A Voice for the Arts

by Evelyn Allen

A rising figure on the contemporary landscape of classical opera and the broader musical arts, Darnell Abraham ’09 has performed on international stages before large crowds and well-known dignitaries, but points to an impromptu 2006 performance in a Rwandan orphanage as the most profound statement of music’s transcendence.

With nothing but his own voice to fill the congested nursery, a scant sanctuary for abandoned young and elderly, he sang in the rich, dulcet tones that have become his vocal signature. “It was an incredible experience to connect with those people. I knew they couldn’t understand my words,” said Abraham, “but where words fail, there is the universal language of music to bridge the gap between worlds.”

Abraham believes strongly in the power of the arts to transform people and communities. While growing up in an underprivileged segment of Bakersfield, California, Abraham benefited from a stable home life and parents who embraced his musical gifts. They encouraged hard work as much as they cultivated those talents, sending him to a performing arts academy outside their neighborhood. Later, the chance to transfer to APU from California Baptist University intrigued Abraham, who needed advanced training to compete in the upper echelons of the music world. “The crown jewel was the APU Opera program,” said Abraham, who began studying under the mentorship of Melanie Galloway, DMA, artistic director of APU Opera and associate professor of vocal studies. “She was, and still is, a life coach for me, preparing me for the rigors of performing along with the realities of living out my faith in a secular industry.”

Gordon Ostrowski, assistant dean and opera producer for the Manhattan School of Music, where Abraham earned his Master of Music last year, describes him as a powerful vocalist with the versatility to captivate not only his peers, but also one of the toughest audiences in existence—school kids. “We go into many New York City schools to perform and teach. Some are affluent, while others have no music programs at all,” said Ostrowski, who worked closely with Abraham on educational outreach programs during his time as a graduate student. “It’s so important for young people to see someone of Darnell’s level of accomplishment who is not only a skilled artist, but also committed to the overarching idea of arts education.”

Galloway describes the performing arts as a mission field. “Whether you’re singing in an opera house or at Carnegie Hall, the need for believers is immense. We are intent on graduating performers like Darnell who are grounded in their faith and trained at the highest levels of excellence,” she said. Abraham, who recently joined the Manhattan School of Music admissions team with a special assignment to focus on diversity in recruiting for the top-tier conservatory, exemplifies that goal. This full-time engagement still allows Abraham to continue performing and touring—a key part of his artist’s residency with New York’s Dicapo Opera Theatre, which recently staged Giuseppe Verdi’s Italian masterpiece Rigoletto. Wielding a robust voice and commanding presence, Abraham often moves seamlessly between musical worlds, stepping into operatic roles as easily as he slips into character for musical theater or into the expressive strains of gospel, soul, and R&B.

Through it all, Abraham advocates investment in the arts, a passion he plans to channel into a dual career in arts administration. “We often think about politics and the financial sector or big business as the most powerful forces in society, but we fail to realize that the arts play a significant role in shaping and changing culture,” he said. “Whether there are 10 people or 10,000 listening to you, the artist holds a great deal of responsibility,” he said. “It’s exhilarating and, at times, a little scary, because you hold a position of influence over your audience.” With his own spheres of influence steadily expanding, Abraham holds fast to his conviction that opera—indeed, all music and the arts—play a role in creating a better future for current generations and those to come. He intends to use his voice to carry the conversation.

Abraham lives in New York with his wife, Wanda (Perkins ’09).

Originally published in the Summer '14 issue of APU Life. Download the PDF or view all issues.