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Breathing New Life Into Opera

Breathing New Life Into Opera

J.T. Crawford

When Paducah Tilghman alum Blake Denson took the stage to perform at New York’s Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions back in March, he was humbled. But he wasn’t surprised. From birth, it appeared that Blake’s possibilities would be extremely limited. And singing with The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra was the least likely event to occur. Life’s odds had conspired against him. But Blake’s not one for playing the odds. He felt that God had bigger plans despite his circumstances. Singing via the largest opera platform in the world was not out of the question for a man with such hope.

Earlier this year, while in his second year of his master’s program at Rice University, Blake entered the Met competition. 1000 singers participated in auditions held in 40 districts throughout the U.S., Canada, Puerto Rico, and Mexico. Blake began with a pool of 26 contestants in the Tulsa, Oklahoma district competition. Out of those 26, he advanced to the regionals. Out of the 12 regional finals, Blake advanced to the national semi-finals. In the semi-finals, which narrowed the field down to nine, both Blake again prevailed.

“The semi-finals are very important,” says Blake. “Managers from all over the world, opera companies from all over the world, come and sit in. You simply sing with piano accompaniment.” Blake made his way through the semi-finals and became one of nine grand finalists. “For a week, we rehearsed with The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra,” adds Blake. “We had free seats for that week and had access to the building. We were made members of OPERA America.” At every stage, Blake earned a cash prize as well as funds toward continuing education. 

For the grand finals, Blake performed with the orchestra. “It’s all black-tie attire,” he says. “The 5,000-house-seat house was about 85% full. That’s on top of the hundreds of thousands listening online. It was an amazing experience. It is the largest opera house in the world. It’s the largest stage in the world. And it’s the largest platform for opera in the world. It can’t be touched.

“And I give all the glory to God,” he says as he begins to reflect on the path that brought him to this moment. “I was born with chronic asthma. I was allergic to 20 different fruits, vegetables, and foods. For me to be on that stage singing opera with my history of asthma—that’s a testimony.  God had been preparing me for a long time, though, to do that. When the other kids were outside playing, I had to be indoors doing breathing exercises and doing breathing treatments. I was being prepared.”

Additionally, Blake credits influential people in his life for his love of singing. “When I was at Tilghman, I auditioned for the choir. Mr. Deweese let me in the freshman choir. He was about to retire and was doing some big things with the large choir, so he allowed me and some other guys to participate with them. Right before Mr. Deweese retired, he suggested I apply for the Governor’s School of the Arts.” Blake credits his experience with the GSA as a turning point. There, his talent was recognized and encouraged. “They spoke life into me and told me that the gift I have is a rarity. I had always thought I’d be an anesthesiologist. But I wanted it for the wrong reason.”

Through Governor’s School for the Arts, Blake felt God calling him to a new direction. “I shouldn’t be able to sing the way I do with the asthma I have. As a kid, doctors wanted me on 12 different medicines a day. I was a bubble boy. But there I was, being told that my voice was a rarity.”

Blake is on the road to becoming a Verdi baritone. George Preston, opera producer for Chicago’s WFMT, describes Verdi baritones as “elite performers, athletes among baritones, thrilling their fans with blazing top notes and plumbing the depths of some of the most dramatically complex roles in opera…” 

Now that Blake has graduated with his master’s from Rice, he will be returning to Wolf Trap Opera in Virginia just outside Washington D.C. where he performed last season. After that, he has a two-year contract with the Houston Grand Opera Studio program. Out of over 1500 applicants, Blake was one of 6 people accepted. “It’s one of the top two programs,” says Blake. “It’s there with the Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann program. I am going into that legacy with the Houston Grand Opera Studio program.” 

After that, Blake sees no limits to what might happen. “I believe I will sing on the largest stages in the world,” he says, “not to just say I’ve done it but to be able to tell my testimony. It shows that if God can use me in this way with all off the issues I’ve had, he can use anybody.”

And he also sees himself as an ambassador to bring opera to everyone. “You don’t have to be an upper-class white male to enjoy or be a part of this art form. My mom says that she thinks I will help change the face of what people think opera is. It’s for everyone. It’s for everyone who wants to enjoy it. Opera just does something to your heart.”

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