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Puccini inspires careers devoted to singing, teaching

Published: March 17th, 2009

Category: Spotlights

Elizabeth Graham

Elizabeth Graham

Professor of Voice, School of Music
College of Fine Arts

One night, a 16-year-old voice student from a rural North Carolina town slipped into the plush theater seats of the Charlotte Opera. In her hand, Elizabeth Graham held a program for the night’s performance of Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly.” With a hum and buzz, the orchestra sent warm-up notes from down in the pit up to the room’s high ceiling. Lights dimmed, and the curtains opened on Graham’s dream.

“When I saw that performance, I saw all elements of the arts come together,” said Graham, a University of Florida professor of voice in the College of Fine Arts School of Music since 1979. “There were elements of theater, the arts and music in the costumes, sets, the live orchestra, the voices. I just knew that was what I wanted to do.”

Graham went on to make her professional debut with the Houston Grand Opera Company in the Tony Award-winning revival of Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” as both Clara and Bess. She has since performed in the world’s most famous opera houses, including the Sydney Opera House and the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires. While performing major roles in many operas, she has mingled her voice with some of opera’s most well-known talents.

Roles in Puccini’s operas were some of her best loved and, as an African American, have provided her with her most opportunities.

“Puccini’s roles offer more latitude for an African-American as many of his characters are of different ethnicities,” she said. “In general, opera roles are more forgiving than film. The music must be served. Looks go a long way, but then you have to sing.”

She will explore another of Puccini’s works as she performs the lead in the UF College of Fine Arts staging of “Tosca” April 16 and 18 at the Phillips Center for the Performing Arts. The role, she says, is one of the most difficult in Puccini’s repertoire.

“As a performer, you always want to find new challenges,” Graham said. “I enjoy taking on this role because of the opera’s realistic settings, its relevant themes of passion, power and corruption, and because Tosca is a singer.”

While continuing her performance career, Graham has taught and mentored students, and she has directed with Living Arts, a theatrical production company in New York City.

Directing is like teaching, she said, because as a director you map out ideas and mold characters.

“It’s like getting a student, working with him and watching him take off and have a wonderful career,” she said. “It is a form of teaching.”

Teaching students and watching their successes continue the dream for Graham.

“I’ve taught students who have gone on to sing at the Metropolitan Opera, and different opera companies and that is a satisfying ongoing thing,” Graham said. “They got their start here, and that makes the College of Fine Arts a very vital part of this university.”

Photo credit: Kris Nichols — University Photography

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