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Lyric Fest to Commission and Present World Premiere of COTTON in 2022-23 20th Anniversary Season

November 30, 2021 | By Katy Salomon
Account Director, Morahan Arts and Media


 Katy Salomon | Morahan Arts and Media | (863) 660-2214

Lyric Fest to Commission and Present World Premiere of COTTON
as Part of 2022-2023 20th Anniversary Season

COTTON Includes Photography of John Dowell, Music by Damien Geter, Plus
New Poems by Eight African American Writers 

Immersive Performance on November 12, 2022 
at the Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral Features 
Mezzo-Soprano Denyce Graves, Baritone Justin Austin, and
Pianist Laura Ward

Philadelphia, PA (November 30, 2021) — Lyric Fest will premiere a brand new, immersive multimedia commission, COTTON, on Saturday, November 12, 2022 at 7:30pm at the Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral, as part of its 20th Anniversary season. Subsequent performances will occur in Washington, D.C., and in New York City (venues to be determined).

The project brings together John Dowell’s fine art photography; newly commissioned poems by renowned African American poets Nikki GiovanniMarc Bamuthi JosephLauren AlleyneAfaa Michael WeaverTrapeta MaysonGlenis RedmondCharlotte Blake Alston, and Alora Young; and composer Damien Geter’s music to create a stunning new work that probes the lasting effects of the cotton industry and slavery on American society.

The world premiere of COTTON features mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves and baritone Justin Austin, with Lyric Fest Co-founding Artistic Director Laura Ward joining on piano. John Dowell and Damien Geter serve as Creative Directors for the project, Ward music directs, and Lyric Fest Co-founding Artistic Director Suzanne DuPlantis assists as a Curator and Creative Director. Philadelphia-based Midnight Productions will produce custom built screens, projections, and other technical elements of COTTON.

COTTON is an immersive experience for audience members at the Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral that opens with a pre-concert ambient sound-scape while Dowell’s photography surrounds the audience with enormous screens of constantly changing images. The unfolding song cycle, which features recordings of each of the eight poets reading their poem together with projections of the text, are then followed by the setting of each poem to music. Each poem serves as a response from each poet to Dowell’s images in their own unique voice. 

COTTON aims to take the audience on a journey of the mind and heart. We hope that it might encourage a more enlightened dialogue about racial issues in America,” says Artistic Director Suzanne DuPlantis.

The inspiration for COTTON began nearly a decade ago, when prominent Philadelphia-based photographer John Dowell felt called by his grandmother in a dream to travel to the cotton fields in South Carolina where his ancestors had likely been enslaved. Dowell began photographing the cotton and realized there was a larger story to be told. Dowell’s resulting work explores – in penetrating, superimposed images – centuries of injustice, the greed that fueled the cotton industry, and both the struggle and resilience of African Americans that continues to this day.

Lyric Fest’s current 2021-22 season includes the performances My Letter to the World on December 11 and 12, 2021 at 3:00pm, featuring Christine LyonsPascale SpinneyAaron CrouchGregory FeldmannLaura Ward, and Suzanne DuPlantisYiddishe Nightingale on February 8 and 9, 2022 at 7:00pm and February 13, 2022 at 4:00pm, featuring Zalmen MlotekElizabeth Shammash, and Thom KingThe Song Catcher on April 9 and 10, 2022 at 3:00pm, featuring Cree CarricoDevony SmithNicholas DavisSteven BrennfleckLaura WardCharlotte Blake Alston, and instrumentalists from Orchestra 2001Anything Goes on May 17 and 18, 2022 at 7:00pm, featuring Randall ScarlataSuzanne DuPlantis, and Laura Ward; and The Art of Song on June 3, 2022 at 7:30pm, featuring Justine AronsonGilda LyonsElisa SutherlandMeg BragleJames ReeseSteven EddyLaura Ward, and Michael Brofman.

About Lyric Fest
Lyric Fest has been hailed in the press as “An irresistible mix of high art and humane feeling… As entertaining as a well-managed party” (Broad Street Review). Founded in 2003 with the goal of celebrating and revitalizing the art song tradition, it is the only performing arts organization in the Mid-Atlantic region with a primary focus on song in all its varied expression. 

