Wednesday, January 11, 2006
A conversation with Clarity James
Radford contralto Clarity James has show coming
Radford professor and contralto opera singer Clarity James has been around the block, in more ways than one.
She’s performed about everywhere an opera singer performs, from the Vienna Staatsoper to the Netherlands Opera to the Dallas and New York City Operas. She’s met with as much acclaim, from a Martha Baird Rockefeller grant, a Metropolitan Opera Association grant, the Lillian Garabedian Award and a Corbett Foundation Award to being listed in the Who’s Who of American Women (and the international version), the Who’s Who in Music (national and international varieties), the Who’s Who in Entertainment, the Who’s Who in Opera and the straight-up Who’s Who.
She taught right out of graduate school and returned to it in 1990 at Radford University. On the eve of her upcoming Radford performance, Clarity James takes a few minutes here to talk about some of the highlights of the trip so far and some other ways she’s been around the block, too.
You’ve performed all over the world and taught at Radford for 15 years. What’s teaching like for you?
Clarity James: I love it. I’ve always loved it and always did it. Right when I was out of graduate school I taught at the University of Iowa for four years. It only occurred to me to move to New York after I had so many jobs I couldn’t keep leaving my teaching post. … I really love performing — it’s definitely my first love, but teaching is a very close second.
All the while that I was performing, I kept a casual studio in New York because I wasn’t there much. When you have an opera career in this country, you are constantly going from city to city. Even at City Opera I didn’t want to stay there the whole year in one place because you get more variety and the chance to do a great variety of repertoire by going around to different companies.
But wherever I was, a lot of times some kid in the chorus would ask me if I would listen to him, and I always would. The old cliches are true: When you teach something you learn so much more about your art, your craft. I continue to find that to be true.
And that’s after performing for how long?
CJ: A little over 20 years now.
What brought you to Radford?
CJ: I got cancer, and I realized that I really needed to look at my life and cut out some stress. And even though I love performing, there’s still stress. And I decided I wanted to be where the trees outnumbered the cars and the people. … Since then I’ve kept performing but obviously less often. I just saw this job and it was in one of the most beautiful parts of the country.
So that was an attraction, and I came here and found out that this was really a fine little music school.
So I came here to heal and liked it so much I stayed on.
You project a very healing-focused personality, even on your Web site’s home page. You talk about Reiki, for example. Does that relate to the music?
CJ: It relates to absolutely everything and facilitates everything I do. We call it the Radiance Technique now. It was directly tied into my performing. It’s a long story so I’ll try to nutshell it.
I was in an opera company in Chattanooga, Tenn., and there weren’t any full-length mirrors in the dressing room. So I went out into the lobby to look for one, but the theater wasn’t open yet and it was dark … and I put my hands along the wall, and my hands turned a corner and so I turned a corner, but I stepped off onto a marble staircase of 22 steps, and I fell like Alice down the rabbit hole.
And a cast member was a practitioner and teacher of what we then called Reiki, and she put her hands on me and it was a revelation. The pain went away. … That was my introduction to it, and I realized that this was something that could help me in every way.
That and lit stairways.
CJ: Right. So I’m a practitioner and teacher of it now. I don’t teach publicly too much, but if somebody comes to me I’m perfectly happy to teach them. … But you know, theater has always had a healing purpose.
If you look back to the old Greek tragedies, they’re a very cathartic experience. Poking somebody’s eyes out — that’s so the audience didn’t have to do it to each other. They could sit in comfort and identify with what was going on, but it released them from those same emotions. Unfortunately, I don’t think that in this day and age that’s true. … It’s not a good thing to have all the violence that we have in the theater today.
What do you see as the purpose of theater these days?
CJ: Whether it’s opera or musicals or great plays, it’s really food for the soul. In all of the arts … we need that kind of nourishment. It opens us to bigger and better areas of our own life.
If you’re not exposed to art, you don’t know, and that would be the only reason a person would disagree with that statement, it seems to me.
CJ: I also, in my work here, have a children’s opera theater. … To expose those kids at that age to something real and something beautiful and something age-appropriate as well, gives these children a gift that they would otherwise maybe never even come in contact with.
Who were the most influential people you have worked with?
1. Gian Carlo Menotti, stage director on “The Medium” in the Dallas Opera.
2. Leonard Bernstein, conducting “A Quiet Place,” the last opera he composed, in the Vienna Staatsoper.
Clarity James will perform with pianist Lucy Mauro at 8 p.m. Tuesday in the Preston Hall-Ken Bondurant Auditorium at Radford University. She will also perform Jan. 27 at the Virginia Tech Squires Recital Salon for the Rebecca Orr Memorial Benefit Concert.