Opera singers bring ‘Art Songs’ back to church

Long before the Winans, James Cleveland or even Mahalia Jackson were singing gospel and hymns in the church, Harry T. Burleigh, Florence Prise and other African American composers were arranging art and spiritual songs for people of color.


Pianist Victor Simonson and singers Alia Waheed, Issachah Savage, Samantha McElhaney, Kevin Thompson and Bridgette Cooper wowed an audience with a free concert at the First Baptist Church in Washington. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

“People are familar with the spirituals but they are not familar with the art songs that composers have arranged and it is almost forgotten,” said Kevin Thompson, 33, an acclaimed bass singerwho produced “A Celebration of Black Composers in Art Songs and Spirituals.”

For Thompson, who has performed with opera companies in the United States and Europe, the event Sunday was a chance for family and friends to hear the voices of musicians who have peformed in operas across the country and many other venues abroad.

Bridgette Cooper, a mezzo-soprano, said she wasn’t familiar with a special arrangement of “Amazing Grace,” written by H. Leslie Adams, who was born in 1932. “It is really a message for young people that you can listen to a variety of songs and make it interesting.”

In addition to Thompson and Cooper, singers Samanatha McElhaney, Alia Waheed and Issachah Savage also performed selections, accompanied by Victor Simonson, another local artist, on the piano.


Kevin Thompson directed, produced and performed with four other opera singers at the First Baptist Church in Washington. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

“Classical leads into the spiritual and the spiritual leads into what is now gospel, the spiritual led into what is now R&B and the spiritual led into what is now hip-hop,” Simpson said. “When we embrace the classics, it helps to give us an appreciation of when we hear Usher or Jayzee. We can understand where it came from.”

Rev. Jeffrey Haggray, senior pastor of First Baptist of Washington, said the concert was a welcomed reminder of the music roots of the church. He said it is not an accident that many of the old churches in downtown Washington have pipe organs.

“When you think about the great organs and the pipes and the string instruments, all of those things are rooted in the songs and in the scriptures,” Haggray said. “We are reclaiming the classical tradition as part of what makes the church great.”

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Hamil Harris is currently a multi-platform reporter on the Local Desk of The Washington Post.

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