Baritone Ben Holt knows what it is to sing to a captive audience. Last Friday, he performed to an enthusiastic, if small, group of inmates participating in the University of the District of Columbia's Lorton Prison College program.
Holt, 31, performed an eclectic selection of operatic songs and spirituals. Between numbers, he talked about his childhood in Northeast Washington.
"They demand perhaps even more honesty than children," Holt said after leaving the prison. "Most of these men have gone through the stage where their trust has been broken, and they're trying to rehabilitate themselves, and so they're looking at everyone to see whether they're real or whether they're not real."
Holt is one of three musicians, including guitarist Benjamin Verdery and saxophonist Laura Hunter, to perform throughout the region in unconventional venues, from nightclubs to churches, from senior centers to day care centers, in the Affiliate Artists program. The General Electric Foundation, in cooperation with the Washington Performing Arts Society, booked the artists in a schedule of two appearances a day, six days a week, for two weeks each.
"I've sung at maintenance garages, oil derricks, you name it," Holt said. In many cases, "it's sort of, 'We have a guest artist. Be there,' " he said. "Hence the need to be very frank with them. These are men and women for whom opera, by and large, is not their thing." Somehow, Holt was able to make opera "their thing" at Lorton, when he cajoled the men into singing along to "It Ain't Necessarily So" from Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess."
Holt, in the last residency of the year, will go to the Martin Luther King Library tomorrow at noon to give an Informance, the Affiliate Artists' trademark presentation of an informal performance. This is an opportunity for Washingtonians to hear one of their own. "That is what's so great about this, to be in my own neck of the woods. It's sort of like the prodigal son," Holt said.
His final appearance under the auspices of the Affiliate Artists program will be at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater Monday, where his program will include excerpts from the opera "X." Holt sang the title role in last year's premiere of the musical story of the life of Malcolm X, which "was the most involving, penetrating and challenging experience of my career," Holt said.
"It took my life for five months," he said. "I was totally possessed by the character."