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Spring Sing brings together Normandy student choir, opera great and social purpose

Opera Singer Denyce Graves rehearses with the Normandy High School Choir
Willis Ryder Arnold | St. Louis Public Radio
Opera Singer Denyce Graves rehearses with the Normandy High School Choir

World-renowned opera singer Denyce Graves entered the choir room at Normandy High School Friday morning with a bright and forceful “Good morning, everybody!” She was met by resounding applause and a collective “whoo!” of excitement from the choirs of Normandy and also Central Visual and Performing Arts High School.

After Graves quickly explained that she wouldn’t sing at full volume, which inspired student chuckles, the mezzo soprano, students and their choir director Duane Foster dove into the material, a gospel song called "Get on board, little children."

Graves was at the school to rehearse with the choirs for Opera Theatre of Saint Louis’ Spring Sing, the kickoff for Opera Theatre's 40th season. (This short concert at the Missouri History Museum starts at 12:30 p.m., Saturday.) This is Graves’ second collaboration with Opera Theatre and the Normandy High School choir in less than a year. All three participated in September’s “#WithNormandy: A Concert for Peace & Unity,” after the August shooting death of Normandy graduate Michael Brown. 

During a break, Graves sat in an office next to the choir room while students continued rehearsing. She said these collaborations, built around art’s role in addressing social issues, are a necessity.

“I think this is the most important thing I can do as singer, as a woman, as a human being, as an African-American woman,” she said. “This is why talent is given. You have a responsibility to humanity.”

Duane Foster conducts the Normandy High School Choir
Credit Willis Ryder Arnold l St. Louis Public Radio
Duane Foster conducts the Normandy High School Choir

Both Graves and Foster said concerts like Saturday’s  Spring Sing highlight students' talent and hard work. The concert, said Foster, is an opportunity to show the students’ strength and commitment to their art despite the continued problems of the Normandy Schools Cooperative. Currently the district is unaccredited and its continued existence is in question.

For Foster and his students, though, what mattered at this moment was simply the music. Foster pushed one section of students to reach for a high note when they initially sang one more easily achieved. The rehearsal was filled with laughter at times. Both Graves and Foster stressed "Get on board's" historical relevance -- its connection to the underground railroad and the current unrest in Ferguson and Baltimore, where Graves lives.

For Foster, the talent and dedication displayed by his students during rehearsal confirm the importance of the arts in these students' lives.

“The arts will be the grand unifier, and the arts will be that bind that will convince everyone that there’s still something to hold onto,” he said.

Foster said no matter what happens in the district neither he, nor the arts, are going anywhere.

“I’m never going to allow for that to leave this area,” said Foster.

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