Lyric Fest has produced and presented over 100 distinctly crafted and curated concert programs. Each has featured multiple artists of national and international stature sharing song through theme and story, together with the spoken word. The organization has defined commissioning new works as an integral part of its mission and programming philosophy. To date, Lyric Fest has commissioned an impressive body of more than 200 new American songs from many of the nation’s preeminent composers.

Lyric Fest is run by two of its founders, artistic directors Suzanne DuPlantis and Laura Ward. Known for their excellence and innovation in creating rich, thematic, accessible concerts, Lyric Fest performs throughout the Philadelphia region, and has brought programs to Washington DC; Moorestown, NJ; Wilmington, DE; New Orleans, LA; Pittsburgh, PA; Brooklyn and New York City, NY; and San Jose, CA. Learn more about Lyric Fest at

About Suzanne DuPlantis
Suzanne DuPlantis is Founder and Artistic Director of Lyric Fest. With a passionate commitment to song, and a belief in its power to reach all listeners, Suzanne enjoys sharing this vision with Lyric Fest audiences in novel and dynamic ways: as singer; in creative program building; in writing scripts and program notes; through graphic design and by creating song videos. Noted for her moving renditions of songs and her intimate way with an audience, “DuPlantis deeply imprints the music with her personality with great emotional underpinning” (The Philadelphia Inquirer). She made her New York debut at Alice Tully Hall with Musica Sacra and her Kimmel Center debut in Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde with Orchestra 2001. Her career in opera has spanned debuts with companies across America in roles from Rossini’s heroines Rosina and Isabella, Carmen to Waltraute. In oratorio, chamber music and song, Suzanne has appeared with many of Philadelphia’s premiere music organizations including The Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia, The Philadelphia Chamber Music Society, The Philadelphia Orchestra, The Philadelphia Chamber Ensemble, Bucks County Choral Society, Singing City, The Wister Quartet, and Orchestra 2001. She has premiered new works written for her, including by Kile Smith, Andrea Clearfield, Robert Maggio, Roxanna Panufnik, Logan Skelton, Allen Krantz and Benjamin C.S. Boyle. She has recorded Brian Gaber’s Ancestral Waters for mezzo, orchestra and jazz trio, and has recently released her new CD of American Songbook Standards, Lazy Afternoon – Songs of Love and the South.

About Laura Ward
Laura Ward is pianist and Artistic Director of Lyric Fest,, a unique vocal recital series in Philadelphia. As a distinguished collaborative pianist she is known for both her technical ability and vast knowledge of repertoire and styles. Concert engagements have taken her to Carnegie Hall, The Kennedy Center, Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, the Spoleto Festival (Italy) and the Colmar International Music Festival and Saint Denis Festival in France. She has served on the faculty of The CoOPERAtive Program at Westminster Choir College, The Academy of Vocal Arts, Temple University, Ravinia Festival Stean’s Institute, Washington Opera, University of Maryland and The Music Academy of the West. Laura’s discography includes Lineage with Grammy-nominated baritone Randall Scarlata, In This Blue Room, Lyric Fest performs Songs of Kile Smith, Daron Hagen 21st Century Song Cycles and most recently Hat er mir Rosen Gebracht, Songs of Joseph Marx, with Kendra Colton, soprano. Laura is also a recording artist and editor of song accompaniments for publisher Hal Leonard having co-edited: Richard Strauss: 40 Songs, Gabriel Fauré: 50 Songs, and Johannes Brahms: 75 Songs and recorded over 2000 song accompaniments for Hal Leonard Publishing. These volumes help countless singers and pianists experience, learn and enjoy the art song repertoire and also help introduce a world of art song to many who have had little exposure to classical song. A native of Texas, Laura received her Bachelor in Music degree from Baylor University, holds a Masters in Collaborative Piano at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music and a Doctorate In Collaborative Piano from the University of Michigan where she was a student of Martin Katz.

