Tourists come to Charleston for the history, for the food, for the culture. It’s safe to say they don’t come here for the opera. At least not opera sung from a street corner, from a doorway, and from the steps of the U.S. Customs House.
Richard Blakeney believes if the people don’t come to the art, the art has to come to the people. Every week or so, he ventures out to the Market along East Bay Street to spread the word. And it never fails that people stop to listen, then chat with him afterward about how much they just love “Ave Maria” or “Summertime.”
Blakeney founded Organic Opera, a new nonprofit organization, and he has forged partnerships with the local YWCA, the Lowcountry Children’s Museum, and the Charleston County Public Library. He teaches children how to read better by having them act out stories in song. He also encourages them to make up their own songs and stories.
His outreach is largely to African-American students, many of whom certainly don’t have an interest in opera. Even so, Blakeney is persistent, and that persistence often pays off. What makes the struggle worthwhile is the pleasure of witnessing teenagers’ eyes suddenly awaken.
“I fell in love with opera because of outreach like mine,” Blakeney says with his deep baritone. “I was sitting in front of this soprano, and when she started singing, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. It was magic.”