The Prince George’s kids more than held their own. When they took the stage in their navy blue gowns and tuxedoes, they opened the skies. They were so good that the festival’s organizers moved them to last in the program, telling Lowery, “We want you to blow the stage off.”
It made all the work — the fundraising, the long hours of practice and the times Lowery excoriated them for their mistakes and pushed them to give her their best — worth it.
In South Africa, the kids found approval, applause, adoration and standing ovations. And they discovered a world that they hardly knew existed.
They stayed on a game preserve — woke up with zebras and giraffes looking in on them. They dined at a nice restaurant overlooking Cape Town. They learned African dance and drumming and sang in Pretoria City Hall. They held a city of Hyattsville flag high atop Table Mountain.
But they couldn’t stop talking about their experience in the shantytowns.
In Soweto, where the kids watched a man in a 15-by-15-foot home cook using power from a car battery and saw people trying to survive in unthinkable squalor, where they heard more talk about color — black skin, white skin — than they’ve ever heard in Maryland, they found a stark perspective.
The majority of the 2,400 students who attend Northwestern High qualify for free or subsidized lunch programs. But when members of the choir met the children of Soweto, they gave them everything they had: their water, their candy, their snacks, their money.
"Everyone on the bus was bawling,” said Aaron, a tenor who will study business and music at the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point.
Independently, each of the kids I talked to marked that day as their most profound.
“I was also amazed by how nice everyone was in Soweto. They lived in such poverty, but they treated us all like family,” said Harper Carter Matsuyama, the 14-year-old soprano who was one of the youngest singers. “It was something none of us will ever forget.”
“We really became grateful for what we have here,” Victoria said. “It’s not about having certain shoes or a certain phone. We have clothes on our backs, homes.”
And Victoria, who wants to be a professional singer, found something else in South Africa.
For four years, Lowery has pounded into her the basics about breathing, pronouncing, singing. She has studied at the feet of a technical specialist.
But singing with heart and spirit? That’s something you’ve got to find on your own.
“I saw it there. I felt it. People went bonkers; the audience started singing with us. These people are so alive. They have so much spirit, so much heart,” Victoria said. “They sang with more spirit than me. I want to sing like that.”
I think they did.
For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/dvorak.