Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, October 22, 2021

From R&B to opera: Calloway ready for debut

Local jazz and blues singer Neshawn Calloway will make her professional opera debut Friday, Nov. 12 at the Granfalloon as one of vocalists who will sing selections during the “Dinner and the Opera” event. - Photograph provided

As a celebrated singer, Neshawn Calloway rarely feels butterflies in her belly before a performance. Her many years of experience singing classical, gospel, jazz, blues and rhythm and blues in settings ranging from small churches to concert halls in the U.S. and abroad long ago chased those away.

But Calloway admits to feeling a few flutters when she thinks about her Nov. 12 performance at the Granfalloon in Chattanooga, where the audience will catch a rare glimpse of her operatic side.

That evening, Calloway, a mezzo-soprano, will perform selections by Handel and Purcell on her own and then join a soprano to undertake “Flower Duet,” a well-known but challenging piece from a 19th century opera by Léo Delibes.

The latter is the source of Calloway’s butterflies, as she’s never performed it before an audience.

To calm her nerves, Calloway is practicing what she preaches to her vocal students at Chattanooga High School Center for Creative Arts – preparation.

“The way in which I prepare for singing classical music is physically, mentally and emotionally very different from what I do for R&B, for example,” she says. “Classical music requires more focus on technique and me making sure I’m being true to the music and getting the sound I want.

“It also takes more preparation as opposed to jazz or blues, which are second nature to me.”

One of the challenges of the aria for Calloway will be singing in French. While she’s mastered the language of spirituals, for example, singing in a foreign dialect is introducing her to all-new lyrical and musical nuances.

Chattanooga impresario Harv Wileman, who’s producing the event, is coaching Calloway on the French. He suggests her efforts to stretch herself as a performer have the potential to inspire her students at CCA and the ones she instructs privately.

“It’s not common for the head of a vocal department to be performing all the time, as well,” Wileman says. “Teachers rarely have the time to do it, but she makes the time. And the energy she brings to the classroom from the constant stimulation of preparing and performing and dealing with audiences gives her an edge because she’s out there doing what she’s asking her students to do.”

Calloway introduced her vocal chords to classical music when she was a student at Memphis State (now the University of Memphis). She’d grown up singing hymns and contemporary gospel in church in Olive Branch, Mississippi, but the lack of a choral program at her school and absence of vocal training had limited her exposure to other genres of music.

Still, the encouragement of the congregation at her church had sowed the seeds of a love of singing in her.

“It was a black Baptist church, so we never sang anything like it was in the hymn book,” Calloway laughs. “It was more of a guide. We jazzed up everything and gave it a beat.”

Calloway joined the vocal ensemble at Memphis State after befriending a fellow student who was a part of the group. The experience warmed and watered the seed planted within her, and she switched her major from business to music and started taking classical vocal lessons.

“I had to relearn everything I thought I already knew about singing,” she recalls. “I had to learn how to sing correctly and properly use my voice.”

Calloway says she came into her own as a singer while a graduate student at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. There, she blossomed under the tutelage of Roland Carter, then the head of the school’s music department.

Carter provided Calloway with opportunities to develop as both a singer and a conductor. In addition to serving as one of her mentor’s assistant conductors, Calloway sang in Carter’s choir at First Baptist Church on East 8th Street and joined his community ensemble, the Chattanooga Choral Society for the Preservation of African American songs.

Working with Carter inspired Calloway to pursue teaching. After earning her certificate while still in graduate school – a task she does not recommend – Chattanooga State tapped her to be the coordinator of its music department.

While teaching at the school, Calloway developed an educational performance based on the life and music of Bessie Smith. During classes in which she presented the act, she appeared dressed as the blues legend, sang her songs and told the story of her life.

When Calloway began teaching at CCA, she drew inspiration from Carter and began offering her students opportunities to develop as vocalists outside the classroom. In addition to recruiting them serve as background singers during her gigs, she connected them with Wileman, who placed them in ensembles that performed at the concerts he produced.

“It’s important for my students to learn what performing with professional musicians in front of a live audience is like,” Callow says. “They need to learn to be prepared for rehearsal because no one will be there to teach them.”

Honors followed in the wake of Calloway’s efforts. In 2013, the Hamilton County Department of Education named her its teacher of the year, and in 2014, the local chapter of the NAACP honored her with its Outstanding Educator Award.

Calloway received national recognition in 2020 when the Country Music Association Foundation gave her its Music Teacher of Excellence Award.

Calloway says she appreciates the recognition but insists the true measure of her accomplishments as a teacher rests with her students.

“If they walk away from my class with nothing but a greater love and understanding of choral music, I consider myself to be successful.”

Calloway still sings in church as a member of Signal Crest United Methodist. And she keeps her jazz, blues and R&B chops in shape as the lead vocalist of Sound Advice, a local neo soul band. But nothing quite stirs up butterflies in her belly like her upcoming performance at the Granfalloon.

“I’m grateful for this opportunity. I get a lot of chances to sing in church and do jazz and other stuff because that’s how people know me, but I want people to get to know me more as classical singer and see all the different sides of me as a performer.”

To purchase tickets to the Nov. 12 performance, dubbed “Dinner and the Opera,” visit www.granfalloonchattanooga.com/calendar-of-events. Three other singers will join Calloway in performing while guests enjoy a three-course meal.