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They'll Give You the Feels

Interview with the DC6 Singers

By Tom Lady

The DC6 Singers are a sextet of Los Angeles-based gospel and Motown a capella singers: Jyvonne Haskin, Jantré Christian, Tia Simone, Margaret Best-Collins, Matt Bloyd and Ronnie Ohannon

This fall, to celebrate Halloween, they are partnering with LA Opera on the company’s Get Out in Concert at the Theatre at Ace Hotel, joining the LA Opera Orchestra to provide live musical accompaniment to the 2017 horror masterpiece, Get Out. LAO will have three screenings, Friday through Sunday, October 29-31, 2021.

Recently the DC6 Singers took a break from their busy schedule to sit down with BRAVO so we could get to know them a bit more.

BRAVO: Tell us about yourselves. Where are you from, and why are you called the DC6 Singers?
DC6 Singers: It’s kind of a classic L.A. story of being in the right place at the right time.

The DC6 Singers are a collective of singers originally formed in Pasadena in 2013 to breathe new life into classic Beatles and Motown tunes, but in our own, non-traditional a capella style. Our former music director, Dereau K. Farrar, had just started working with, at the time, a very new Pasadena-based orchestra called MUSE/IQUE, led by artistic director, the incomparable, Rachel Worby.

Interestingly, we received our name as the result of a performance trip to Washington, D.C. with MUSE/IQUE where we were featured singers for the U.S. State Department’s International Women of Courage Awards Ceremony in March 2014.

Some of the singers in our collective are native to the Los Angeles area, but most of us are transplants from the East Coast, Midwest and Northern California.

BRAVO: Your bio states your main genres as gospel, a cappella and Motown. Is LA Opera your first opera-related project? Is there anything different or unique about this partnership compared to those from other genres?
DC6: That’s right, our core performance goal as the DC6 Singers is to give our audiences an a capella gospel Motown experience. However, the singers in our collective come from varying musical backgrounds and genres, including opera and classical, so we’ve been lucky enough not to be pegged into any one genre. This has allowed us to lend our vocals to live and recorded performances for music styles ranging from super pop, EDM, and classical to Latin and R&B.

One of our favorite things that we were able to do to date was getting to perform as an opening act for a private book signing for the launch of the late Jessye Norman’s autobiography, Stand Up Straight and Sing! Given how much of an icon she was in the opera community, and especially as a performer of color, it was great to get to talk with her and learn more of her experiences as an internationally renowned singer.

We are excited for the collaboration with LA Opera and hope that this is the start of many more performances that bridge a gap between opera and other genres.

BRAVO: For folks who've already seen Get Out, what will you bring that will make the movie new again?
DC6: If you’ve never attended an in-concert version of one of your favorite movies with live orchestra and/or singers, we highly recommend putting that closer to the top of your to-do list. Seeing a movie with live music provides a unique viewing experience just like going to see a live performance.

Yes, there will be three screenings [of Get Out] between October 29th and 31st, but no two will be exactly alike - that’s the beauty and awe of live performance. Your readers have no doubt seen Mozart’s The Magic Flute or Vivaldi’s Four Seasons performed at least a half-dozen times and likely still anticipate the next live engagement. With Get Out in Concert, you can expect to be further engulfed into this harrowing tale as composer Michael Abels conducts his brilliant soundtrack in a live performance that highlights all the “feels” he and the director wanted you to experience. The DC6 Singers will be adding our signature sound along with the LA Opera orchestra allowing the listener to hear from main character, Chris' African ancestors, and trust us - there’s nothing like hearing it live!

BRAVO: I loved your "In a Minute! (...or Two)" collaboration with MUSE/IQUE where you covered Aretha Franklin/Carole Kong’s “Natural Woman”. When it comes to new versions of old classics, how do you decide what to tackle?
DC6: Aww, thank you! We adore Aretha Franklin, and the musical genius she and Carol King brought to this song is incomparable.

When we decide to add any song to our repertoire, but especially classics like “Natural Woman”, we first approach it by asking ourselves if can we translate this song into a style that fits us, keeps the composer's original intent but gives the listener something new to latch onto. It’s also important to pull in classics that are going to resonate with our audience. One benefit for us as a group singing such singular Black music as gospel and Motown, the fact that all American music has its roots in African American music has really opened the breadth of classics for us to choose from, like The Beatles, Adele, Paul Simon and Queen.

