of the American music fraternity)

2015: Inducted into the Florida Artist Hall of Fame

Video: NEA Opera Honors: Carlisle Floyd Tribute

Spotify Playlist
  1. Susannah, Act II: “The trees on the mountain” (Carlisle Floyd) – Renée Fleming, I Want Magic!
  2. Susannah, Act I: “Ain’t it a pretty night?” (Carlisle Floyd) – Renée Fleming, I Want Magic!
  3. Susannah, Act II: “Hear me, O Lord, I beseech thee” (Carlisle Floyd) – American Classics
  4. “The Mystery” – Carlisle Floyd, Five Songs of Motherhood for Soprano and Orchestra
  5. Susannah, Act I: Opening Music – Carlisle Floyd, Susannah (Opera de Leon)
  6. Prince of Players, Act II: “Howl, Howl, Howl, Howl, Howl!” – Carlisle Floyd, Prince of Players (The Florentine Opera)

NEA Opera Honors: Interview with Carlisle Floyd

NEA Opera Honors: Phyllis Curtin on Carlisle Floyd 

Innocence and Experience in Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah (San Francisco Opera)

Biography: Carlisle Floyd (Boosey & Hawkes)

FLOYD: Susannah (Opera News)

Classically Trained: Nkeiru Okoye

By Mary Lathem

Discover something new today! This series explores the lives and contributions of classical artists with connections to the Carolinas. Intended as quick “brain breaks” for learners of all ages, these educational features can be divided into sections for daily reading or used as lesson plans for students at home.


NAME: Nkeiru Okoye


FUN FACT: Nkeiru premiered and conducted her piece “The Creation” in 1999 while earning her Ph.D. at Rutgers University – with actor Danny Glover as narrator.

Early Studies and Recognition

From an early age, Nkeiru Okoye’s mind was buzzing with music. She couldn’t help but hear melodies and rhythms where others did not, often making up music to go with words from the storybooks her mother read to her. In a 2006 interview with the Baltimore Sun, Nkeiru speculated, “If I had been born into a musical family they might have recognized that I was a composer… but I wasn’t.” Nkeiru’s musical gifts became unmistakable when she entered a national composition competition sponsored by the NAACP at age 13 and took first prize. She would later earn a Bachelor of Music degree in Composition from the Oberlin Conservatory of Music and a Ph.D. in Music Theory and Composition from Rutgers University

During her studies, Nkeiru made her presence known in the composition field as accolades began to pour in. She received the prestigious ASCAP Grant for Young Composers in 1995, followed by a 1997 UNISYS African American Composer Residency with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. In 1999, she received the Yvar Mikhashoff Trust for New Music Grant

Musical Style and Notable Works

Described as “genre-bending” with a “dizzying range of influences,” Nkeiru’s works showcase expertise in a wide variety of genres and techniques. She is particularly at home in the opera/theatre and symphonic mediums. “Voices Shouting Out,” “a wistful, percussive wonder composed by Nkeiru Okoye in the aftermath of September 11, 2001,” was commissioned by the Virginia Symphony Orchestra in 2002 and remains her best known work. The narrated orchestral piece “The Journey of Phillis Wheatly,” a collaborative effort between Nkeiru and writer Carolivia Herron, followed in 2005. 

 In 2014, American Opera Projects premiered Nkeiru’s two-act operaHARRIET TUBMAN: When I Crossed That Line to Freedom ,” hailed as “a great American opera” with “irresistible, invigorating, and vivid” music. The seminal theatrical work traces the life of the legendary Underground Railroad conductor, beginning as a child born into slavery with extraordinary strength of spirit. The audience experiences “an intriguing peek into (Tubman’s) life, seeing her hardworking and compassionate parents, the sister she fiercely loves, and John Tubman, the man she married but who gave her little more than the surname which became one of the most famous in the annals of abolitionism.” Abolitionists Rev. Samuel Green  and William Still, both free African Americans, are part of the story as well. The opera includes Nkeiru’s 2006 song cycle “Songs of Harriet Tubman,” which has become “established repertoire for African American sopranos,” in its entirety.

