Opera, Jazz, Musical Theater: The Many Hats of Duane Davis


This story is part of a series of 50 stories we are releasing to commemorate 50 years of opera in West Michigan. Browse more stories and follow our journey throughout the season.


Former Opera Grand Rapids Chorus Master Duane Davis’ love of music helped him cultivate a deep expertise, though he is too humble to say as much.

Duane Davis was very young when Tosca came to Cleveland. The Metropolitan Opera was bringing Puccini’s epically grim tale to Midwestern audiences, and Duane’s mother took him to see it. The opera made an impression that would shape the rest of his life.

Tosca, for a nine-year-old, was a pretty heavy opera,” says Duane. “But I didn’t look at the tragedy of it. I was smitten by the grandeur of it.” Duane’s mother explained what happened in each act to her son. Young Duane was floored by the spectacle. “I was so taken with it that it remained with me through my life.”

The next sixty-twos years of Duane’s life would be dominated by music from a wide range of traditions. We know him as the chorus master of Opera Grand Rapids, a post he has held since 1984. But Duane is a man of changeable faces. Some may recognize him as an adjudicator of jazz or choral festivals. Others know Duane as a musical theater personality, from his work as Music Director at Circle Theater. “I love musicals, I love opera. I love drama. Sometimes I create drama,” says Duane with a laugh.

Duane’s love of music helped him cultivate a deep expertise, though he is too humble to say as much. His forty-nine-year career included stints teaching at community college, high school, and middle school. His “retirement” consisted of teaching at Western Michigan University, then Indiana University. At the time we sat down with Duane, he had just had a piece premiered by the Grand Rapids Symphony the week before.

Like so many of us, Duane’s achievements have been punctuated by doubt. He has conducted at every major venue in New York, and many others. But self-doubt doesn’t disappear just because you make it to Carnegie Hall. “I’ve conducted at so many places, not always feeling like I was qualified to do that. But it’s because someone said, ‘You can do that!’ Someone said, ‘You can be Chorus Master. No, you don’t know everything about opera. No, you’re not fluent in those languages. But you’re a good musician, and you love people.’”

It’s this last point that makes Duane such a perfect fit for his position as Chorus Master. “A community of singers, like the chorus, they have to feel worthy. They have to feel appreciated. They have to feel like they are a community, that they’re vital in a production.” Duane wanted to be the person to instill these feelings in people, out of gratitude for those who had done the same for him.

With the chorus at his side, Duane can give himself fully to whatever he is working on. When asked to name his favorite opera, his reply is at once diplomatic and sincere. “The favorite is whatever I’m doing at the time. It sounds like what I’m supposed to say, but it’s true. I lose myself in what I’m doing, and when it’s done, I’m done, and onto the next thing. And now that’s my favorite. It has to be my favorite. I don’t want to do anything that does not move me as a human being.”

How does taste evolve for a man whose childhood obsession was Tosca? Duane’s sensibilities still gravitate toward art that provokes something in him, no matter what form or tradition that takes. Says Duane, “I love operas that touch sensitive places in me. That touch places that are disturbing.” Talking to Duane, it’s clear his ear is pressed to the pulse of the human condition. He is kind, and supremely affable—traits that are not universal in the highly erudite, competitive world of opera. His manner suggests that of a doggedly good sport, with an undercurrent of melancholy. This may be the perfect constitution for a man whose life’s work lays at the nexus of music and people.

“Opera can be hilarious, or it can be tragic. Most operas are tragic. Someone dies. Several people die,” Duane says with a rueful chuckle. “It touches deeply, especially when you’ve known life and you’ve known death.” In a career that has spanned decades, Duane has seen the panoply of human experience, onstage and off. He is still listening.

“The arts should elevate and cleanse and stir us. I still allow the arts to stir me.” He doesn’t yearn for the easily digestible, or the merely pleasing. “Do something! Disturb me in a way that makes me think a little deeper about life, about my journey, about my contribution, about things that I need to learn. I’m seventy-one and there’s still so much to learn.”


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