BRAVO: The pandemic has forced many of us, individuals and businesses alike, to grow and evolve at an accelerated pace. In terms of getting your performances to the world, was there anything new that you tried during the pandemic, initially as an experiment, that you will now continue doing even as we (slowly) emerge back into the sunlight?
DC6: In short, yes, OMG, absolutely yes. It’s wild to think how so many of us took digital communication for granted until we were forced to solely rely on it from the isolation of our shelter-in-place homes. Virtual choir videos were new to the DC6 Singers, but we’ll likely continue doing them in the future. Outside of a hologram, these “singer-in-a-square-in-a-square” videos have been great collaboration tools allowing us to still work together even when in different cities. That being said, making one is a lot more challenging than it looks. All our technical skills increased exponentially as we had to learn about microphones, sound recording software and the equipment needed to create professional quality recordings from a home recording studio. Plus, we’ve all really improved our lip syncing, videographer and video editing skills.

One surprising thing to come out of the pandemic is it really emphasized just how much work goes into performing live. Generally speaking, the work a singer puts into playing their vocal instrument is heavily overlooked in comparison to their fellow instrumentalist musicians. But the breath control to extend the duration of a note, change its tone and volume, blend with the other singers to produce a unified sound let alone the physicality of vocal placement to achieve a specific quality of sound let alone all the standing. A typical day in the life of a working musician pre-pandemic could have you traversing all of L.A. County going to various rehearsals, recording sessions and likely culminating with a live performance. After everything came to a screeching halt, our first pandemic live performances were beyond exhausting. So it really gave many of the DC6 Singers greater appreciation for the act of live performance and all the hard work they put into making it look easy.

BRAVO: Given the momentous events of the past year and a half, how do you hope the music world, and the opera world specifically, evolves with the rapidly changing times?
DC6: Music has always had the unique ability to unite and bring people together even if for a brief moment, and during the last 18 months, that has been even more important. In this time, we’ve seen the pandemic that has kept many of us separated, weather events that have caused so much destruction, as well as social and civic injustices that have highlighted the need for us as a society to have real conversations and action around racial and socio-economic disparities. We are overjoyed at the number of organizations, music and non-music alike, that have stepped up during these times to foster healing and change, but specifically are overjoyed at how the music world is making it a priority to ensure that there is appropriate and visible representation at all levels. There is much work still to be done, but we are hopeful that during this unique moment in time, in which the pandemic has forced us to pause, reflect and focus on these issues, that it will bring about positive change for future generations.

BRAVO: As an all-volunteer organization fueled entirely by the passion and volunteerism of our members, one thing the Opera League will strive to do post pandemic, even more than pre pandemic, is foster the love of opera in our community at large. What are some ways you see us doing that?
DC6: Arts organizations and their support organizations have always been great at thinking outside the box. We’re now in a time where this plus the incorporation of racial and cultural diversity is critical to the success of so many of us.

Collaborating with other groups and institutions working outside of opera are great opportunities to expose the work you do and/or opera music itself. Our upcoming Get Out in Concert performances are a perfect example of this because anyone who’s heard the film’s opening theme song, “Sikiliza Kwa Wahenga”, wouldn’t necessarily put the LA Opera Orchestra in the same sentence, next sentence or even the same paragraph. But now this partnership facilitates greater awareness between two different audiences by bridging the gap with people who may otherwise not normally have contact with the opera community.

BRAVO: Any particular operas and/or composers who inspire you?
DC6: Absolutely! Most of us were lucky to have been introduced to a variety of music genres and styles at a young age.

For many in the Black community, the song “Summertime” from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess (or the opera in its entirety) likely would have been our first exposure to opera music. Whether it was via Billie, Ella, Sarah or Miles, the fact that it was this song, from an opera featuring Black performers, says a lot about the importance of representation and inclusion among all art forms.

So many of the DC6 Singers grew up listening to opera as introduced by Leontyne Price, Marion Anderson and/or Jessye Norman albums held in the family collection. Other operas such as Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance, Rossini’s The Barber of Seville and the barcarolle from Offenach’s The Tales of Hoffman also helped further inspire our singers to experiment and expand their young vocal stylings.

Equally important, a shortlist of composers who have inspired us as musicians are Vivaldi, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Phillip Glass, Sam Cooke, Phoebe Snow, Beethoven, Marvin Gaye, Nina Simone, and the list just keeps on going.

We are also really excited about the attention Black classical composers such as Florence Price, Chevalier de Saint-Georges and Margaret Bonds are now getting, and hope that the classical and opera music worlds will continue to pull Black and other POC composers from the cloak of invisibility and disregard the racism and systems of racial oppression across the globe that have regularly been placed on them.

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Author: Thomas Lady
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