Davóne Tines Is Changing What It Means to Be a Classical Singer

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.”…

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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.

I first heard Tines in 2016, when he was a soloist in a Los Angeles Philharmonic performance of John Adams’s oratorio “El Niño.” Tines’s stentorian delivery of the aria “Shake the Heavens,” in which the singer has to approximate the voice of God (“I will shake the heavens, and the earth, and the sea, and the dry land”), was one of those moments which anyone who attends concerts lives to witness: within thirty seconds, I knew I was in the presence of a major artist. The next year, at the San Francisco Opera, Tines took part in the première of Adams’s “Girls of the Golden West,” intoning an aria that had been written for him: a granitic setting of Frederick Douglass’s speech “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?”

Tines had made rapid progress for a singer in his early thirties. But he kept pressing forward, feeling the need to adopt a more conscious stance as a Black artist in a largely white environment. The time-honored ritual of code-switching came easily to him, but he lost patience with it. He told me, “I know just what to wear to signify class and status—that I’m an artist, but not too flamboyant about it, and I’m a little gay, and maybe even telegraphing a certain sexuality that’s exciting to you, but I’m not being overt about it. There are so many levels and minutiae of messaging, and at this point in my life, having been forced into so many contexts, there’s almost a certain play with it—you know? But it makes me sick, it makes me sick to my fucking stomach, that that’s what I consign myself to every time I go to an Upper East Side cocktail party.”

These were the years of Trumpism, of unashamed white-supremacist politics, of unending police brutality against Black people. Tines emerged with an astounding work titled “The Black Clown,” an adaptation of the eponymous poem by Langston Hughes, with a rollicking musical-theatre score by Michael Schachter. Tines had begun discussing the project with Schachter back in 2010, but it jelled in 2017, when Tines brought in Zack Winokur, one of the most inventive younger American opera directors. Tines refers to Winokur as his “art husband”: the two are in constant contact, turning over ideas for new projects. “What I love about Zack’s dramaturgy is that he always keeps letting the floor fall out from under you,” Tines told me. “He gets you comfy with something out of vaudeville or ‘Singin’ in the Rain,’ and then he punches you with something very dark, very raw.”

Hughes’s poem, written in 1931, gives a mordant overview of Black American history, emphasizing the merry-making-entertainer roles to which generation after generation of Black artists has been relegated. The production, which had its première at the American Repertory Theatre, in 2018, and then travelled to the Mostly Mozart Festival, at Lincoln Center, engenders from Hughes’s verses a series of brilliant set pieces—a Harlem revue, a plantation chant, a grand second-line jazz funeral featuring the spiritual “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child”—while subtly undermining the audience’s enjoyment of the razzle-dazzle. One tour de force is built around Hughes’s sardonic evocation of the false promise of Emancipation: “Freedom! / Abe Lincoln done set me free— / One little moment / To dance with glee.” A savage farce ensues onstage. Lincoln appears on stilts; dancers representing the formerly enslaved enter with broken chains and a noose, and do a kick line.

Tines’s enactment of the Clown was, first and foremost, a stupefying technical feat. Operatically trained singers often have trouble switching into popular registers; Tines, whose voice doesn’t seem to belong to any single genre, glided with ease from spirituals to jazz and on to musical theatre, R. & B., and funk. He also held his own with the show’s fleet, furious choreography, by Chanel DaSilva. All the while, Tines offered a kind of essay on self-reflexive performance, distancing himself from the infectious swirl with an array of wry faces and ironic inflections. He often looked out at the crowd with a questioning stare, as if to ask, “Is this what you want?” His recitation of the poem’s final lines made a whiplash turn from hollering desperation to cool matter-of-factness: “I was once a black clown / But now— / I’m a man!”

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