Classically Trained Series

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)

Classically Trained: Kathryn Grayson

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: Kathryn Grayson (1922 – 2010)

PROFESSION: Film star and singer

Kathryn’s granddaughter, Kristin Towers-Rowles, reprised her role as Lilli Vanessi/Kate in a 2011 regional theatre production of “Kiss Me Kate.”

Early Studies and Discovery

Kathryn Grayson (b. 1922 in Winston-Salem, NC) started out with a lofty dream: to become an opera star. As Kathryn sang on the empty stage of the St. Louis Municipal Opera House at age 12, a janitor was surprised by her talent and later introduced her to a voice teacher, the Chicago Civic Opera’s Frances Marshall. Kathryn trained with Marshall well into her teenage years, never losing sight of her operatic aspirations.

After moving to Los Angeles at 15, Kathryn was signed to the classical music label RCA Red Seal Records. Just three years later, her second “discovery” propelled her toward Hollywood stardom. Kathryn’s performance at a music festival caught the attention of an MGM talent scout, and though she repeatedly turned him down, the scout finally convinced her to be seen and heard by studio executives – and she was signed immediately.

The Making of a Household Name

Despite her burgeoning film career, Kathryn’s interest in opera did not fade. When she was invited to make her operatic debut at the Metropolitan Opera House after signing with MGM, executive Louis B. Mayer told her not to take the offer, arguing that it would dampen her chances as a film star. 

After her debut in the 1941 feature “Andy Hardy’s Private Secretary,” Kathryn went on to appear in dozens of blockbuster films with MGM and other studios, including “Anchors Aweigh” (1945), “Show Boat” (1951), “Kiss Me Kate” (1953), and “So This is Love” (1953), starring as the opera and film legend Grace Moore. Her crystal-clear voice was key to nearly all of her roles, and operatic repertoire was often incorporated into her films to showcase her unusual ability. In musical films, Kathryn was regularly paired with costars Frank Sinatra, tenor Mario Lanza, and bass-baritone Howard Keel. 

Video: Howard Keel & Kathryn Grayson, “Make Believe” from “Show Boat” (1951)

Stage Stardom and Legacy

After ending her film career on a dissatisfying note (1956’s The Vagabond King), Kathryn’s earlier passion for the stage resurfaced. In 1960, she made her operatic debut as Cio-Cio-san in a production of Madame Butterfly, fulfilling her lifelong dream. Her Broadway debut arrived two years later when she replaced Julie Andrews as Guenevere in Camelot (1962). Throughout the 1960s, Kathryn frequently appeared in stage productions of musicals and operas, including La Traviata, La bohème, and Show Boat. Her performance in a 1961 production of The Merry Widow earned her a nomination for Chicago’s Sarah Siddons award

Kathryn made regular stage, concert, and television appearances over the decades, eventually adopting a more private life as she began to travel less often. In her later years, she supervised the Voice and Choral Studies Program at Idaho State University (where students could receive the Kathryn Grayson Vocal Excellence Award) and taught voice lessons from her home in Santa Monica. Though she is not remembered for opera stardom as she hoped, Kathryn’s bright, agile voice and unmistakable charm left an enduring mark on the advent of the Hollywood movie musical.

Video: Frank Sinatra and Kathryn Grayson
“Là ci darem la mano” from Don Giovanni, It Happened In Brooklyn (1947)

Spotify Playlist

  1. “So In Love” from Kiss Me Kate (1953) – Kathryn Grayson and Howard Keel
  2. “What’s Wrong With Me?” from The Kissing Bandit (1948) – Kathryn Grayson and Frank Sinatra
  3. Lucia di Lammermoor, Act I: “Verrano a te sull’aure” – Kathryn Grayson and Mario Lanza
  4. “Make Believe” from Show Boat (1951) – Kathryn Grayson and Howard Keel
  5. Johann Strauss’ “Voices of Spring” from Andy Hardy’s Private Secretary (1941) – Kathryn Grayson
  6. “Micaela’s Aria” from Carmen – Kathryn Grayson

Sources and Further Reading

Kathryn Grayson Bio (The Official Website of Kathryn Grayson)

Kathryn Grayson (Hometowns to Hollywood)

Kathryn Grayson (Classical Crossover Magazine)

Kathryn Grayson, Operatic Film Star, Dies at 88 (New York Times)

Kathryn Grayson dies at 88; MGM singing star in 1940s, ‘50s (Los Angeles Times)

Movie Musical Star Kathryn Grayson Dead (NPR)

Classically Trained: Ben Folds

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: Ben Folds (b. 1966)

PROFESSION: Musician, Composer, Arranger, Music Producer.

