Dinner with a diva
story by Jessica Blomquist
photos by Angelina Bellebuono
It was a night to inspire dreams.
Saturday, June 14 marked the opening night of the Madison Chamber Music Festival. British classical soprano Alison Buchanan, making her third annual appearance in Madison, sang in The Many Moods of Alison at 5 p.m. The four local girls sitting in the front row at the Madison Baptist Church were far from the demographics of the rest of the audience.
The four young ladies were privileged to attend the first ever Cultural Center-sponsored Dinner with a Diva event, which allowed interested girls in the community to go to the concert and then out to dinner with the soloist. Each girl chosen to take part in the event showed some musical promise as well as an interest in classical music.
Before the performance, the girls chatted about their clothes, boys, and other topics pertinent to pre-teens.
“Did I overdress?” asked 12-year-old Bailey House-Strickland, who wore a red dress and heels. Twelve-year-old Savannah Williams had donned a little black dress with rhinestone heels and a French pedicure for the event. Fifteen-year-old rising tenth grader Keke Withrow wore black dress pants, a purple blouse and large, white hoop earrings. The youngest of the girls, nine-year-old Artelia Butler, who attended Buchanan’s performance last year as well, wore her hair up with a flower tucked in it.
“A boyfriend in 7th grade?” asked Keke with surprise when Savannah mentioned hers.
The conversation then turned to music as each girl shared her interests and accomplishments. Keke is a soprano II in chorus and has performed in various talent shows at Morgan County High School. Most recently, she sang in One Morgan, a variety show organized by the student officers to raise funds for AIDS research and awareness. She also sings at her church, New Birth Missionary Baptist Church and has recorded two CD demos at her uncle’s recording studio.
Savannah and Bailey are both members of Laura Foster’s chorus class at Morgan County Middle School and performed in Madison Community Theater’s production of “High School Musical.”
Artelia sings in the choir at Mount Zion Baptist Church.
The girls’ chatter was immediately silenced when Buchanan made her entrance, in a red gown with diamond earrings dripping from her ears and sparkling on her fingers.
They watched enraptured as she sang through the first half of the performance. At the intermission, when asked how they liked it so far, the girls gushed, “Amazing!”
“It’s like she never needs to breathe,” said Keke in awe.
The second half of the performance went much like the first, though the songs were more modern and Buchanan had changed into a blue 1920’s inspired gown. Savannah started to hum along quietly with Buchanan. Keke and Bailey could hardly take their eyes away from the singer. The only time that one of them spoke was during the song, “Amor.”
“What is amor?” Savannah asked.
Keke and Bailey both didn’t know. Keke said it might have something to do with love because that’s what Stevie Wonder’s “My Cherie Amor” is about.
She was right. “Amor” means love in Spanish.
Later, during Alison’s second encore, the singer recruited the girls to lead a little audience participation by clapping when she reached a certain point in the song.
The girls were gleeful after the performance, begging to return a pair of sparkly silver heels to Buchanan, who kicked them off during the second half. Giggling, they scurried into the back and left the footwear with Buchanan’s accompanist Eugene Asti.
Next up was a catered outdoor reception in front of the Madison-Morgan Cultural Center under a large white tent. The girls immediately ambushed the punch and filled plates with cookies, and more surprisingly, pickles, amid warnings not to spoil their dinner later. During the reception, the young ladies were formally introduced to the diva, who had changed into her third outfit of the evening, a red blouse and white slacks.
Though they were supposed to be taken to Town 220 in a limo, due to some booking issues, the limo turned out to be a no-show and festival director Ruth Bracewell shuttled the girls to the restaurant in her own car.
The girls were resilient though and the lack of formal transportation did not put a damper on the evening.
At the restaurant, the girls were seated around Buchanan to give them a chance to talk with her and learn from her experiences.
Bailey was the first to ask a question, wondering about the differences between the United States and England.
“English food has no taste,” Buchanan said, flashing her brilliant smile at the joke. The menu for Saturday evening was Caesar salad, steak, and French fries, with chocolate cake for dessert.
Bailey next asked for some singing advice, taking advantage of the chance to learn from a classically trained professional.
“The important thing is to be consistent,” Buchanan said, instructing the girls to practice in order to train their vocal muscles and develop their voices.
“She told me to practice every chance I get to reach my dream, which is to be a singer,” said Bailey.
Artelia then asked Buchanan about how she started her career.
Buchanan remembered pretending to sing opera, thus disrupting class when she was 11 years old, and having her teacher, seeing some promise in her childish behavior, ask if she would like to have voice lessons arranged for her.
“I started singing at 11 and that developed into a love of singing,” said Buchanan of her enjoyment of opera. “All of my friends were like, ‘What is that noise you’re making?’”
Keke said she dreams of being a singer.
“You just hold onto your dream because you can do whatever you want to do,” said Buchanan. “You have to follow your dream and not let other people tell you that you can’t.”
Buchanan herself did not always feel confident in her abilities.
“I was never really good at what we call general musicianship,” she said, describing her dislike of sight-reading. It seemed laughable to hear those words uttered by the same mouth from which notes soar.
But it gave the girls a good lesson: Don’t give up on your dreams just because you’re afraid of failure or because the task is hard.
“You have to have a strong belief in your talent. You have to believe you have something to share,” Buchanan said.
It was almost ten o’clock before the girls could blink and they whipped out their cell phones to see if their parents had arrived to pick them up. After posing for some diva-ish photos with Buchanan, the four young ladies left to go dream sweet dreams of becoming world-renowned singers themselves.