 Nkeiru’s most recent works include “We’ve Got Our Eye on You” (2016), “Invitation to a Die-In” (2017), and “Black Bottom” (2020), commissioned by the Detroit Symphony in celebration of the 100th anniversary of Symphony Hall and Classical Roots. It tells the story of residents in the Detroit neighborhoods of Black Bottom and Paradise Valley, which were destroyed in the mid-1950s.

Video: Nkeiru Okoye – “Black Bottom,” Detroit Symphony Orchestra
“Charlotte Mecklenburg”

Leading up to the 250th anniversary of the founding of Charlotte, NC in 2018, the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra began searching for a composer to capture the essence of the city in a commissioned piece. Then-president and CEO Mary Deissler “wanted (to select) an outsider who’d come in without preconceptions” – and Nkeiru, a New Yorker with a track record of layered, deeply meaningful work, fit the bill.

The commission came with one special request: the music was to be inspired by a residency in the city, meaning that Nkeiru could not begin writing or visualizing the piece until she had experienced it firsthand. In June of 2018, Nkeiru packed a cultural and historical “crash course” into just five days, interviewing cultural leaders, meeting with orchestra members, sampling the city’s food, and taking in local exhibitions.

The result was “Charlotte Mecklenburg” – a “12-minute tapestry” of richly intertwined influences, including Charlotte’s cotton mills, the city’s racial and economic unrest, and a version of the song “Alma Llanera” in honor of the area’s Latinx community. Inspired by a conversation with music producer Dae-Lee, Nkeiru incorporated percussive phrases that reflect the words “Not my Charlotte” and “Keith Lamont Scott,” a local man killed in a police shooting in 2016. 

The Charlotte Symphony debuted “Charlotte Mecklenburg” on September 21, 2018 at the symphony’s annual gala concert. The audience included students from Project Harmony, the CSO’s after-school intensive instruction program for underserved Charlotte area children. “Her existing in this space as a Black female composer is meaningful,” Dae-Lee remarked, “Kids can look at her onstage and say, ‘Oh my goodness, I want to aspire to be there!’ That really opens up your perspective.”

Building a Legacy 

Among her numerous achievements, Nkeiru has received commissions, awards, and honors from the NEA, Opera America, American Opera Projects, Meet The Composer, John Duffy Composer Institute, Composer’s Collaborative, Inc., and the Walt Whitman Project and is the recipient of three grants for female composers from the Virginia B. Toulmin Foundation. She is a current board member of Composers Now and has been profiled in several academic texts, including Routledge’s “African American Music: An Introduction.”

“My music doesn’t easily fit into a single category, though I incorporate many musical influences in a way that creates a sound that is uniquely mine. I think a lot of people are surprised to hear connections between the gospel aria and the jazz aria in Harriet Tubman. Similarly, there’s a pop song in the middle of Voices Shouting Out, along with some funk and a tone row – and it’s my most performed orchestral piece,” Nkeiru writes of her composition style on her website.

“Over the years, I’ve found myself using techniques that seemed ‘avant garde’ to me when first receiving training in composition. At the time, I could not imagine putting those elements into practice. Now, I use them in ways that work for me. It’s surprising to see how well Schoenberg and funk can sit side by side at the symphony.”

Video: Nkeiru Okoye, “I am Harriet Tubman, Free Woman” performed by Janinah Burnett
Artist’s Soundcloud

Nkeiru’s Soundcloud:

Sources and Further Reading

Nkeiru Okoye: Composer (Official Website)

Nkeiru Okoye: Voices Shouting Out (Performance Today)

Is this how it was with Mozart?” (The Baltimore Sun)

SUNY New Paltz professor’s opera hails historical figure” (Times Herald-Record)

Actor Glover takes the lead in RU student’s premiere” (The Central New Jersey Home News)

The world of women in classical music (Anne Gray, 2007)

The Flight of a New Festival” (Charleston Today)

Family Concert: The Journey of Phillis Wheatley” (Cambridge Symphony Orchestra)

DSO to debut musical work inspired by Black Bottom, Paradise Valley neighborhoods” (Detroit Free Press)

250 years in 12 minutes? Composer tries to capture Charlotte history in piece for Symphony” (Charlotte Observer)

Nkeiru Okoye on Composing Charlotte Mecklenburg” (Charlotte Symphony)

A magnificent opera about a magnificent woman” (Hyde Park Herald)

Classically Trained: Rhiannon Giddens

Pictured: Rhiannon Giddens By Schorle – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0.