During a 2017 concert with the National Symphony Orchestra, Ben composed and orchestrated a piece live onstage in only 10 minutes.


Hailing from Winston-Salem, Ben Folds is a born and bred North Carolinian. Ben’s earliest musical roots began when his father brought home a piano one day, and at the age of nine, he began to learn the songs of artists like Elton John and Billy Joel by ear. His love of music continued to blossom throughout high school, during which he played in several bands as the pianist, bassist, and drummer.

After briefly studying classical percussion and playing in the orchestra at the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music, Ben returned to his Carolina roots and enrolled at the University of North Carolina – Greensboro. During his time at UNCG, Ben’s band – Majosha – won battle of the bands at Duke University and self-produced their own album. After Majosha broke up, Ben landed a publishing deal with Nashville music executive Scott Siman and moved to Nashville to work as a session musician for several major music labels. Despite getting some work, Ben soon moved back to North Carolina to explore different musical paths.

Musical Paths

In 1993, Ben Folds Five emerged out of Chapel Hill, North Carolina. The trio, featuring Ben Folds, Robert Sledge, and Darren Jessee, released their first radio single, “Underground,” in 1995 and performed together on-and-off up until 2013. The band earned a strong following in both Australia and the United Kingdom, and their biggest single “Brick” broke the top 25 in the US, Canada, and Australia, and the top 30 in the UK.

After Ben Folds Five disbanded in 2000, Ben went on to pursue his solo career – releasing albums, producing music, songwriting, and contributing music to animated movies such as Hoodwinked! and Over The Hedge.

His solo efforts led to collaborations with popular musicians such as John Mayer and Regina Spektor, and he became a judge on the a cappella competition show The Sing-Off in 2009.

He was inducted into the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame in 2011, and in the same year, he received a star on the Music City Walk of Fame in Nashville, Tennessee. Currently, Ben serves as the first-ever Artistic Advisor to the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

Fun Fact:
The wildly popular a cappella group Pentatonix got its start as the Season 3 winner of The Sing-Off.

Video: Dear Theodosia – Regina Spektor & Ben Folds with the NSO | LIVE at The Kennedy Center

Influences and Classical Ties

Ben’s music is heavily piano based, recalling his earliest moments as a musician. He credits his percussion experience as the reason for his unique, percussive piano style, which can be heard breaking through the texture of songs like “Emaline.”

Despite considering himself to be a rock artist at heart, Ben’s work has branched in and out of the classical realm throughout his lifetime. In addition to regular collaborative performances with symphony orchestras (including the West Australian Symphony Orchestra, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, and the North Carolina Symphony), Ben’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra was released as part of his 2015 album So There. This 21-minute piece pays homage to 20th century composers such as George Gershwin and Aaron Copland and combines classical music with contemporary pop harmonies. When asked about his composition experience in an interview with Yamaha, Ben explained, “I had music theory (in college), and a few times I cheated my way past my advisor to take some pretty advanced composition classes. I’ve always found it really useful to have composition tools for when you’re stuck.”

Described as “genre-bending,” Ben’s fluid musical style allows him to continue to explore his classical roots in the modern age of pop music. “The world of classical music from whence all our ideas of composition grew,” Ben once noted on his website, “That world is hurting right now, and it could use pop musicians. And pop musicians could use the classical world because it’s so full of possibility and sounds. It’s endless.”

