by Len Lear
On Sunday, March 22, in the late afternoon, Cresheim Valley Church and the Chestnut Hill Historical Society hosted an architectural tour of the Epiphany Chapel at Springside Chestnut Hill Academy. The program featured a brief talk by Philadelphia architect, George Bryant, on the famous stained glass windows in SCH’s Epiphany Chapel. Following Bryant’s comments there was a short musical presentation featuring baritone Justin Hopkins, a Mt. Airy resident, accompanied by organist Alma Zemzen. Cresheim Valley Church hosted a reception following the program.
So far this sounds like countless other informational events that take place every week in Chestnut Hill and Mt. Airy. What lifted this one miles above the quotidian, however, was the soaring bass-baritone voice of Justin Hopkins, 31, who grew up in Mt. Airy singing in the Philadelphia Boys Choir.
One woman who works in the building that houses the Local’s offices walked in to see me the day after the event. “I could not believe this young man,” she said. “I think he is the greatest singer I have ever heard. It was unbelievable!”
What most members of the audience did not know is that this personable, humble, self-effacing young man who still lives in Mt. Airy with his parents is widely acclaimed as one of the nation’s greatest young opera singers.
A graduate of St. Joseph’s Prep and Loyola University in New Orleans, Hopkins was the second place winner in 2012 for both the Lotte Lenya Competition and the Mary Jacobs Smith Singer of the Year competition. The previous year he was a semi-finalist in the Competizione dell’Opera at The Bolshoi Theater in Moscow as well as a finalist in the Mildred Miller International Voice Competition.
Hopkins has performed at Carnegie Hall, the Theatre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels, Belgium; as a soloist with the United Europe Chamber Orchestra in Milan, Italy; in London with the BBC Concert Orchestra under the direction of Keith Lockhart; under the direction of Charles Dutoit with the Verbier Festival Orchestra in Switzerland, et al, and he has been featured on National Public Radio. In 2009 the Mt. Airy resident was requested to sing as the featured soloist for His Holiness the Dalai Lama during his visit to San Francisco. (Google his name, and you will read about Justin’s many other performances in the world’s most illustrious concert halls.)
Hopkins began singing at the age of 8 with the Philadelphia Boys Choir and Men’s Chorale. With the group in 1993, he performed Britten’s “War Requiem” with the Philadelphia Orchestra under the direction of Wolfgang Sawallisch.
“I don’t recall ever making the decision to take on singing as a profession,” Justin told me in a recent interview. “My mom tells me that when I was very young, I said I wanted to be the first black pope. They say never to give up on your dreams, but I think that ship has definitely sailed. There was a time I wanted to be a psychologist, like my father, or go into politics.”
Justin’s dad, Kenneth, is a retired psychologist who worked for the Philadelphia School District. Both of his parents are retired from the School District. They met as 4th and 5th grade teachers at T.M. Pierce School in the early ’70s. His dad became a psychologist in the early ’80s and his mom, Sherry, an administrator in the late ’80s.
“My mother played classical piano at a fairly high level into her late teens,” said Justin, an only child. “In the late ’80s she joined her sorority choir, AKA Omega Omega Ensemble. I would go with her to rehearsals and rush to finish my homework so that I could listen along and memorize the songs.
“I sang my solo in public at the age of 8 with the choir. My mother still sings with them to this day. Both of my parents fostered a love of music in me, though. My father turned me on to Motown as well as classic rock and folk artists such as Elton John, James Taylor and Phoebe Snow.”
Justin’s first introduction to opera was as a boy chorister in “Tosca” with Opera Philadelphia in 1994. He enjoyed standing in one place while singing with the Philly Boys Choir, “but actually being allowed and encouraged to run around the stage and play while singing was electrifying. I remember looking out at the hall of the Academy of Music from the stage during the curtain call, the audience cheering. I can recall thinking to myself, ‘Remember this feeling because the opportunity may not return again.’ I still have this feeling with each curtain call.”
Of all the teachers, musicians and mentors Justin has had, those who have most inspired and influenced him were Robert Hamilton, founder of the Philly Boys Choir; legendary singer, friend and mentor, Peggy King; and Tony Braithwaite, prominent local actor/comedian who was Justin’s high school theater and drama teacher.
Was Justin ever deterred by the fact that only a minuscule percentage of people who have operatic training can make a full-time living out of it? “Remaining optimistic and motivated in the business is a constant struggle,” he conceded. “When I began my training, the opera market was still booming compared to now. The market collapsed just in time for me to enter the field. In my earlier years, I would work summers as a groundskeeper at Ivy Hill Cemetery to supplement my wages. I loved that job. Today I may technically still be a ‘starving artist,’ but I am grateful to be able to make a full-time living performing.”
Over the years there have been many published comments from African Americans that great black singers should be using their talents for other kinds of music, not opera, because it is European music. What is Justin’s response to such comments?
“I would suggest to people who would be so limited in their thinking to say this to research the lives and careers of Marian Anderson, Paul Robeson, Leontyne Price, Jessye Norman, etc. One of the unique abilities of black singers is the ability to sing both European classical music and African-American music, and to be authentic or authentic-sounding in both genres.
“Marian Anderson was an opera star with more opportunity in early 1930s’ Germany than in the United States! Paul Robeson was a sensation in the Soviet Union for decades. These stars gave Negro spirituals and black music an international forum that only singing for their own could never bring. I sing once a month at Cresheim Valley Church in Chestnut Hill, and I particularly love having the opportunity to sing the great Negro spirituals.”
For more information, visit www.justinhopkinsopera.com.
— Continued next week