Flint, Mich., is known for many things but definitely not opera.
Tucked in a neighborhood on the north side of Flint, you wouldn’t know it, but there is an opera singer.
There I was on January 31, 2022, sitting across from Darnell Ishmel in his living room surrounded by custom wall art that swirled gold, burgundy, blue, copper, and brown; African statues, tapestry, and masks; and deep burgundy furniture.
Newspaper clippings and pictures of his journey as an opera singer and mentor were neatly placed on walls. Above his couch hung a collage of more than 30 Black opera singers. I couldn’t name one.
“I think it helps to leave an impression on some of the young people who come here and rehearse,” said Ishmel of the collage. “This is imagery that I didn’t have when I was growing up. That’s part of the reason I try to keep it alive in this space.”
I’m impressed. Not because he can sing. But because he is singing something I’m not familiar with. It’s opera.
He talks of singing in Italian and French and traveling to 19 countries all because he embraced the unfamiliar.
Ishmel didn’t grow up singing opera, but he was familiar with those old Gospel hymns and tunes from Motown. As a young child, his grandmother would sit him down and teach him how to play the piano. Music was something his family always did.
His story sounded familiar to me. Things being passed down and a grandmother’s love. This all made him relatable, and for some reason, opera didn’t seem so foreign to me anymore.
“The Lord is my light and my salvation. Whom then shall I fear. Whom then shall I fear. The Lord is the strength of my life,” Ishmel sang while playing the piano for us. It was one of three songs he would sing that day.
For Ishmel, it was a trip down memory lane. By this time, he had stopped singing opera as the industry changed, lending to a more younger singer and became commercialized.
“Opera has not always had a place for us. It has not always been kind and welcoming. By us, I don’t just mean African Americans, even people who are full-bodied like myself now. I remember being in New York some years ago, and the stage director said I see this vision of you… shirtless. I was like, you want me to do what now?”
The influence of marketing was now becoming the norm for opera.
“You are not only going to have to sound a certain way,” Ishmel said. “You are going to have to look a certain way…Now you also have to be a marketing junkie.”
But when he started his career, it was about the voice. Ishmel would travel the country performing opera, including in places like Russia. Like other Black opera singers, he found himself performing Gershwins’ “Porgy and Bess” which was written for a Black cast.
Even though there is growth in the industry, opera is still one of those areas of music that isn’t kind to Black people. In 2019, the Associated Press reported that a 2019 Met season had 36 Black opera singers on the roster out of a total of 368. Out of that, 27 performed in “Porgy and Bess.”
When Ishmel was about four years old, his grandmother on his father's side introduced him to the piano.
"She gave me some of my first lessons, Ishmel said. "I remember those days." Later, he would study under his father, who trained him as a Gospel artist.
Eventually, a cousin would introduce Ishmel to a high school music teacher in Lansing, Mich. That teacher would expose him to music he had never heard of before.
"She claimed me on that day and said, 'Yes, I want you to do choir.' She opened up a door exposing us to music," Ishmel said. "She gave us Handel's Messiah…she gave us spirituals. I never heard of spirituals. That's from our own bosom. We just took it as music. We didn't take it as being foreign."
Ishmel was recommended for a scholarship at the Univerisity of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where he thought he would be trained to be a Gospel singer.
"I was on the track to become James Cleveland," he said of his music aspirations when he was 18 years old. "That's what I thought. I was like, yea, I want to make albums."
But it was a different journey that would prove challenging and foreign. Instead of his hope of focusing on being a Gospel music artist, he would be introduced to opera.
"When I got to University of Michigan, I didn't know anything about French, German and Italian," Ishmel said. "I didn't have a repertoire list. I had a couple of spirituals that I knew."
Despite his required studies, he continued to pour himself into Gospel music. Ishmel struggled and left school for seven years because of financial hardships.
"I fumbled around for a few years trying to find myself. I was like, I don't want to be a singer like that," he said of being an opera singer. "I don't want to sound like that. I wasn't ready for the discipline, I didn't have the preparation for it, and there were no training wheels. There wasn't enough affirmative action."
When Ishmel returned to college, he immersed himself in his studies. He began reading, writing, and recording himself and listening to it repeatedly to keep up with his classmates.
"I had to get it in me in all kinds of different ways. I had to fill in the gaps of my deficiency in terms of learning and my lack of experiential preparation…it made a difference. I had to also say this is music. This ain't science... I've been doing music all my life," said Ishmel, 51. "It just got a different language. I had to embrace it…I had to reclaim my own voice. I was a late bloomer."
He started being cast in opera productions and later pursued a master's degree.
That was nearly 20 years ago, and he has since left the opera stage. Ishmel still enjoys going to the show but now spends most of his time teaching, mentoring, traveling, and working with incarcerated populations.
"I don't have the best relationship, unfortunately. I'm not as faithful as I should be. I don't always go get up and go practice," Ishmel said of his recent years with opera. "I don't know when the last time I practiced my craft in a way because I'm living other experiences, and I believe they all are a part of me."
When asked what he does now, Ishmel simply replied, "I help people."
"That's what I do, and that looks differently depending on where I am," he said. "Sometimes that's on the stage, sometimes that off stage. It's about what's in front of me right now. When it's time to be on the stage, it gets all of me. When it's time to answer that phone call, it gets all of me."
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