Video: Ben Folds: NPR Music Tiny Desk Concert


  1. The Luckiest – Ben Folds
  2. Emaline – Ben Folds Five
  3. Landed – Ben Folds
  4. Rockin’ the Suburbs – Ben Folds (Clean Version)
  5. Heist – Ben Folds (from Over the Hedge)
  6. Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, Movement 1 – Ben Folds
    (So There Album)
  7. Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, Movement 2 – Ben Folds
    (So There Album)
  8. Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, Movement 3 – Ben Folds
    (So There Album)
  9. Magic (feat. The University of Chicago’s Voices in Your Head) – Ben Folds, The University of Chicago’s Voices in Your Head

Sources and Further Reading:

Ben Folds Biography

Ben Folds And Nick Hornby On World Cafe

Ben Folds with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra

5 Questions to Ben Folds

A Ben Folds Lovefest

Review: Ben Folds. “So There” (NPR)

Ben Folds: A Pop Mastermind Goes Classical

Classically Trained: Lawrence Winters

Pictured: Lawrence Winters; United Archives GmbH / Alamy Stock Photo

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.

Quick Facts

NAME: Lawrence Winters (1915 – 1965)

PROFESSION: Opera singer (bass-baritone)

Todd Duncan, Lawrence’s voice teacher at Howard University, played the role of Porgy in the 1935 original Broadway cast of George Gershwin’s Porgy & Bess. He became the first Black man to sing with a major American opera company (New York City Opera) in 1945. Just three years later, Lawrence would follow in his footsteps. 

Carolina Beginnings

Born in King’s Creek, South Carolina in 1915, bass-baritone Lawrence Winters would go on to join the first wave of Black opera singers to reach international success. After pursuing music privately in Salisbury, North Carolina, Lawrence came into his own while studying under baritone Todd Duncan at Howard University, where he earned a Bachelor of Music degree in 1941.

One of Lawrence’s first large-scale performances, the 1941 concert premiere of the opera Ouanga in New York City, garnered praise and astonishment among critics. Hailing Lawrence as “a true musician” with a “magnificent high baritone,” one reviewer remarked, “(the cast members) are all good; but just watch that young (Winters) fellow go places” – and go places, he did. 

At the end of World War II (during which he served in the U.S. Armed Forces as a musical director), Lawrence relocated to New York City full time, where he would build a lasting legacy over the next decade. 

A Career in Bloom

Lawrence’s first three years in New York City brought debut after debut, solidifying his status as a rising star in the opera scene. Broadway came first: shortly after Lawrence arrived, he was cast in the 1946 musical revue Call Me Mister. His debut as a recitalist came the following year, and in 1948, Lawrence made his first New York City Opera appearance as Amonasro in Verdi’s Aida – the beginning of a lengthy relationship with one of the time period’s most prestigious opera companies.

Fun Fact:
The 1946 Call Me Mister original cast album (featuring Lawrence) is still accessible on most major streaming platforms. 

A Principal Performer

Following his debut, Lawrence quickly gained traction at the New York City Opera as a frequent lead baritone, perhaps most notably the title role in a 1951 production of Verdi’s Rigoletto (making history as the first Black artist to perform the role). Lawrence’s career at the NYCO led him to perform many of the most famous baritone roles with the company over the next 7 years, including Timur in Puccini’s Turandot, Count Almaviva in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, and Joe in the musical Show Boat.

When he wasn’t preparing for the next NYCO production, Lawrence maintained a packed schedule as a concert artist and enjoyed regular engagements with European opera companies. International tours, a two-season stint with the Royal Swedish Opera, regular roles with the Hamburg State Opera, and appearances on German television catalyzed his growing international popularity throughout the 1950s. In 1951, Lawrence joined famed soprano Camilla Williams to record the title roles of Gershwin’s Porgy & Bess, the most complete existing recording of the work at the time. 

After leaving the NYCO in 1955, Lawrence’s career shifted primarily to the opera houses of Germany. He became principal baritone of the Deutsche Oper Berlin in 1957, then the Hamburg State Opera in 1961, where he remained until his untimely death. 

“He colors a phrase with subjective intensity. It’s just as if there were an electric current inside the voice box animating the miniature drama it’s putting across. Current may be plentiful when it’s used to run the refrigerator or a vacuum cleaner, but the kind of electricity Mr. Winters generates is a pretty rare commodity.”