By Mary Lathem

Discover something new today! This series explores the lives and contributions of classical artists with connections to the Carolinas. Intended as quick “brain breaks” for learners of all ages, these educational features can be divided into sections for daily reading or used as lesson plans for students at home.


Rhiannon Giddens

Singer and multi-instrumentalist

FUN FACT: During her graduate studies at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro, Rhiannon took on the title role in Carlisle Floyd’s opera Susannah. She also convinced the director to let her choreograph the square dance sequence – thanks to her extensive background in square dance teaching and calling.

Video: Rhiannon Giddens: Tiny Desk (Home) Concert
A Natural Talent

Simply put, North Carolina-raised musician Rhiannon Giddens is one of a kind. In an interview with Our State magazine, Rhiannon’s mother recalled the earliest hints of her remarkable ability: “She was always singing… she had a wonderful voice really early on.” Though she didn’t yet dream of a career in music, her voice came in handy as she pursued childhood hobbies, singing in the Greensboro Youth Chorus and harmonizing with her father and sister. 

It wasn’t until an audition for a spot at the Governor’s School of North Carolina at 17 – which left a panel of choral teachers in awe – that Rhiannon realized how rare her talent truly was. She went on to earn a Bachelor’s degree in Voice from the Oberlin Conservatory of Music and pursued graduate studies in Opera at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro.

Finding the Carolina Chocolate Drops

Rhiannon’s first brush with a career in folk music came by accident while studying at Oberlin. Expecting a country dance à la Jane Austen, she attended a contra dancing event after misreading a flyer – and immediately fell in love. Burned out on opera and frustrated with her voice after a grueling five years at Oberlin, Rhiannon returned to Greensboro, where she picked up contra dancing again and began to travel the state calling dances. 

Soon, Rhiannon was well on her way to becoming a multi-instrumentalist. “I loved the banjo sounds I’d hear at the dances, so I learned to play,” Rhiannon recalled in an interview with Oberlin Alumni Magazine. “Got a second job to buy a banjo, singing opera arias at a Macaroni Grill. I quit as soon as I bought the banjo.” While attending the 2005 Black Banjo Then & Now Gathering in Boone, NC, Rhiannon hit it off with fellow musicians Don Flemons and Justin Robinson. Soon after, the new trio formed the first lineup of the Carolina Chocolate Drops

“There’s something very special and warm and exquisite about her voice. It has its own beauty, no matter the style… so it came as no surprise when she went off in this other direction and was equally magnificent at it.”

Marlene Rosen, Oberlin Conservatory Professor of Singing

Through meticulous research and practice, the Chocolate Drops set out to prove that the “old-time, fiddle and banjo-based music” they loved “could be a living, breathing, ever-evolving sound” and shine a spotlight on African-Americans’ crucial role in developing America’s popular music. In an interview with NPR, Rhiannon explained, “It seems that two things get left out of the history books. One, that there was string band music in the Piedmont (region of the Carolinas), period… (and that) Black folk was such a huge part of string tradition.” Described as “the most electrifying acoustic act around,” the Chocolate Drops received the 2011 Best Traditional Folk Album GRAMMY Award for Genuine Negro Jig. 

Video: Carolina Chocolate Drops TEDx
Branching Out

Though Rhiannon is still an active member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, her solo career has grown by leaps and bounds over the last decade. Little known outside of the folk circuit, Rhiannon was invited to participate in the star-studded 2013 “Another Day, Another Time” concert in New York City – and received the only standing ovation of the night. Shortly after, she contributed to two projects that earned significant attention: the 2013 LP We Are Not For Sale: Songs of Protest (a compilation of songs from North Carolina activist musicians) and the 2014 Bob Dylan collective Lost on the River: The New Basement Tapes. 

