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Artistic engagement and human experience: A conversation with Davóne Tines and Yuval Sharon

Davóne Tines (left) and Yuval Sharon
Davóne Tines (left) and Yuval Sharon

The Michigan Opera Theater's Artistic Director and Artist-in-Residence recently spoke with Classical IPR about their artistic visions.

Both Yuval Sharon and Davóne Tines are used to people labeling their work a certain way.

For Sharon, the Gary L. Wasserman Artistic Director of the Michigan Opera Theater, it's the perception that his productions are more gimmick than art.

For Tines, the Artist-in-Residence of the Michigan Opera Theater, it's the perception that he's an activist who is solely focused on centering the Black voice in classical music.

But for each of them, their artistic visions are much more complex.

Davóne Tines in "The Black Clown" in 2019
Richard Termine
Davóne Tines in "The Black Clown" in 2019

"Really, all I'm trying to do is be honest about what I'm engaging in and caring about in the world," Davóne Tines, who was recently named Musical America's Vocalist of the Year, explained.

He does that, he said, because he hopes other artists will do the same: engage in what they care about.

For Tines, that artistic engagement often comes in the form of what it means to be Black in the United States.

He originated the role of Charles in Terence Blanchard's opera "Fire Shut Up in My Bones," produced a stage adaptation of "The Black Clown" by Langston Hughes and produced and starred in "Vigil," a multimedia production about Breonna Taylor, the Black Louisville woman killed by police in 2020.

Tines is clear that these are important parts of his identity and that his art should reflect his identity.

"At an early age, I bought the idea hook, line and sinker that art is a place to engage your human experience, or to invite or reflect the human experiences of other people - if not everyone in some way," he said.

"Yes, I'm a Black man in America that responds to parts of life connected to that identity," Tines explained, "but there are so many other parts of identity that everyone embodies that can also be engaged and expressed."

And for those who say Tines is making music political when it shouldn't be, his reply is that all art is political in some regard.

"I think art's greatest possibility is a forum to engage ourselves in, with and about other people," Tines said. "If we say certain works of art are political and others aren't, we cut off the possibility of all art being about human life."

And then there's Yuval Sharon, the 2017 MacArthur Genius Grant recipient whose recent opera productions have included an English-language setting of "Götterdämmerung" in a parking garage and "Bliss," a twelve-hour loop of three minutes from "The Marriage of Figaro."

"It can sound outlandish when you boil it down to one sentence," Sharon said of his approach. "It sounds like a crazy stunt, and they are, to a certain extent."

But, he explained, there's more to his productions than just headline-grabbing gimmicks: "If that's all they were, that wouldn't actually make it good, deep art that has something to say and something to communicate."

Take, for example, his production of "La bohème" that will premiere in April 2022, in which the opera's four acts will be presented in reverse order.

Sharon's goal is to give audiences a new experience of a very familiar work. "There are so many wonderful things in Puccini's score that you don't notice if you're listening to it the way you're used to listening to it," he said.

Yuval Sharon (right) and Davóne Tines in IPR's Studio A
Interlochen Center for the Arts
Yuval Sharon (right) and Davóne Tines in IPR's Studio A

Sharon and Tines recently visited Interlochen Center for the Arts to work with students.

Tines said he encourages young artists to consider the connections between themselves and their art, no matter what that art is.

"Singing Mozart at the Met is a beautiful aspiration," he said. "Just because something is in the past doesn't mean that it's not worth revisiting or reinvestigating." To him, the excitement is when young artists can bring their own reality and lived experience to their work.

Sharon, too, wants young artists to bring fresh perspectives to their work.

"I have an issue with operas that happen just because that's the way they always happen," he said. "Why would you invest all of that time and money and effort into something that just feels like a rote repetition of something that other people have already figured out? Figure it out for yourself!"

Listen to their entire conversation with Classical IPR on demand in this post.

Stefan Wiebe engineered the interview recording.

Dr. Amanda Sewell is IPR's music director.