New York Post,
via the Green Bay Press-Gazette

Final Performances and Legacy

In his last years, Lawrence’s success and popularity remained steady. Lawrence reprised his role in Porgy & Bess for a final performance with the New York City Opera in 1960. In 1961, he received a Tony Award nomination for his role in Ketti Frings’s play The Long Dream – his last appearance on Broadway and one of his few non-singing roles. After a long battle with cancer, Lawrence died at the age of 49 while living in Hamburg with his wife and two sons.

Described as possessing “a voice of exceptional natural beauty and resonance,” Lawrence’s career represents a crucial moment in history – though he was part of the first generation to break through the art form’s barriers, the effort to end racial discrimination in the opera sphere (and the systematic exclusion of Black artists) persists today. 

“One of the great singers of our time, most certainly not for a long time have we heard such a moving voice. A timbre of pure silk, sumptuous, deep, brilliant without hardness, as mellow in softness as rich in brightness, a tessitura of over two octaves… And he is an artist.”

Journal de Geneve


Video: Lawrence Winters performs “Dio di Guida” from Nabucco

Video: Lawrence Winters performs “Ol’ Man River” from Show Boat

Video: Lawrence Winters performs “Oh, I Got Plenty O’Nuttin”
from Porgy & Bess on live TV, 1955 televised Gershwin tribute. 


  1. “Drei Münzen im Brunnen” (1955), from the film Three Coins in the Fountain
  2. “The Red Ball Express” (1946), from the musical Call Me Mister
  3. “I’ve Got a Ram, Goliath,” from the opera The Devil & Daniel Webster (1938)
  4. “Bess, You Is My Woman Now” (1951), from the opera Porgy & Bess

Sources and Further Reading

Lawrence Winters (1915 – 1965) (Black Past)

Black History and Germany (German Way)

Obituary: Baritone Lawrence Winters (Jet Magazine – October 14, 1965)

Lawrence Whisonant Wins Plaudits of Critics For Opera Performance” (Fulton History)

Baritone To Sing Here On Monday” (Green Bay Press-Gazette – January 10, 1950)

Todd Duncan: First Black Man to Sing with a Major Opera Company” (Black Then)

Lawrence Winters (Wikipedia page)

Porgy & Bess (1951 album) (Wikipedia page)

African American Concert Singers Before 1950 by Darryl Glenn Nettles, p. 167

Classically Trained: Caroline Shaw

Pictured: Caroline Shaw. Photo by Kris Connor/Contour by Getty Images

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: Caroline Shaw

PROFESSION: Composer, violinist, vocalist, and producer


Fun Fact:
One section of Caroline Shaw’s Pulitzer Prize winning piece, Partita for 8 Voices, is inspired by Caroline’s memory of a view of the Albemarle Sound on the northeastern coast of North Carolina, where her grandmother lives.

Musician from Birth

Composer Caroline Shaw was born in Greenville, North Carolina. With her mother as her first teacher, Caroline began studying violin when she was only two years old. Her mother, a Suzuki instructor, instilled a passion for playing in Shaw at a young age, and her father, an avid pianist, also helped cultivate her love of music.

By age ten, Caroline was beginning to gain an interest in chamber music and the nature of playing music in a group. Around this time, she began to write music of her own, most of which was written in the style of chamber music from composers like Mozart and Brahms. Caroline later received her Bachelor of Music in violin performance from Rice University in 2004, followed by a master’s degree in violin from Yale University in 2007. Today, she is an adjunct faculty member at New York University and is a creative associate at The Julliard School.

Video: Attacca Quartet with Caroline Shaw: Lincoln Center Offstage

Fame and the Pulitzer Prize

After graduating and moving to New York in 2008, Shaw joined the progressive a cappella ensemble Roomful of Teeth and began composing for them, including a piece entitled Partita for 8 Voices. The composition is experimental, featuring singing and speaking as well as throat singing, yodeling, and perhaps most uniquely, recitations of passages from artist Sol LeWitt’s Wall Drawings combined with square dancing calls. The eclectic combination of styles and inspirations took two years of work to finish. While enrolled in a PhD program in composition at Princeton University, she submitted Partita for 8 Voices on a whim for the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Music – and to her surprise, she won.