Rhiannon’s solo debut album, Tomorrow is My Turn, was released in 2015 to universal acclaim; one reviewer correctly identified it as “an album that heralds the arrival of a major American artist.” What followed was nothing short of a banner year: in 2016, Rhiannon was selected as the Folk Singer of the Year at the BBC Radio 2 Folk awards (the first American to achieve the distinction), received the Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass (the first woman and person of color to be honored), and was inducted into the North Carolina Hall of Fame with the Carolina Chocolate Drops. Rhiannon has since released two studio albums, Freedom Highway (2017) and There is No Other (2019), and numerous singles and EPs. 

In 2016, a missed opportunity gave way to an unexpected new path. Scheduled to replace Audra McDonald in the Broadway’s Shuffle Along, she poured herself into months of training and dance lessons, only to have the production close before she could make her debut. A few days later, Rhiannon was asked to join the cast of the TV show Nashville, an unforeseen chance that she asserts “saved (her) life.” Since 2018, Rhiannon has hosted the WQXR podcast Aria Code, which “pulls back the curtain on some of the most famous arias in opera history.”

Acclaim and Recent Projects

In addition to the Chocolate Drops’ 2011 GRAMMY Award, Rhiannon is also a two-time recipient of the International Folk Music Award for Album of the Year, Blues Artist of the Year at the 2017 Living Blues Awards, and the 2019 Americana Music Honors & Awards Legacy of Americana Award. In 2017, she was named a MacArthur “Genius” Fellow, an extraordinary honor for exceptional individuals in any field. 

Though her career isn’t typical of an opera student, Rhiannon still makes time to explore her classical background. “I play banjo for a living and sing opera for fun,” she once remarked, “It’s a weird world. My banjo pays for my health insurance. Who knew?” Most recently, Rhiannon was engaged to perform the title role in a Greensboro Opera production of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, now postponed to January 2022. In another stunning turn, Rhiannon was commissioned to premiere an original opera, Omar, at the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, SC. The opera, which will premiere as part of the 2021 season, is based on the autobiography of Omar Ibn Said, a Muslim-African man who was brought to Charleston and enslaved in 1807. 

For anyone wondering if there’s anything Rhiannon can’t do – the answer is “not yet.” 

Spotify Playlist
  1. “Hit ‘Em Up Style,” Carolina Chocolate Drops – Genuine Negro Jig (2010)
  2. “Cornbread and Butterbeans,” Carolina Chocolate Drops – Genuine Negro Jig (2010)
  3. “Grioghal Cridhe,” Rhiannon Giddens and The Elftones – All the Pretty Horses (2009)
  4. “We Rise,” Rhiannon Giddens – We Are Not For Sale: Songs of Protest (2013)
  5. “Spanish Mary,” Rhiannon Giddens – Lost on the River (2014)
  6. “Shake Sugaree,” Rhiannon Giddens – Tomorrow is My Turn (2015)
  7. “Freedom Highway,” Rhiannon Giddens – Freedom Highway (2017)
  8. “Trees on the Mountain,” Rhiannon Giddens – There is No Other (2019)
  9. “I’m On My Way,” Rhiannon Giddens – There is No Other (2019)
Sources and Further Reading

Rhiannon Giddens Official Website

Carolina Chocolate Drops Official Website

Rhiannon Giddens Returns Home for Founders Day Concert (UNCG)

Rhiannon Giddens & The Making Of NC’s Most Beautiful Voice (Our State Magazine)

Creating Old-Time Music for the 21st Century (Oberlin Alumni Magazine)

Rhiannon Giddens and What Folk Music Means (The New Yorker)

Carolina Chocolate Drops Keep Piedmont Sounds Alive (NPR)

5 Memorable Moments From The ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ Concert (The Huffington Post)

Folk polymath Rhiannon Giddens honors the musical cultures of the oppressed (Reader)

Rhiannon Giddens: Tomorrow Is My Turn (PopMatters)

Rhiannon Giddens Lost Her Broadway Break But Gained Nashville (Vulture)

Welcome to Aria Code with Rhiannon Giddens (WQXR)

Opera starring Rhiannon Giddens postponed to January 2022 (Greensboro News & Record)

Making an Opera: Meet the Composer, Rhiannon Giddens (Spoleto Festival USA)