Devón Tines challenges operatic conventions on themes of race and sexuality

Opera theater

Davone Teeth

Photo: Nikolai Schukoff/Nikolai Schukoff

Davóne Tines hopes his next appearance in Houston will go better than the last time he was in town.

The acclaimed bass-baritone was here to sing a personal favorite, John Adams’ massive oratorio “El Niño,” with the Houston Symphony. It was March 2020. During the first full rehearsal – an oversized orchestra, a 100-member choir and five other soloists alongside him – the symphony’s general manager took the stage, expressed his regrets and said that everyone had to go home.

“And so I was on a flight within four hours from Houston,” Tines recalled.

Recently named Musical America’s 2022 Singer of the Year, Tines has racked up a slew of such accolades in recent years. A lengthy November profile in The New Yorker listed the ways “in which he defies classical music conventions, addressing themes of race and sexuality and expanding on what it means to own an operatic voice.”

Presented by Da Camera, the piece that Tines will (finally) sing in Houston on January 25, “Recital: Mass No. 1,” represents more than four years of intense creation and curation. Its chosen word is “iterative”, which means that its components have been inserted, extracted, re-evaluated and diverted too many times to count. A scrapped part became “Were You There,” an audience participation piece dealing with police brutality; another may one day become a “dark Christmas album”.

“The recital versions morphed into different things,” says Tines. “But what I ultimately boiled down to was getting to the root of what I think a recital is supposed to be, which is a personal artistic statement.”

Getting personal for the Juilliard-educated Tines, now in her 30s, meant examining her roots in the church: singing Baptist gospel while growing up in northern Virginia, but also Renaissance music at Harvard and professionally with choirs at the Greek Orthodox Cathedral in New York. and the National Shrine Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Washington D.C. It was there, where he sang High Mass every week for a year and a half, that Tines began to think of ways to personalize a form whose name even suggests otherwise.

“I really understood what this structure was and how the human experience fit into it,” he explains, “but I also understood that there seemed to be a certain separation between what this structure described in terms of a personal human narrative and how people actually engaged it.

With accompanist Lester Green, “Recital No. 1” explores a variety of musical sources: traditional spirituals arranged by Tyshawn Sorey and the late Moses Hogan; bespoke pieces by contemporary composer Caroline Shaw; and short works by JS Bach as well as 20th-century black composers Margaret Bonds and Julius Eastman.

Davóne Tines: Recital No. 1: Mass

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, January 25

Or: Zilkha Hall, Hobby Center, 800 Bagby St.

Details: $37.50-$67.50; 713-524-5050;

“It’s important, I think, for people to understand that I don’t necessarily mean that this program is religious or dogmatic,” Tines says. “I really think about it in terms of a structure to contain any human experience.”

Tines’ other recent projects tend to bear a similar personal imprint. They include the musical theater piece “The Black Clown,” which uses a 1931 Langston Hughes poem to celebrate black entertainment idioms while questioning white audiences; “VIGIL,” a tribute to slain Kentucky EMT Breonna Taylor; and his collaboration with friend and violinist Jennifer Koh, “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” which reflects on being a person of color in a predominantly white field.

Later this spring, Tines will sing the title role in Anthony Davis’ “The Life and Times of Malcolm X” for the Michigan Opera Theater, where he is artist-in-residence this season.

“I’ve been involved in work that engages racial identity in predominantly white spaces for a long time,” he says, “and what I’ve learned is that any real change takes time, and it takes minds change. in power.”

Here, Tines hopes he can use his newfound visibility and experience in arts administration to help nudge mainstream, old-guard organizations toward a more equitable future — encouraging them to connect with potential partners in poorly-served communities. served, for example, or simply to listen more to their audiences. But these groups must be willing to make more than cosmetic changes, he notes.

“Transparency is really key for that,” says Tines. “There needs to be open communication about these efforts, but a huge elephant in the room is that you can’t really assess how an organization needs to change until you very skillfully and clearly figure out why we’re in this situation. first place.

Chris Gray is a Houston-based writer.