Video: Partita for 8 Voices by Roomful of Teeth


At age 30, Caroline was the youngest musician to ever claim the Pulitzer Prize in her section. Her composition and vocal skills gained attention worldwide as she collaborated with Richard Reed Parry of Arcade Fire and The National after her Pulitzer win.

After performing Partita for 8 Voices with Roomful of Teeth in Los Angeles, Kanye West approached her with an offer. Producers working with Kanye were looking for someone with a classical composition background to introduce a specific, orchestral sound into Kanye’s work, while Caroline’s projects had typically incorporated elements outside of traditional “classical” sounds. In interviews with outlets like NPR and the Guardian, Caroline recalls feeling conflicted about accepting West’s proposition; however, after diving deep into Kanye’s music, particularly the song “Say You Will,” she decided to join the remixing projects.

Video/Audio: Song of Wood by Richard Reed Parry

Music in Popular Media and Beyond

With Kanye, Caroline co-produced the remix to “Say You Will” from the 2008 album 808’s & Heartbreak. She also sang and played violin in the song, injecting her own orchestral twist into the piece. The collaboration continued as she joined Kanye for his seventh album, The Life of Pablo – her voice is featured in the songs “Father Stretch My Hands Pt 2” and “Wolves” (which also features Frank Ocean). In popular culture, Caroline has appeared on TV shows including Amazon original Mozart in the Jungle (as herself conducting her compositions) and wrote the score for the 2018 film Madeline’s Madeline.

Video: Kanye West – Say You Will ft. Caroline Shaw

Caroline has had the opportunity to use her voice, instrumental talent, and composition skill across a variety of mediums and in collaboration with many other artists; her biography notes that she once “got to sing in three part harmony with Sara Bareilles and Ben Folds at the Kennedy Center, and that was pretty much the bees’ knees and elbows.” With regular university residencies and commissions scheduled for a numerous ensembles, Caroline always has something new on the horizon, combining her classical music background with a style all her own.


  1. Plan & Elevation: IV. The Orangery – Attaca Quartet
  2. Is a Rose: No. 1, The Edge (Live) – Attaca Quartet
  3. Wolves – Kanye West, The Life of Pablo [EXPLICIT]
  4. Plan & Elevation: III. The Herbaceous Border – Attaca Quartet
  5. Enr’acte – Attaca Quartet
  6. The Listeners: No. 8, Sail Through This to That (Live) – Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra
  7. Pt. 2 – Kanye West, The Life of Pablo [EXPLICIT]
  8. The Listeners: No. 6, That’s Us (Live) – Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra
  9. Partita for 8 Singers: No. 1 Allemande – Roomful of Teeth
  10. Partita for 8 Singers: No. 2 Sarabande – Roomful of Teeth
  11. Partita for 8 Singers: No. 3 Courante – Roomful of Teeth
  12. Partita for 8 Singers: No. 4 Passacaglia – Roomful of Teeth

Additional Resources

Video: Kanye West: Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 2

Artist Profile: Caroline Shaw by the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources

Caroline Shaw Sings Her Own Song (NPR)

Is Caroline Shaw really the future of music? (The Guardian)

Caroline Shaw’s website

The Pulitzer Prizes: Caroline Shaw

Caroline Shaw is Firing on All Creative Cylinders (San Francisco Classical Voice)

Classically Trained: Dan Forrest

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.

Quick Facts

NAME: Dan Forrest 



Fun Fact
Many of Dan’s best loved works have premiered right here in the Carolinas! Notable examples include his most popular work, Requiem for the Living, which was commissioned for The Hickory Choral Society’s 35th anniversary, and LUX: The Dawn From On High, which was commissioned and premiered by the Greenville Chorale and Symphony. 

Musical Beginnings

Composer Dan Forrest is known for his expertly-crafted melodies and “superb writing…full of spine-tingling moments,” primarily using sacred texts and themes (Salt Lake Tribune). With dozens of critically-acclaimed pieces for ensembles of all sizes and skill levels under his belt, Dan’s works are beloved by choral musicians and audiences alike – but composition wasn’t his first path as a musician.  

Dan’s formal training as a pianist began at the age of 8, but his interest in music blossomed even earlier. In an interview with music publishing company J.W. Pepper, he remarked: “When I was really little, my mom would play little songs at the piano and teach me to hear the difference between major and minor chords… I became our church pianist when I was in sixth grade, and that gave me a lot of valuable experience while I was still young.”

