Vocalist of the Year:
Davóne Tines

By Oussama Zahr

Bass-baritone Davóne Tines is one of the most exciting, original, and in-demand singers of his generation. Uncompromising and non-conformist, he wants to sing concert programs and music theater
works that he cares about, so he develops them himself.

2022 Muscial America Vocalist of the Year:<br>Davóne Tines
Photo © Kadeem Johnson

In January 2021, bass-baritone Davóne Tines stood onstage with the Philadelphia Orchestra and its Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin in an otherwise empty concert hall to record a concert program called “Sermon” for the company’s digital streaming series. “The black man has functioned in the white man’s world as a fixed star, as an immovable pillar,” Tines recited from James Baldwin’s 1963 book The Fire Next Time, “and as he moves out of his place, heaven and earth are shaken to their foundations.” With that, the orchestra unleashed the opening bars of “Shake the Heavens,” from John Adams’s oratorio El Niño. Tines stood perfectly still amid the heaven-storming commotion, firing off the aria’s melismas with the moral and musical certainty of a soloist in Handel’s Messiah.

Originally, Nézet-Séguin had asked Tines to sing Adams’s chamber adaptation of Walt Whitman’s poem The Wound-Dresser, but the singer made a counteroffer. “I don’t know if I want to sing the text of an older white man who had complex relationships with younger people—power dynamics, sexual dynamics, race-difference dynamics,” Tines says. He chose the El Niño aria and built “Sermon” around it, repurposing the three-part format of a Black Baptist sermon to address his own struggle as a Black man for recognition of his humanity. Tines’s “scriptures” were texts by seminal Black authors—Baldwin, Langston Hughes, Maya Angelou—and he elaborated on each one in song as a kind of exegesis.

Tines decided a long time ago that he only wants to sing music he cares about. He was working a church job with the National Shrine in Washington, DC, in 2010, while living with his family in Orlean, Virginia. 

He had graduated from Harvard, where he majored in sociology and minored in music, and had not yet enrolled in a master’s program at Juilliard. Every Sunday, he was forced to skip going to church with his family—a tradition that had nurtured his love for music—for a weekly gig with a professional ensemble, where the quality of the musicmaking was high and the level of personal engagement was low. 

“It was boring,” Tines says with a laugh. “I knew that if I could sing text that I had an overt connection to, then I could do well doing it. I could bring my entire self to it.” Eventually, he found his way to projects that contextualize, rather than gloss over or efface, his particular experience as a classical performer.

Growing up, Tines learned from gospel singing that music can have an intense connection to feeling. “If you were dealing with tragedy, there was a visceral place to put that emotion in the singing. That’s why the aesthetic is the way it is—full of fervor, full of physicality, you know? If there’s joy, there’s a place to put that. There was very little if no abstraction between what I saw my family and my community dealing with in everyday life and how that was articulated through art.” Outside of gospel, though, Tines observed “more and more distance between art that is being made and the actual lived experience of people.” 

It’s as good an explanation as any for the communicative power of Tines’s singing. The smooth contours of his voice house a vivacious rumble. His tone is round yet trimmed of fat, and it doesn’t muffle the words before they leave his mouth. His resonance amplifies, rather than obscures the grain of his voice. Sometimes he pushes his voice to extremes, but it remains an enviable instrument.

For the time being, Tines isn’t drawn to standard-issue concert or operatic repertoire, so he develops many of his projects as a member of American Modern Opera Company (AMOC), a music collective founded in 2017 to bring together composers, singers, instrumentalists, and dancers for multidisciplinary work. He describes AMOC as an artist-centered model that reclaims creative agency from institutions. Companies don’t assign a novel or a film to AMOC for adaptation, and they don’t ask AMOC to perform workshops for donors. “We make things on our own terms that then we can happily share because we made them in a way that is happy and healthy,” he says.

Tines’s best known project—one that took seven years to develop with the composer Michael Schachter—is The Black Clown, a theatrical adaptation of Langston Hughes’s poem of the same name. The text hit Tines, he says, like a lightning bolt: “Somebody wrote so succinctly the entire experience of what I want to say.” The show contends with what it means to be a Black man performing for predominantly white audiences and presents a glorious array of Black musical styles—jazz, spirituals, the blues—as a source of vitality against centuries of American racism. The Black Clown’s audacious truth-telling—at one point, the cast plays jump-rope with a gigantic noose—landed Tines on Time magazine’s 2019 list of Next Generation Leaders.

Tines is quick to clarify that he does not represent Black people in monolithic terms. “I’m not trying to center the Black voice writ large,” he says. “I’m trying to center my existence as an individual, and my existence happens to be at the intersection of many identities that aren’t normally in a certain space.”

Tines tested out one of AMOC’s works-in-progress, Eastman, on a beautiful New York evening in early September at Little Island, a lush new park and public space propped up on stilts in the Hudson River just off the West Side Highway. The piece is an audio collage that intercuts musical excerpts and interview snippets related to Julius Eastman, a gay Black composer whom Tines considers an “artistic ancestor.” It was a noisy night in the city, and the audience of park-goers seemed to struggle at first with a conceptual concert program about an unjustly overlooked figure from the Minimalist movement. Helicopters chopped overhead; a booze cruise idled by.

Then, Tines started stomping his foot, a cue for his fellow musicians to launch into Eastman’s Stay on It, a modular, semi-improvisatory piece that feels like a soulful descendent of Terry Riley’s In C. Over the course of 15 minutes, he transformed the process-derived composition, with its clockwork motion, into a stomp-and-clap number. He bent and swung the three words of the title over and over again as he played with the tempo and accented the offbeats. His voice suffused with lightness, Tines drew the audience, suddenly giddy, into the joyful persistence he found in the work. He had made a space for Julius Eastman—and for himself. •

Oussama Zahr writes about opera for The New Yorker's “Goings On About Town” section.