Monday, November 15, 2021 Davóne Tines Is Changing What It Means to Be a Classical Singer: The bass-baritone’s daring recitals feel almost like compositions in themselves

Davóne Tines
(Photograph by Stefan Ruiz for The New Yorker)

by Alex Ross

November 15, 2021

Before the altar of the church stood a large screen displaying the words “recital no. 1: mass,” in black letters on a white background. The singer entered from the back, walking slowly, delivering an a-cappella setting of the Kyrie from the traditional Mass, by the contemporary composer Caroline Shaw: “Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy.” The light was low, almost séance-like. The singer wore a black suit jacket over a black tank top, with a pearl rosary around his neck. Once he reached the front of the church, he walked over to a piano, where an accompanist was waiting for him, and launched into Bach’s “Wie jammern mich,” from the cantata “Vergnügte Ruh”: “How I bewail those wayward hearts / That set themselves against you, my God.” He then sang the spiritual “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?,” in a ghostly, semi-modernist arrangement by Tyshawn Sorey. There followed another segment of Shaw’s Mass, the Agnus Dei. In a matter of minutes, we had traversed multiple centuries and worlds, yet all the music was filtered through the taut resonance of one voice: a timbre at once grand and fraught, potent and vulnerable.

The singer was the thirty-four-year-old bass-baritone Davóne Tines, performing with the pianist Adam Nielsen at the First Congregational Church of Los Angeles, in September. I had never heard a recital quite like it: instead of the usual smorgasbord of tastefully varied selections, it felt like a sustained creative statement, almost a composition in itself. It culminated in another startling a-cappella moment: a rendition of “Prelude to the Holy Presence of Joan d’Arc,” by the avant-garde Black composer Julius Eastman, who died in obscurity in 1990. Tines conveyed this music with disciplined desperation, rising to a siren-like wail on the line “Joan, speak boldly when they question you.”

The next day, at a café in the Hollywood Hills, Tines ordered a sausage-and-spinach scramble and spoke to me about the “mass” program—one of several projects in which he is challenging the conventions of classical music, tackling themes of race and sexuality and expanding what it means to possess an operatic voice. Tines, whose first name is pronounced “da-von,” arrived with his suitcase in tow: he was heading to Detroit, where he is an artist-in-residence at the Michigan Opera Theatre, and where, next spring, he will sing the title role of Anthony Davis’s 1986 opera, “X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X.” Onstage, Tines is an intense, magnetic presence, and also, at six feet two and a half, a towering one. In person, he is urbane, discursive, and playful, though he speaks with an unguarded directness that is not often encountered in the nervous corridors of classical music.

“When I was at Juilliard, we were given instruction in how to build a recital,” Tines told me. “You were supposed to follow a template, where you establish your abilities in various areas—antique Italian arias, Lieder, and so on. And there’d be a section at the end where you were allowed to do something ‘fun.’ I saw this type of recital so many times, and at the end you’d see a person suddenly come alive. And I’d always ask myself, ‘Hmm—why didn’t that happen the whole time?’ ”

Most rising singers do as they are told. Tines, who has a bachelor’s degree in sociology from Harvard and has worked in arts administration, has his own ideas about how to present himself in public. He shows up at recording sessions with a precise concept of how his voice should be equalized; he knows about lighting, lenses, film stock; his program notes are couched in his own elegant prose. He spent years planning the program that became “mass,” and ultimately hit upon a structure built around the Latin liturgy. “I really like structures,” he said. “The ritualistic template of the Mass is a proven structure—centuries of culture have upheld it. Anything that I put into it will assume a certain shape. And what I put into it is my own lived experience. I grew up singing spirituals and gospel. I also sang Bach, opera, new classical music. Julius Eastman was Black and gay like me—he’s someone I idolize. It was always about finding the connections so I didn’t go crazy.”

The director Peter Sellars, who helped launch Tines’s international career by casting him in Kaija Saariaho’s 2016 chamber opera, “Only the Sound Remains,” attended the Los Angeles recital, a presentation in the long-running Monday Evening Concerts series. Sellars later told me, “The first time I heard Davóne, it was so clear that he sang because he had something to say, not simply because he has a beautiful voice. He grew up with a sense of music being not decorative but essential—deeply functional, serving a need, serving a range of needs. He knows that music is here to meet real human needs and real divine imperatives. And that’s really, really super different from the standard conservatory-trained opera singer.”

Fauquier County, Virginia, where Tines spent his childhood, is a mostly white area east of the Blue Ridge Mountains. “Preppy horse country,” he calls it. His family has lived in the region for generations. For a multimedia project titled “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” which Tines is developing in collaboration with the violinist Jennifer Koh, he interviewed his grandparents John and Alma Tines, who played a primary role in raising him. On a recording, Alma is heard saying, “Your great-great-great-grandmother, she still was a slave. She lived right up the road from where we live now. . . . She was in slavery, but she never caved in. She helped to start the Trough Hill Baptist Church. Three of her great-great-great-grandchildren graduated from M.I.T., Harvard, and Juilliard.”

Music of all kinds, sacred and secular, echoed through the Tineses’ house; John, a retired naval officer, is also a choir pianist. Although Davóne sang in church as far back as he can remember, he devoted himself mainly to the violin, becoming the concertmaster of two school orchestras. On his CD Walkman, he listened to music ranging from Vivaldi to Janet Jackson; he recollects being especially captivated by Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring”—“those waves of sound moving through the orchestra.” In his high-school years, people began noticing his booming bass-baritone. Once, Davóne recalls, he sang “faux operatically” to his grandfather, who told him, “Whoa, I think you have a voice there.”

At Harvard, Tines made his first venture into opera, taking the role of the devilish Nick Shadow in a student production of Stravinsky’s “The Rake’s Progress.” He also played violin in the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra, serving as the ensemble’s president, and sang in the Harvard-Radcliffe Collegium Musicum. But he didn’t see a future in performance: he majored in sociology because he imagined pursuing a career as an arts administrator. Marx’s theory of species-being and Durkheim’s concept of social alienation have remained on his mind as he ponders how classical artists can regain a sense of autonomy; all too often, they are regarded as cogs in a cultural machine that rates aesthetic values over human ones.

After college, Tines had an internship at the American Repertory Theatre, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and then he became the production manager of the opera program at George Mason University, where he also took voice lessons. He had a side job singing in the choir at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, in Washington, D.C., where Callista Gingrich was a fellow-chorister. (“Always a few cents flat,” Tines said of her. “Terrifying Southern charm.”) A growing dedication to the voice led him to apply to the master’s program at Juilliard, where he studied from 2011 to 2013. Although he received excellent guidance from coaches, he found the general climate rigid and oppressive. “I felt continually that I was inadequate and being judged,” he said. “Honestly, when I graduated, I didn’t think I’d have a career in singing.”

After graduation, Tines received unexpected encouragement from an eminent source—Lorin Maazel, the former music director of the New York Philharmonic. Tines was invited to join a summer opera program that Maazel hosted at his estate in Castleton, Virginia, and he was told, “Maestro really likes you.” The social atmosphere among younger participants was mellower than it had been at Juilliard. “It was very ‘Wet Hot American Opera Summer,’ ” Tines said, alluding to late-night pool parties. The real turning point came in 2014, when he auditioned for Sellars, who, after hearing two numbers, cast him in the Saariaho opera. Suddenly, Tines had engagements in Amsterdam, Helsinki, Paris, Madrid, and New York.

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