For nearly 40 years, Willis A. Hines has provided many black singers with the opportunity to develop their operatic talents. Sunday evening, some past and present members of the St. Luke's Episcopal Church Choir expressed their appreciation in a stirring testimonial concert at the church.

The gathering -- which included baritone Robert McFerrin, tenors William A. Brown and Gregory Hopkins, mezzo-soprano Valerie Eichelberger, and sopranos Ellyn Lomack Crawford and Charlae Olaker -- performed selections from operas by Verdi, Gounod, Puccini, Mozart, Massenet, Bizet, Flotow and Mascagni.

Hines, choirmaster at St. Luke's, was presented with a plaque and afterward expressed his happiness with the performances: "It's almost a celebration of my life at St. Luke's."

Hines went to the church at 1514 15th St. NW in the early 1950s as musical director of the church's choir and expanded the choir's repertoire to include more classical works.

"It's like coming home," said Brown, who in addition to teaching voice has a busy singing schedule. "I can honestly say my professional attitudes were formed here. This place is very historic. You could always try out something new."

"I'm thrilled," said Crawford, who still performs at St. Luke's and sang the "Coro Nome" aria from Verdi's "Rigoletto" for the concert. "Willis Hines loves musicians and singers . . . . To be able to sing with Robert McFerrin is a great privilege. It was also great to see so many black men singing. Black women have been succeeding in opera, but black men have had a harder time of it."

Crawford also expressed pleasure at the concert's audience, which numbered around 200.

McFerrin, who first sang at St. Luke's in the early 1950s and who later followed Marian Anderson with leading roles at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, commented on the abundance of talent: "You could cast an opera company with the people you had here tonight."

The program's accompanist was Sylvia Olden Lee, who is beginning her 18th year of teaching at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia and who has taught and studied music and voice in Italy, Germany and Austria.

"It's a tribute to {Hines'} taste and his discrimination that he has this stable of singers. It's rare to find a place anywhere that's consistently interested in the young, classical voice and encourages them to go on. That they came back speaks highly of him."

Hopkins, who is not an alumnus of the choir but who has been a guest performer at St. Luke's, lamented the shortage of such programs for blacks.

"It's a shame there aren't more places like this. There are so many black singers who want to do operatic things."

"It was wonderful," said Eichelberger. "This church has served as a springboard for all of us."

Other performers on the program included sopranos Marymal Holmes and Elizabeth Lyra Ross, contralto Kay Granger-Jordan, tenor David Daniel and baritone Henry Burroughs. The St. Luke's choir sang choral selections from "Cavelleria Rusticana" by Mascagni and Gounod's "Faust." The Longar Ensemble, featuring soprano Roberta Long, also performed.