Mezzo-soprano opera singer Denyce Graves on hearing singer Leontyne Price as a teen: “I never heard anything with such heartbreaking beauty. I thought, I don’t know what this is, but I’d like to do something like this.” (Joseph Victor Stefanchik/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

I love singing, but I really fell in love with [opera] music itself. I was only 13 or 14. I just fell in love with the music and with Leontyne Price. Here was this gorgeous woman who was this goddess, this empress, who looked like us — singing this music which we’d never heard of before. I never heard anything with such heartbreaking beauty. I thought, I don’t know what this is, but I’d like to do something like this. That news didn’t go over well in my neighborhood. It didn’t play well with my friends. With my family, I’d always been known as “Weird Denyce” anyhow, and that just was confirmation.

When I started out, I was doing my apprenticeship with the Houston Grand Opera, and they sent me on an assignment with the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis for a stint of time. What we did was educational outreach, and we would go sing everywhere for anyone who would listen and introduce opera. We would go to elementary schools; we’d go to community centers. We’d go to hospitals, and we went once to a prison. I didn’t want to go. I said: “They’re going to laugh; this is not something they’re going to receive. The last thing that people in prison want to hear is an opera singer.” With all the stereotypes that go along with that, I just thought: I’m going to be too afraid. I’m going to feel nervous, and they’re going to feel that, and the performance won’t be good.

And I [also] thought: Denyce, you are here to entertain, to educate and to bring beauty and to expose people to something else — to offer something different. ’Cause they heard all the Michael Jackson and whatever it was at that time. They heard all that. You have an opportunity to expose this group, this community, to something else. And I decided, I’m just gonna do it. I’m going to throw myself into it and do the best that I can do.

I had so much fun. I could see some of the faces that came in like stone lighten up and people smile or laugh. It was a pivotal moment in my life. I journeyed so much in that experience from where I walked into the door with great reluctance and resentment to having the time of my life. To have them come up to me and say: “You know, I’m not gonna get out of here, but I just wish you all the best with your opera. I hope you get everything that you’re seeking.” To get that encouragement — from them — that was incredible for me. On that day I thought, Now you have done something useful with your life.