Sunday, December 1, 2019

John Malveaux: Houston Ebony Opera..African-American talent

Dorceal Duckens, right, sings during the Houston Ebony Opera Guild's choir rehearsal on Monday, Nov. 18, 2019, at Westbury United Methodist Church. Photo: Annie Mulligan, Houston Chronicle / Contributor

John Malveaux of 

See Houston Chronicle article about Houston Ebony Opera 

Houston Chronicle

Houston Ebony Opera continues legacy of highlighting African-American talent

The piano hums inside a small, orange-and-gray room at a church on the southwest side of Houston. The voices of African-American singers, old and young, rise to the ceiling and waft down the hall as they practice for their coming Christmas concert.

At the center of it all on a recent Monday night is Kiana Williams, who is wearing a colorful floral dress and sits behind the conductor’s stand during their choir rehearsal at Westbury United Methodist Church. Williams diligently hammers out vocal parts for each section of the choir and sings along with them, making sure they have the notes correct.

The Houston Ebony Opera Guild, founded in 1983 by the late Prairie View A&M University music professor Robert Henry, is trying to hold on to its legacy by attracting younger talent as longtime members get older. The group provides African-American singers an opportunity to perform in concerts across the city, where they sing a range of tunes, including opera, African-American spirituals and other works of music.

The group is among only a handful like it in the country, according to Jason Oby, the guild’s artistic director. During this year’s concert season, the choir hopes to focus on African-American women, performing works by female composers and using conductors such as Williams to lead concerts.

“Especially since the field is so dominant of men,” said Williams, assistant professor of music and the choir director at Texas Southern University. “Then, it’s also dominant of people of other ethnicities, white conductors and composers in the area of music. So, women, especially black women, are a huge minority in the field.”

Founder saw a need

Oby moved to Houston in 1996, the same year the opera guild’s founder, Henry, passed away. Oby said Henry, a beloved music professor at Prairie View A&M, created the group so his students could have a place to show off their skills.

“He perceived that there needed to be a venue that they could perform in that would show them in the light (in which) they deserved to be shone in,” said Oby, 56.

When the group first began, the concerts started out as occasional, with a variety of music from African-American spirituals to opera. A regular schedule soon sprang up and the group began performing elaborate opera performances at Miller Outdoor Theater.

He recalls serving a variety of roles within the organization, performing many solos on stage and taking on lead roles during the opera performances at Miller. He eventually was asked to become the artistic director.

Oby, Texas Southern University’s chair for the department of music, said he wants to pass the guild’s tradition on to younger generations. He enlisted Williams, his fellow coworker at Texas Southern University. The 36-year-old also fulfills the guild’s goal to feature African-American women composers.

“Dr. Williams represents a lot of things that I have in my mind where I want to see the organization go, which is youth, energy, new ideas, women participation,” Oby said.

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