The McCleave Project | Diversity in Memphis

The McCleave Project

The McCleave Project

Made possible by the Opera America Innovation Grant (funded by the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.)

Begun in fall 2017, The McCleave Project seeks to deepen Opera Memphis' engagement with issues of equity and diversity in opera, both on stage and in the audience. In the first year of the Project, we featured a city-wide tour of Menotti's The Telephone, updated for the age of smartphones and featuring a fully African American cast. Each free performance of the 20-minute opera took place in a primarily African American area of the city and was followed by a moderated community conversation about race in opera. In 2018-19, we will continue to engage with our year one partners while adding a component of outreach to the Latino community. Working with Latino Memphis, we will present Spanish language programming and facilitated community conversations aimed at engaging with this growing population. Through these efforts, Opera Memphis seeks to move beyond inherited opera traditions in meaningful partnership with the community.

The McCleave Fellowships

Launched in 2018, The McCleave Fellowships are the first of their kind, designed specifically to create early career opportunities for directors and conductors of color. Our goal is to address pipeline issues in the field by advancing talented individuals who can have an impact beyond Opera Memphis. In keeping with the legacy of Madame McCleave, this fellowship is dedicated to providing professionals of color with the tools they will need to become successful, impactful artists. If you are interested in donating to The McCleave Fellowships, please contact Jason Hardy here or by calling (901) 202-4542.

Bethania Baray

We are pleased to announce our 2019-20 McCleave Fellow in Directing, stage director Bethania Baray. Bethania is an in-demand performer and previously the Director of Opera Theatre at Arkansas State University. She assistant directed L'italiana in algeri alongside General Director Ned Canty. From Bethania:

"I would like for all Latinos to know that opera is for them! We all want to be heard. We all have different ways of expressing ourselves. We all struggle, hurt, fight, rejoice, and feel joy. Communities that have felt marginalized need programs like these to reach out so that we can open our eyes to the views of others and see a variety of visions of the world."



 Past McCleave Fellowship Recipients

Dennis Whitehead Darling
McCleave Fellow in Directing




Special Thanks

Shirley Hill & Dr. Yvonne Robinson Jones

The McCleave Project would not be possible without the support of the following friends of Opera Memphis: 

Opera America and Ann & Gordon Getty Foundation

Our Year One Partners: Carpenter Art Garden, Sherwood Elementary, Bridges USA, Memphis Slim Collaboratory, and the Vollintine-Evergreen Community Association.

Dominique McCleave Fonseca

Dr. Yvonne Robinson Jones (pictured above with Project Manager, Shirley Hill), who has been a consultant on The McCleave Project since its inception, and her dilligent work as a researcher and connector is invaluable. 


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Madame McCleave

Florence Cole Talbert-McCleave was a Detroit-native whose voice and passion took her all over the world. From the beginning, she was destined to be a singer; her mother Sadie Chanler Cole was a member of the famed Fisk University Jubilee Singers. Her early life foreshadowed her trailblazing career. She was the first African American student to attend Los Angeles High School, and after attending University of Southern California, she was the first woman of color to be involved in the commencement exercises of the vocal department of Chicago Musical College. After graduating with honors, McCleave toured the US solo and with Hann's Jubilee Singers and recorded with record companies including Paramount. In the interest of pursuing operatic training, McCleave moved to Europe to study under Delia Valeri. In 1927 Florence McCleave sang Aida at the Teatro Comunale in Cosenza, Italy. While her trip included critically acclaimed appearances in Paris, London and Rome, this performance of Aida was significant because she was the first African American singer to perform the role in Europe. In the US, however, she had few options in opera, though she gave recitals and recorded. In 1930, she moved to Memphis, where she not only taught voice, but brought artists like Leontyne Price and George Shirley to sing at LeMoyne College (now LeMoyne Owen), a historically black Memphis university. While The Met was touring to Memphis in a white-only venue, McCleave was spreading a love of opera to generations of young black Memphians, and ensuring her community heard some of the best singers in the world. 

To learn more, CLICK HERE.

The McCleave Project is made possible by the Opera America Innovation Grant, funded by the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.


In the News

Memphis Music Hall of Fame: Gala Event Honors Artists From Blues to Opera - The Memphis Flyer

Madame McCleave to be inducted into Memphis Music Hall of Fame - Daily Memphian

Opera as a Tool for Social Change? - Rebecca White, designer/social influencer

30 Days of Opera, McCleave Project Extend Opera Memphis' Reach - Daily Memphian

Opera Memphis awards first McCleave Fellowship to local director - High Ground News

Opera Memphis wins Innovation Grant - Focus Midsouth

Opera Memphis Using Grant to Reach Mostly Absent AudienceMemphis Daily News

Opera Memphis addresses race with new initiatives inspired by Madame Talbert-McCleave - High Ground News

Opera Memphis Kicks Off Effort to Diversify Audience - Memphis Daily News

Opera Memphis Announces Trio of HonorsOpera World

  • A child comments at Sherwood Elementary
  • Baritone Marcus King answers a question about opera singers
  • A teen comments on opera at Bridges
  • Soprano Shawnette Sulker speaks to the crowd at Bridges
  • The crowd at Memphis Slim House