About John Dowell
John E. Dowell, Jr., a nationally recognized artist, captures the pulse of cities and agricultural landscapes of America in his large-scale photographs. Working primarily from sunset until dawn, he focuses on the surface of buildings, the reflections of their exteriors and, quietly, their interior spaces. Illuminating the unseen, he brings awareness to a single moment.

For the past several years, he has also built extended photographs of the modern agronomy. These crops provoke thoughts of cultural, political and economic concerns that are often overlooked. He strives to incite the viewer to re-examine their assumptions of place and time.

An artist and master-printer for more than four decades, Dowell’s fine art prints, paintings and photographs have been featured in more than 50 one-person exhibitions, and represented in the permanent collections of 70 museum and public collections. Among them are the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, France. Dowell’s photographs are in the Houston Museum of Fine Arts and have been added to his work in the collections of  the Fogg Museum of Harvard University, the Museum of the Rhode Island School of Design and the Lehigh University Museum.

John Dowell is a Philadelphia native and Professor Emeritus of Printmaking at the Tyler School of Art at Temple University. Learn more at

About Damien Geter
Damien Geter is an acclaimed composer based in Portland, Oregon, whose growing body of work includes chamber, vocal, and orchestral works. As a composer, Damien infuses classical music with various styles from the black diaspora to create music that furthers the cause for social justice.

Damien’s growing body of work includes chamber, vocal, and orchestral works. Some recent highlights include commissions for Resonance Ensemble (An African American Requiem), The Washington Chorus (Cantata for a Hopeful Tomorrow), Washington National Opera, Opera Theater Oregon (Invisible), the University of Michigan (The Justice Symphony), and All Classical Portland (Neo-Soul).

His large work, An African American Requiem, will premiere in 2022 in partnership with Resonance Ensemble and the Oregon Symphony.

Also a professionally trained classical singer (bass), Damien has appeared with the Metropolitan Opera, Seattle Opera, Portland Opera, among other regional companies across the nation.

Damien currently serves as the Artistic Advisor for the social justice-focused award-winning vocal ensemble Resonance Ensemble and was recently (July 2020) named Artistic Advisor for Portland Opera.

The book he co-authored, Music in Context: An Examination of Western European Music Through a Sociopolitical Lens is available on Amazon, or directly from the publisher, Kendall Hunt. Learn more at

About Denyce Graves
Recognized worldwide as one of today's most exciting vocal stars, Denyce Graves continues to garner unparalleled acclaim in performance around the world. USA Today identifies her as "an operatic superstar of the 21st century," and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution exclaims, "If the human voice has the power to move you, you will be touched by Denyce Graves."

Her career has taken her to the world’s great opera houses and concert halls. The combination of her expressive, rich vocalism, elegant stage presence, and exciting theatrical abilities allows her to pursue a wide breadth of operatic portrayals and to delight audiences in concert and recital appearances. Ms. Graves has become particularly well-known to operatic audiences for her portrayals of the title roles in Carmen and Samson et Dalila. These signature roles have brought her to the Metropolitan Opera, Vienna Staatsoper, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, San Francisco Opera, Opéra National de Paris, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Washington National Opera, Bayerische Staatsoper, Arena di Verona, Deutsche Oper Berlin, Opernhaus Zürich, Teatro Real in Madrid, Houston Grand Opera, The Dallas Opera, Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires, Los Angeles Opera, and the Festival Maggio Musicale in Florence.

Ms. Graves appears continually on the stages of leading theaters in North America, Europe, and Asia. Highlights have included a Robert Lepage production of The Rake’s Progress at San Francisco Opera; the title role in the world premiere of Richard Danielpour’s Margaret Garner at Michigan Opera Theater, followed by further performances at Cincinnati Opera, Opera Carolina, and Opera Philadelphia; the role of Charlotte in Werther at Michigan Opera Theatre opposite Andrea Bocelli in his first staged operatic performances; and the role of Judith in a William Friedkin production of Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle in her return to Los Angeles Opera, a role she has also sung Judith at Washington National Opera and Dallas Opera.

