The Denyce Graves Foundation began with the extraordinary story of singer and entrepreneur Mary Cardwell Dawson.
Until recently, she was unknown to many (including those in the classical music world), and her successful, all-Black opera company—that she founded in 1941—was all but lost to the annals of history. Dawson studied at the New England Conservatory of Music (Denyce Graves would attend the same institution, generations later.) Dawson was an accomplished singer, pianist, teacher, and eventually, impresaria. She had dreams of singing opera in the major houses of the United States. However, her country wasn’t ready for people of color to perform on these stages. Her response was to form the National Negro Opera Company (NNOC). It was bold and successful, performing to mixed audiences and lasting over 20 years. One of Dawson’s many achievements was having her beloved NNOC perform at the Metropolitan Opera in New York at a time when artists of color were still not welcome in that venue. However, the talent in the NNOC couldn't be denied and their productions received rave reviews from white reviewers in major newspapers. Dawson's company ended up having guilds in many major American cities, performing to great acclaim wherever it appeared.
Our research has uncovered many more trailblazing “Hidden Voices” like Mary Cardwell Dawson in American classical music, all of whom inspire us to both give back and pay it forward.
With programs and initiatives that support the current needs of historically marginalized communities in classical music today, we honor the stories of those who came before us and push for equity and inclusion on a systemic level.
DGF’s flagship initiative, Shared Voices, challenges the status quo with a more inclusive narrative of American vocal arts, while also modeling holistic training and offering opportunities for deeper engagement to students and young artists pursuing classical vocal arts careers.
Through Shared Voices, DGF is responding to two emerging needs:
First, enrollment in HBCU arts programs, including music, is falling sharply in an environment where Black students nationwide earn only 6% of undergraduate music degrees. College admissions staff point to the difficulties that music students have in identifying viable pathways to employment. By connecting students to a nationwide network of conservatories and cultural institutions, DGF will address this longstanding inequity and, over time, correct the downward trend in HBCU arts enrollment.
Second, in many of America’s most historic music conservatories, courses do not generally include substantial examples of music by musicians of color. Shared Voices programs offer exchange between these venerable institutions and our nation’s highest caliber HBCUs, inspiring inclusivity and transformation by bringing students and communities together to foster a deeper understanding of the rich, multicultural history of American vocal arts.
Leading up to the beginning of each school year, DGF’s Shared Voices team listens to the needs and goals of students, school leaders, musical directors, and educators to develop programs that will lead to transformative and lasting change.
The result will be opera companies, orchestras, schools of music, and cultural institutions that at last reflect our nation’s diversity.