Opera Memphis partnership with Stax Music Academy sends talented 7th-grader to New York’s Metropolitan Opera

Partnership results in a Metropolitan Opera contract for local Memphis talent, Caleb Thompson, age 12

By Tim Sampson, for the Stax Music Academy

When the pandemic forced the cancellation of Opera Memphis’s much anticipated “Beale Street Boheme,” which would have featured a chorus of youngsters from the Stax Music Academy, McCleave Directing Fellow Bethania Baray chose to see it as an opportunity to explore opera more deeply by developing a class at Stax, the acclaimed Memphis institution. Working with Stax lead vocal instructor Keia Johnson, Ms. Baray developed a brand new curriculum. Four talented students participated in the year-long class, which took place largely through remote learning due to COVID protocols. Ms. Bethania – as she is affectionately known by her students – instructed the class on the history of opera, exploring language and musical styles that were previously unknown to the curious novices. The year concluded with a performance of “The Evening Prayer” from Hansel and Gretel sung by the four students in both English and German. 

Feature image photo by Photo by Tichanda Thompson

One year after enrolling in the Opera Class, talented 12-year-old Caleb Thompson will join the roster of the most prestigious opera house in the country. The Metropolitan Opera in New York City will begin its 2021-22 season with Fire Shut Up in my Bones by award-winning jazz musician and composer Terence Blanchard. This piece marks the Met’s first performance of an opera by a Black composer in it’s nearly 140-year history. Blanchard’s adaptation of Charles M. Blow’s poignant memoir features a libretto by filmmaker Kasi Lemmons and will star baritone Will Liverman as Charles (2020 Marian Anderson Vocal Award winner; 2019 Sphinx Medal of Excellence) and sopranos Angel Blue as Destiny (Grammy award winner, Bess in Porgy and Bess) and Latonia Moore as Billie (Grammy award winner, Serena in Porgy and Bess). Memphis’s own Caleb Thompson will understudy the role of Char’es Baby, the production’s only singing role for a child. After a search that included hundreds of talented, young applicants, Caleb persevered through numerous auditions and callbacks to secure his place in this historic production.

Caleb Thompson, 7th grader at Mid-South Gifted Academy. Photo by Demarcus Bowser

“What a privilege to help expand this relationship with Stax Music Academy and offer an opera ensemble class.” Bethania Baray says, “I knew these students would be one-of-a-kind, but students like Caleb have completely surpassed my expectations. Two semesters later, I find myself meeting with Caleb via Zoom to coach his audition for a role at the largest opera house in the world. He is incredibly hard working and talented, and I could not be more elated for him!”

The relationship with Opera Memphis and Stax stretches back to 2011, when students serenaded audience members at a performance of Tosca from the grand staircase in the lobby of The Orpheum. Since then students have performed as a part of numerous Opera Memphis events, OM guest artists have made classroom visits, and at one point a faculty position was funded in part by Opera Memphis. This class marked a new level in the relationship as the first year-long class focussed specifically on opera.

Keia Johnson, lead vocal instructor and Stax Music Academy educator, had this to say. “Caleb is the kind of student every teacher wants. He’s joyful, hardworking, FUNNY and so talented. But it’s how his family supports him that warms my heart. When Caleb wins, they all rejoice and I consider myself lucky to be a part of his village. I am so proud to teach voice to him but mainly to be someone in his life that gets to see him win, go Caleb go!”

For more information on Stax Music Academy, or to help support their mission, visit: staxmusicacademy.org. To learn more about supporting this unique collaboration, contact us: info@operamemphis.org 

View the opera class interview and performance.

Tim Sampson is the Communications Director for the Soulsville Foundation

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