On July 27, 2013, Daniel Rich posted this on Facebook: “I just want to sing for the rest of my life!!!”
In nine years, at least 2,000 Black men — some with goals as crystal clear as Rich’s — have lost their lives to the violence that threatens to define who we are in this city. But as we mourn the dead, do our darnedest to keep ourselves safe and demand societal changes that address the madness, we must also celebrate when years of effort pay off and the sons and daughters of Baltimore achieve their goals.
And so it was that a few dozen of Rich’s COVID-conscious family members, friends and supporters recently gathered in a northwest Baltimore home overlooking Lake Ashburton for a send-off to the next leg of his journey to cement a career of singing. The 31-year-old has been selected as one of 12 for the Metropolitan Opera’s coveted Lindemann Young Artist Development Program.
On one level, this came about because he was in the right place at the right time: a dinner party in Charleston, South Carolina, during the Spoleto Festival that each year draws performers and audiences for two weeks of music, theater and dance. He was an ensemble singer in the world premiere of a long-anticipated opera about Omar ibn Said, an African scholar who was captured in West Africa, shackled and thrown into a slave ship bound for the Americas in 1807.
Rich sang a minor but emotional role of Suleiman, one of three men chained with Omar on the slave ship. Discombobulated and terrified, they try to figure out what’s going on. In his mini aria, Suleiman sings that he cannot see, cannot hear, cannot feel and cannot abide the smells assaulting him.
“It’s very intense,” Rich said.
After the second performance, he and two friends were invited to dinner.
“I don’t know how I got invited,” he laughs now, “but I’m just glad I did.”
Among those there was the director of the Lindemann program, Melissa Wegner, and she told him how impressed she was. As they talked, she mentioned that there was one last slot to fill for the new class of Lindemann fellows. They arranged for him to sing for her a couple of days later. She then invited him to New York to sing for other members of the Lindemann team. That sealed the deal.
The celebration a couple of Sundays ago was not just for that, but for all that led up to Rich even being in a position to receive the opportunity. To say that he was raised by a single mother, Saundra Smith, misses the all-encompassing presence of what he calls “my village.” His mother sometimes worked two jobs for much of his childhood until an illness in 2010 left her sightless. But she and her mother, Maxine Smith, poured music into Rich from when he was a toddler. He went to bed at night to classical music on the radio. They made sure that he participated in after-school and summer arts programs.
They laugh about the singing gene having skipped his mother, but his grandmother has been the longtime praise-and-worship leader at the Christian Life Church on Liberty Road. In her leisure and mostly for her own pleasure, she also writes songs, poetry and children’s books. Rich’s village has included his grandfather, the late Snyder Blanchard, who operated the Oxford Tavern and was known as “the mayor of Fulton Avenue,” as well as aunts, uncles, godparents, and neighbors who, at the drop of a hat, would fire up the grills and play what Rich calls “cookout music” (Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, Patti LaBelle, Chaka Khan).
That sense of community in the Liberty Heights-Gwynn Oak area Rich felt in his youth has faded away, he says. “For at least two or three blocks around us, people knew each other. Kids played until the streetlights came on and maybe after because adults knew which kids belonged to who. It was a lot different from what kids in the city are experiencing now.”
Having a village didn’t mean Rich wasn’t exposed to the realities of living in Baltimore. Early on, in traveling on public transportation from one side of town to the other to attend City College, he became aware of socioeconomic disparities. He’s been robbed before, too, he said. But Baltimore taught him “to develop tough skin and to figure things out when it’s tough instead of caving in.”
His protective circle extends beyond his neighbors to include educators from his first grade teacher Tracey Chester at Liberty Elementary and his high school choir director Linda Hall at City College to his professors at Morgan State University, from which he graduated in 2017. Rich considers Vincent Stringer, the former director of vocal studies and the opera program at Morgan, to be his “musical dad” and his successor, Marquita Lister, to be his “musical mom.” Stringer and James Haynes, a retired Morgan administrator, hosted the Sunday recital and reception.
In February 2021, the father Rich tracked down through AncestryDNA and Facebook, and his father’s other children, joined the village. The “only child” now had four siblings.
Rich, the guy who from childhood has appreciated those who can “stand flat footed and sing,” was “scared to sing in front of people — terrified” until he joined his grandmother’s church choir as a teenager and then the high school choir at City College. Aspiring to become a manager in the Marriott hotel chain, he enrolled in Frostburg State University as a business major with a focus on hospitality. As he became more interested in singing, however, he decided to audition for the music program at Morgan, which over the years has produced music educators, music industry executives and singers in various genres, including opera. It was there that he learned about classical musicians of color.
It took a while for him to figure opera out, but his epiphany came when he realized that this vaunted musical tradition that is often seen as elitist is a form of reality TV — no different than “Real Housewives” or “Black Ink Crew” or “The Flavor of Love.”
Since earning a master’s degree at the Manhattan School of Music in New York in 2019, he’s shared his music and his insights with children in public schools in Philadelphia and, for the last three years, at his old alma mater, Liberty Elementary. But the desire to sing opera loomed large. When audition after audition led nowhere last fall, he resigned himself to pursuing a Ph.D. at the University of Kentucky, where he’d won a competition that comes with a tuition-free education and $12,000 cash. But a detour to perform in “Omar” at Spoleto upended that backup plan.
“I just want to sing,” he told me the other day. “I believe that’s what I was put on this earth to do. It took me a minute to figure it out, to put the pieces together, but here we are.” He adds: “I love Baltimore fiercely. I want to be successful enough to be able to come back and give something to the city. I don’t know what that may be, but I want to be able to influence the arts and the music scene in Baltimore some way.”
That resolve and his baritone voice held an audience spellbound at the send-off as he performed classics by European composers and by women trailblazers Florence Price and Margaret Bonds and spirituals arranged by Wendell Whalum and Roland Carter. A magical afternoon in a city that struggles to get its groove on most days, it was a testament to his talent and grit, but also to the kind of people who gathered there to embrace him with their love and some much-appreciated cash to help with the move to New York. As I looked around, I saw people who, often without fanfare, support young people and institutions through their networks of social clubs, fraternities and sororities, churches and businesses.
When a Daniel Rich moves into his purpose, it is a triumph for the village.
E.R. Shipp is a veteran journalist and Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist. She is also currently an associate professor at Morgan State University.
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