Peabody Johns Hopkins University Magazine

Singing Real Life Stories

Singing Real Life Stories

Songs of Hope puts the voices of marginalized youth, human trafficking survivors, undocumented immigrants, and refugees on the concert stage

By Bret McCabe

Carl DuPont knew he wanted to collaborate with soprano Angela Yoon and pianist Jason Terry on their social-justice music program when they mentioned they were commissioning new songs by both an African American and an Afghani composer. “I said yes, music unseen,” DuPont says during a recent Zoom conversation. He adds that he sees his role as a performer-slash-educator to revolutionize the art song format. “I want to make a place for art songs by Black composers to be performed and to be studied in the conservatory as part of the curriculum, because storytelling is such a powerful art form.”

Telling powerful stories is what initially compelled Terry and Yoon to create Songs of Hope: Unveiling Darkness, which comes to Peabody October 3 as part of the Sylvia Adalman Faculty Recital Series, after debuting at the Birmingham Museum of Art and before continuing on to Carnegie Hall October 31. The program features the work of four composers—Joshua David Davis, Lynnsey Lambrecht, Henry Mollicone, and Milad Yousufi—who set the stories of marginalized youth, survivors of human trafficking, undocumented immigrants, and refugees, respectively, to music, and visual art, film, and spoken interludes. “I realized that we have all of those issues here” in the greater Baltimore and Washington, D.C. area, DuPont says of the concert. “And because Peabody’s primary mission is community based, I thought this would be a really great project to bring to our community.”

That community aspect has run through Songs of Hope‘s entire creation. Terry was first drawn to shine a light on human trafficking after hearing one survivor’s story during an alumna’s speech at Bradley University convocation in 2017. “I remember listening to her telling some personal anecdotes and wishing there was a way that the arts could uplift those voices,” he says, adding that he and Yoon began considering how they could do just that. They’d previously collaborated on concert-length programs exploring the impact of World War I on art and the works of composers of different ethnic identities.

Yoon came across composer Mollicone’s Sueños de Esperanza, a 2013 collection of songs whose lyrics come from interviews that poet Maria Marroquin conducted with immigrants in Northern California and turned into verse. “When I first heard of the music I was crushed,” Yoon says. “As an immigrant myself, I know everyone’s situation is different and often cannot be explained simply as this or that—there’s a whole lot in between the lines.”

The first step toward the project was to collect stories and set them to music, an effort that takes a tremendous amount of trust building and empathetic collaboration when dealing with survivors of trauma. Through Terry’s work with the nongovernmental organization American Voices he’d traveled to countries in transition, in the process getting to know a small network of refugee artists, composers, and musicians living in North America, including Yousufi, one Songs of Hope composer. Terry and Yoon began contacting organizations across the country that work with refugees, immigrants, human trafficking survivors, and marginalized youth—categories that organically came together as they collected stories of survival and endurance.

It was a difficult process. Story collection took time, as everybody involved was mindful of not wanting to re-traumatize the survivors courageous enough to share their experiences. The artist, composers, and performers involved then live with these stories throughout the creative process, which can also take its toll. “It’s been emotionally difficult putting all this together,” Yoon says, adding that during a recent rehearsal she found herself unexpectedly struck by a song’s emotional potency. “It’s been really challenging to hear these stories, to read them over and over, to hear them realized, and I wasn’t expecting that. And I’ve learned so, so much.”

Yoon met DuPont in 2017 when they shared an opera stage and appreciated him as a singer and person. When looking for a singer with a similar passion for the Songs of Hope mission, she remembered his dedication to underrepresented repertoire and musicians and reached out to him; he immediately recognized the project’s connection to his own work with African American songs. “A lot of our history as Black people in the United States was forbidden from being recorded,” DuPont says. “Even today there are disagreements over if the full story gets told in the classroom. Our ancestors, despite all those challenges, were able to convey to us this wonderful heirloom of their songs so that we understood their stories. They were able to fight for their liberation by showing their humanity through their music in the form of spirituals and gospel. I think art song is similarly powerful and able to get messages across. And I love the idea of this concert being a platform and even a protocol that students can follow in order to find the stories that need to be shared.”

Terry and Yoon emphasize that local impact of engaged art, of wanting to show their students that they have a skillset they can use to make thoughtful, provocative programming in their own communities. “The most powerful thing about this concert is that the music invites us to connect at the basic human level of storytelling and hear with our hearts,” Yoon says. “We see these voices in society but at the same time we don’t hear them.”

“These are difficult stories to hear, but our program is called Songs of Hope,” DuPont adds. “I think that the throughline is that by sharing these experiences and by making people aware of them and giving a voice to the voiceless, the hope is we can be the catalyst. We can be the change we want to see and we can be the community that we aspire to be.

“But as Angela says, first, we have to hear and understand,” he continues. “The hope is then that with that understanding, compassion, and empathy we can start to make changes from the concert platform and also in our community.”