??Ms. Graves is a native of Washington, D.C., where she attended the Duke Ellington School for the Performing Arts. She continued her education at Oberlin College Conservatory of Music and the New England Conservatory. Ms. Graves is the recipient of many awards, including the Grand Prix du Concours International de Chant de Paris, the Eleanor Steber Music Award in the Opera Columbus Vocal Competition, and a Jacobson Study Grant from the Richard Tucker Music Foundation. In 1991, she received the Grand Prix Lyrique, awarded once every three years by the Association des amis de l’opéra de Monte-Carlo, and the Marian Anderson Award, presented to her by Miss Anderson. In addition, she has received honorary doctorates from Oberlin College, the College of Saint Mary, Centre College, and the New England Conservatory. Ms. Graves’s dedication to the singers of the next generation continues to be an important part of her career; she is a member of the voice faculty at the Peabody Institute, and recently became a distinguished visiting faculty member at The Juilliard School.

About Justin Austin
Praised in Opera News as “a gentle actor and elegant musician” and The Wall Street Journal for his "mellifluous baritone," Justin Austin has been performing professionally since age 4. Born in Stuttgart, Germany to professional opera singer parents, Austin began his singing career as a boy soprano performing at venues such as Teatro Real, Bregenzer Festspiele, Lincoln Center, and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. While working with directors such as Götz Friedrich and Tazewell Thompson, Austin was able to realize his love for music and performance early on.

For the 2021/22 season Austin makes his Metropolitan Opera debut as Marcellus in Hamlet by Brett Dean. Austin also joins the Met covering the leading role of Charles Blow in Fire Shut Up In My Bones by Terrance Blanchard. Austin Joins the Lyric Opera of Chicago covering the role of Riolobo in Florencia en el Amazonas. Austin stars as George Armstrong in the return of Intimate Apparel by Lynn Nottage and Ricky Ian Gordon at Lincoln Center Theater. Austin makes his return to New York Festival of Song for their debut concert at Little Island in NYC. Austin will be presented in recital by the Park Avenue Armory. Austin returns to Carnegie Hall singing the title role in Mendelssohn's Elijah with Oratorio Society of New York. Austin also joins the Cecilia Chorus at Carnegie Hall  as the baritone soloist in Ballad of the Brown King by Margaret Bonds. Austin will spend Summer 2022 with Des Moines Metro Opera reprising the role of Thomas Mckeller in American Apollo by Damien Geter and Lila Palmer.

As a multifaceted musician, Mr. Austin performs a wide range of repertoire from Jazz, R&B, and Musical Theatre, to Opera and Oratorio. Justin has collaborated with multiple groups and artists such as Aretha Franklin, The Boys Choir of Harlem, Mary J. Blidge, Elton John, Lauryn Hill, The Roots, 30 Seconds to Mars, John Cale, Ricky Ian Gordon, Damien Sneed, Kanye West, and jazz legends Reggie Workman, Hugh Masekela, and Wynton Marsalis.

Justin strongly believes in utilizing his artistry to benefit music programs, new music projects, and community services around the world. To do so, he works with organizations such as MEND (Meeting Emergency Needs with Dignity), QSAC (Quality Services for the Autism Community), Holt International, and St. Mary's Children's Hospital to construct and perform benefit concerts. The proceeds of these projects supply emergent living essentials to those in need. Inspired by the importance of new music and collaboration, Mr. Austin has performed and recorded operatic, song, and oratorio world premiers by Wynton Marsalis, Avner Finberg, M. Roger Holland, Jack Perla, Peter Andreacchi, Damien Sneed, Odeline de la Martinez, and Ricky Ian Gordon. 

Austin has won awards from organizations such as The Recording Academy, NAACP, George London Foundation, Opera Ebony, Gerda Lissner Foundation, Manhattan School of Music, NANM, Choir Academy of Harlem, and Laguardia Arts.

Justin is a proud graduate of the Choir Academy of Harlem, Laguardia Arts, Heidelberg Lied Akademie, and Manhattan School of Music holding the Bachelor of Music and Master of Music degrees. Mr. Austin is under the tutelage and mentorship of Catherine Malfitano. Learn more at

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Photo at top of release (L-R): John Dowell, Damien Geter (by Rachel Hadiashar), Denyce Graves (by Devon Cass), Justin Austin, Laura Ward



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