A few years ago, the Texas Rangers tried to draft Gordon Hawkins out of his Surrattsville, Md., high school in southern Prince George's County. He had the makings of a great pitcher.
Then the hulking young man hurt his shoulder while on a baseball scholarship at the University of Maryland, and his ambitions turned away from the major leagues.
They turned instead to the big leagues of opera.
Now, at 24, in the second year of his master's fellowship at the College Park campus, a career on the stage as a bass-baritone is a real possibility. He took top honors in the Beethoven Society and Annapolis Opera contests. He placed third last year in the mid-Atlantic finals of the most prestigious of all contests, the Metropolitan Opera auditions. He has been admitted this summer to the famous summer opera institute in Graz, Austria.
He made his debut with the Prince George's Opera more than a year ago. Last month he sang the taxing bass part in the Beethoven Ninth for the first time, with the Prince George's Philharmonic. And while he cannot yet make a living with his voice, his engagements are picking up--including his performances last night and tomorrow in the University of Maryland Opera Theater's version of John Gay's "The Beggar's Opera."
Hawkins is a talented example of the new, and rapidly expanding, crop of young singers in the area who are able to launch opera careers without even going to New York, much less--as in the old days--to Europe.
Many major figures in opera today are entirely American trained--Bernstein, Levine, Price and Horne, for instance. But the case of an opera career begun in Washington is less common.
The most publicized such singer has been baritone J. Patrick Raftery, who made his Washington Opera debut two years ago at 23 as Figaro in Rossini's "Barber of Seville." Raftery had been singing, though, since he was 15, an age at which Hawkins had not yet mastered his fast ball, much less his baritone. His sole musical experience, in fact, was on the clarinet and in the choir of his minister father's church.
But at 22, Hawkins was studying Mozart's Figaro for a university production of "The Marriage of Figaro." Instead, he ended up singing the somewhat grander role of Count Almaviva, a performance that reassured his associates that he had a serious singing and acting future.
"I think that for someone to be successful at such a level," says Hawkins' teacher, James McDonald of the Maryland music department, "the singer must be strong in voice, in personality, in musicality, and in languages and common sense. Gordon fits this as much as any singer I've heard in this area."
One of the mysteries that can both dog and tantalize a singing student at Hawkins' stage of development is that the eventual character of his voice is still a question mark. Hawkins is now comfortable in bel canto Italian baritone parts, like Bellini and Donizetti. His is a warm voice, with a lovely timbre.
Some roles of Verdi, whose baritone roles tend to be a little heavier, are still often a problem. "Certain Verdi arias may work, then some don't. I did one from 'Attila' for the Met competition and it felt fine," he says. "But I still have problems with 'Di provenza' the famous aria from 'La Traviata' in which the elder Germont pleas with the courtesan Violetta to leave his son, Alfredo . I did it two years ago and had difficulty. I can sing 95 percent of it, but there are four measures . . ." He sings them between bites of a sandwich at a noisy College Park pub, and they contain the highest notes in the aria.
"It's right at the break, right at the point where the mature baritone, the Sherrill Milnes, can hook into that upper voice. It just takes physical coordination. It takes time to develop it. So I put 'Di provenza' away for a while and then come back to it to see how much closer I am.
"The real question in my vocal development is not where I am now," he says, "but where I can be in five years. And the question mark is not so much what notes I will have as the volume and timbre of those notes. And it's not just having the voice, but having the maturity for a role.
"After all, the singer who does Germont should know something of what it is like to be an anguished father, of believing that the child has made the most incredible mistake of his life. Germont will do anything to get his son back home. If he has to lie, he'll lie. If he thinks telling the truth will do it, he'll tell the truth. If he has to connive, he'll connive. But the most important thing, when he walks on stage there in the second act, is that he is desperate to get his son home.
"Those are the things you have to think about when you decide to do a role. You have to be able to get inside that character's skin. There's nothing more important for a singer than being able to say no when you're not ready for a role that you're asked to do."
Hawkins' evolution from baseball to a career on the opera stage was gradual. His bid from the Rangers came almost by accident. "They had heard about a boy who was pitching in Fairmont Heights. And my school was playing with them one night and one of the scouts came to see him pitch. The guy who was pitching for us got knocked out in the first inning; they scored seven or eight runs against him. I came in to pitch, and I blanked them for the rest of the game. So the scout talked to me afterwards. He asked me what I wanted to do with myself and I told him that I really wanted to go to college. I was an honor student. And he asked how much it would cost for four years at the University of Maryland. I said it's about $2,000 a year. And he replied that he'd give me $8,000 if I'd sign.
"I said I'd think about it. I was 16 at the time, and I talked about it with some people and realized that if I went down there to Dallas, there might be hundreds of 16- or 17-year-olds competing for one or maybe two spots.
"And I realized that if I went to college, maybe on a baseball scholarship, I could get an education and still play baseball, which I love, and afterward I could still sign and play and have years of growing up in college and be a better pitcher and a better person.
"So I was all set." Until he injured his shoulder. Then, "I couldn't enjoy baseball the way I'd like to enjoy it."
Does he still get the urge to pitch? "Yeah, every spring, when I smell the grass and look out there, my body just itches."
He started out as a math major in college. "But I never planned to make a career in math, and after I hurt my arm I thought about music. I'd always enjoyed it. So I signed up for a few theory classes and voice teachers. I wasn't thinking of being an opera singer. I just enjoyed singing. But that spring we did 'The Pirates of Penzance' and I got the male lead. And I got good feedback. And from there I just kept doing. I started doing 'Messiahs' in churches. I guess I've done six of them now."
It was not until the Met auditions, though, that Hawkins came to terms with the reality that he was serious about an operatic career.
He says he had expected nothing in his first try with the Met except to come out of it unscathed. The finals were held a little over a year ago in the auditorium of the National Gallery's East Building. The principal judge was Milnes.
"I think it really hit me when Milnes stood up there and announced my name as third-place winner. I realized that this isn't just a game anymore. This is the Metropolitan Opera and this is a big thing. I mean, I said to myself, you want to be serious about it? Okay.
"I thought, you have a nice voice. But a lot of people have nice voices. Now what are you going to do with it?"
Hawkins says he has given up on the notion that he "can be self-sufficient. That I can do it on my own. You need everything. You need luck. You need talent. You need someone who is willing to help. The seven-week summer institute in Graz is going to cost $3,600, and even if I can find that money, my wife, Brenda who is a secretary with a drug firm , would have to stay behind. But the institute not only attracts young singers but also agents who want to hear them sing."
He says he is not eager, however, to go to Europe for experience in the provincial opera houses. Right now he's pinning his hopes on getting into the New York-based Young Artists program, which specializes in launching careers for young musicians, including some recitals at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater. There will be an audition next month.
And perhaps most of all, he wants to take another try at the Met auditions, probably in a year.
"Next time I'm going to be a better singer. And I'm not going to be as nervous. I'll know what to expect. Last time all I could think about was how to please the judges. I'm going to concentrate next time on doing the music justice. If I sing the Toreador Song from 'Carmen,' I'm going to be the toreador. Instead of just being Gordon Hawkins trying to act like somebody else, I'm going to be those characters," he declares, pounding his muscular arm on the restaurant table. CAPTION: Picture, Gordon Hawkins: "You have to be able to get inside [a] character's skin." By James M. Thresher--The Washington Post