Dan went on to major in piano at Bob Jones University in Greenville, SC, where his flair for composition truly took off. After studying advanced theory and composition throughout his time at Bob Jones, he remained in South Carolina as a piano teacher and later earned his D.M.A. in composition from the University of Kansas. 

Interest in Choral Music

Though Dan’s earliest forays into composition were solo works for the piano, he discovered a deeper interest in the human voice while pursuing his Master’s degree: “I was completely infatuated with recordings of choral music, and I heard what choirs could do, musically… it was when I got excited about choirs that I really started composing.” His first published choral piece with Beckenhorst Press, “Sun of My Soul,” came out in 2001 and sparked a lasting relationship: Dan now serves as assistant editor for the publishing company. 

Notable Projects and Awards

Dan’s best-known work, Requiem for the Living (2013), began as an open-ended commission from The Hickory Choral Society in Hickory, NC, which he described as a “composer’s dream come true.” Tasked with creating a large-scale piece for chorus and orchestra, Dan chose to invert the traditional formula for a Requiem, focusing on “light, peace, and rest” for both the deceased and the living. Subsequent large-scale works include Jubilate Deo (2016) and LUX: The Dawn From On High (2017). One of his shortest choral settings, “Good Night, Dear Heart” (2008), is particularly well known in choral circles and has been published in several iterations since its original SATB arrangement, including a version for mens’ choir and a transcription for wind band. 

Among numerous other awards and accolades, Dan is a two-time John Ness Beck Foundation first-place winner (2004 and 2009), a 2005 winner of the ACDA Raymond Brock Composition award, and a 2006 recipient of the prestigious ASCAP Morton Gould Young Composers Award for selected movements from Words From Paradise. In addition to his composition career, Dan is a regular adjudicator, accompanist, and educator and frequently collaborates with choral ensembles through commissions, presentations, and residencies. 


Video: Dan Forrest Interview – Requiem for the Living

Video: And Can It Be (Dan Forrest) – 2019 BBC Proms
New Irish Chamber Choir and Ulster Orchestra

Video: Tulane Choir dedicating “Good Night, Dear Heart”
to those who have lost their fight to Covid-19


  1. Good Night, Dear Heart – Seraphic Fire, 2014
  2. Gaelic Morning, arr. Dan Forrest – Illuminations, 2015
  3. Requiem for the Living: V. Lux Aeterna – 2013
  4. Lux: The Dawn from On High: IV. Gloria in Excelsis (Live) – 2017
  5. Jubilate Deo: IV. Ngokujabula! – 2016
  6. The Breath of Life: 2. First Breath Last Breath – 2019
  7. The Sun never says (Voces8) – Enchanted Isle, 2019

Reading and Additional Resources

Choral Conversations: Dan Forrest (J.W. Pepper)

The Music of Dan Forrest – Composer. Pianist. Educator.

Dan Forrest (Wikipedia)

Classically Trained: Bejun Mehta

Pictured: Bejun Mehta by Marco Borggreve, CC BY 3.0.

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.

Quick Facts

NAME: Bejun Mehta

PROFESSION: Opera Singer

VOICE TYPE: Countertenor


What is a countertenor?
“Countertenor” classifies the highest voice type for a male classical singer, achieved by using falsetto. A countertenor’s range is usually similar to a female contralto or mezzo-soprano, but can even be as high as a soprano’s range!

The Boy Soprano Years

It’s not unusual to go through a career change or two over the course of your life – but can you imagine retiring from your first career at 15? Though he is one of the most celebrated countertenors alive today, Bejun Mehta’s journey from accomplished boy soprano to the opera stage was less of a straight line than you might think. 

Born in Laurinburg, North Carolina in 1968, Bejun quickly attracted attention for his unusually strong, clear soprano voice. By the age of 8, he had established himself as a prodigy, regularly performing as a soloist with major orchestras around the globe – but even as his skill developed, he knew this stage of life wouldn’t last forever. With a voice change quickly approaching, he recorded the 1983 album Bejun at 14, and his boy soprano career halted shortly after. 

Video/Audio: Bejun Mehta sings “So shall the lute and harp awake” from Handel’s Judas Maccabeus, Age 14.

A Time of Transition

In a 1998 interview with the New York Times, Bejun described the end of his boy soprano years as a “double whammy:” ”Not only did you stop being visible and famous, but you lost what it was that you could do. And that was tremendously painful.” Over the next several years, he continued his musical pursuits as a cellist, conductor, and producer, but he could never shake the need to sing. After attempting to train as a baritone (an effort that “just wasn’t working”) and nearly giving up on singing altogether, Bejun experimented with his range one afternoon after reading an article about a countertenor – and something truly magical happened. 

A Singing Career, Reinvented

Though becoming a countertenor might seem like a logical next step, the mechanics of the boy soprano and countertenor voice are not always compatible – and Bejun wasn’t interested in the “hooty, broken-voiced sound” of many countertenors he knew as a child. In fact, he disliked the idea of being a countertenor so much that he never considered becoming one until the day of his “experiment.” 

Listening with the ears of a music producer, Bejun was surprised to discover that he liked the quality of his higher register – and after a fateful audition just one month later, opera legend Marilyn Horne connected him with a manager. Less than a year after discovering his countertenor voice, Bejun made his New York City Opera debut as Armindo in Handel’s “Partinope.” 

Notable Projects

Since his first operatic role in 1998, Bejun has gained a reputation as one of the finest countertenors of a generation. Described by Opera News as “perhaps the most sophisticated and musically satisfying of today’s countertenors,” Bejun regularly performs repertoire ranging from Baroque to contemporary music in addition to his thriving opera career. 

Among dozens of other notable projects, Bejun’s 2011 solo CD Ombra Cara, a collection of Handel arias, won the ECHO Klassik for Best Operatic Recording of the Year. Bejun has recorded extensively after his 1983 debut record; his most recent album, CANTATA – yet can I hear…, was released in 2018 and received the Diapason d’Or distinction. In 2012 and 2013, Bejun appeared in both premiere casts of George Benjamin’s opera Written on Skin; the role of the Boy was created specifically for him. A new recording of Handel’s Orlando with Bejun in the title role was released in 2014, and in the same year, ArtHaus released a complete, staged film recording of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice with Bejun as star and artistic advisor. 

Gluck – Orfeo ed Euridice (Vienna version, 1762) featuring Bejun Mehta.

Resources & More

Fun Facts

Leonard Bernstein By Jack Mitchell, CC BY-SA 4.0.

As a longtime supporter of Bejun’s boy soprano career, Leonard Bernstein once remarked, “It is hard to believe the richness and maturity of musical understanding in this adolescent boy.”

2020 Grammy logo. Credit: Courtesy of the Recording Academy™/Getty Images © 2019

Bejun won a GRAMMY award for his production work on Janos Starker’s 1997 recording of Bach’s Cello Suites. 

“Fammi combattere” – Handel’s Orlando, 2010.

“Up the dreadful step ascending” – Handel’s Jephtha, 2016.


  1. Semele, “Where’er you walk,” Bejun (1987)
  2. Bach Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major, I. Prelude – Janos Starker (1997)
  3. Giulio Cesare in Egitto, “L’empio, Sleale, Indegno” (2003)
  4. Handel: Ombra cara “Aria Voi, che udito il mio lamento” (2010)
  5. Ralph Vaughan Williams, “Bright is the Ring of Words,” Down By the Salley Gardens (2011) 
  6. George Benjamin, Written on Skin, “Part One, Scene IV: Agnes and the Boy I” (2012)
  7. Jose de Nebra, “Vendado amor es, no ciego” El Maestro Farinelli (2014)
  8. Handel Orlando: Act I, 15. Aria “Fammi combattere” (2014)
  9. Handel, “I Will Magnify Thee,” Cantata (2018)

Sources and Further Reading

Bejun Mehta’s website

Career Reborn, on a High Note (New York Times, 1998)

A New Voice, Fully Formed (Los Angeles Times, 1999)

CANTATA – Yet Can I Hear… (Opera News)

Bejun Mehta (Wikipedia)