January 4, 2016

Nonfiction Article By Charles E. J. Moulton: "Colenton Freeman-Atlanta's Gift To Opera"

CHARLES E.J. MOULTON has been a stage performer since age eleven. His trilingual, artistic upbringing, as the son of Gun Kronzell and Herbert Moulton, lead to a hundred stage productions, countless cross-over concerts, work as a bandleader and as an acting teacher. He is a regular contributor for Idea Gems, has written for Shadows Express, Cover of Darkness, Vocal Images and Pill Hill Press. He is a tourguide, a big-band-vocalist, a filmmaker, a painter, a voice-over-speaker, a translator, is married and has a daughter. Charles E.J. Moulton's passion is creative versatility. His short story collection, Aphrodite's Curse: 21 Tales of Love and Terror can be purchased by clicking the link. Homepages: http://www.reverbnation.com/charlesejmoulton/ 





Photo Courtesy of Charles E.J. Moulton


Colenton Freeman – Atlanta’s Gift to Opera



    The gift of singing made all the difference in Colenton Freeman’s life. Such chances were not easily obtained for African-American young males back in the 1960’s and 1970’s.  However, through the grace of God, his family, teachers and mentors, he was able to pursue and achieve excellence.  
They were short on cash, the Freeman family. It was a simple life, but Ms. Freeman saw how talented the boy was. This was about the boy’s future.
So it came as no surprise that the single mother in Atlanta, Georgia decided to support her young son Colenton in his endeavors and see that this natural born creativity was nourished. Thus, she allowed the boy to learn how to play the trumpet, the violin and the piano. He sang in the school chorus, played in the school band, received an oil painting set and an Olivetti typewriter, and along with his sister and brothers a set of World Book Encyclopedias for Christmas.
    All in all, the creative little boy, already a skilled academic, became a true Renaissance Man even before coming of age.
    The mother was not the only one that nourished his talents, however. His grandmother, Mrs. Annie Mae Morgan brought him to the community of the West Hunter Street Baptist Church, where he started taking piano lessons with Miss Deleicia Maddox. This woman conducted the Children’s Cherub Choir, which turned out to be a real treat for the young boy. Colenton sang in all the choirs, even the adult ones and he was damn good at it.
    So, accordingly, Colenton Freeman was on a roll. As with so many musicians and singers who have made it to the top, the Baptist Church inspired him. He played the piano for Sunday School. So well, in fact, that the Reverend Dr. Ralph David Abernathy decided to make the 16-year old the Assistant to the Minister of Music, paying him the handsome wage of $ 20,00 every Sunday. Not bad for the son of a single, hardworking mother. Not bad even for a high school student back in the 1970s. But there was more. Much more.
    In 1972, Colenton sang in a University Summer Chorus and met a man named Billy G. Densmore, who was a tenor and sang in this chorus as well. As fate would have it, Colenton was given a seat next to this man. Densmore was an Atlanta City Public Schools music teacher at an elite High School which was 97 % white. The 3% black students were the créme de la crème of prominent and wealthy African-American families. Densmore loved Colenton’s voice and told him that he could develop his already obvious vocal talent if he came to his school.
Colenton said no, knowing how excellent his own, all-black high school already was. It had a new building with an excellent, music teacher named Harold Hess who happened to be white and was adored by all. Hess had put on productions of musicals like “West Side Story” and “Porgy and Bess” at the school.

Leaving was not an option. Mr. Densmore, however, was persistent.
Still, Lady Fortune kept on penetrating the boy with hints.
    Densmore made it a point to ask Colenton at every rehearsal if he had changed his mind yet. As a result, Colenton started avoiding Densmore at rehearsals, but a man’s destiny is a journey of discoveries.
    One day, Harold Hess announced that he was leaving Colenton’s high school in order to work on his Masters degree at Indiana University. As a result, Colenton decided to follow Densmore to his school, Northside High, which years later became Northside School of the Performing Arts. Because Colenton’s decision to attend Northside was very last minute, strings had to be pulled in order to get the young boy admitted and the high school student began the journey of discovering Opera, Italian Art Songs and German Lieder. The already fantastic voice developed to include a magnificent high range with easy full-voice high D’s.
    Through Densmore, Colenton came in contact with famed conductor Robert Shaw, who chose him to sing “Comfort Ye” from Händel’s “Messiah” with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra at a Christmas Concert at the age of 16.
With all this going on, the question which college to attend seemed logical. Instead of choosing Julliard, living in the dauntingly difficult Big Apple, Colenton chose Oberlin Conservatory in Ohio.
It turned out to be a good choice. He spent the next five years there, studying voice with the great tenor and vocal pedagoge Richard Miller. Later he went on to study at the Indiana University School of Music with the well-known Wagnerian soprano and famed voice teacher, Margaret Harshaw.
    Colenton, this ambitious young kid from Atlanta, was going to make it, all because his mother had believed in his abilities. At age 25, he worked at the San Francisco Opera with the likes of Leontyne Price, Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo, Leonie Rysanek, Birgit Nilsson, James King, Jess Thomas, Reri Grist, Anja Silla, Simon Estes and Margaret Price.  He started out in a leading role in an opera he had sung as a student in Bloomington, Indiana, “The Cry of Clytemenestra” by resident composer and professor of composition John Eaton. Colenton sang the world premiere in Bloomington with subsequent performances in New York.  
When San Francisco “Spring” Opera decided to produce the piece, they chose four singers from Indiana to come to San Francisco and Colenton was one of the four.  It was such a big success that the head of the San Francisco, Maestro Kurt Herbert Adler, requested an audition on the big stage singing standard repertoire.  
Colenton did and Adler offered him a contract for the Fall Season which included covering Pavarotti as Radames in “Aida”, covering Domingo and Franco Bonisolli as Don José in “Carmen”, singing both Arturo and Normanno in “Lucia di Lammermoor”, two small roles in Shostakovich’s “Lady Macbeth” with Anja Silla in the titel role and the role of the Messenger in “Aida” with Big P. The “Aida” was to be broadcast live by satellite to Europe. What a fantastic opportunity for the young man.
Colenton Freeman was both thrilled and nervous at the same time.
After San Francisco came a last minute offer from the Hamburg State Opera to come and replace Vladamir Atlantov as Don José in “Carmen”.  The gifted tenor did not know what to do, so he called famed bass-baritone, Simon Estes who advised him to go for it.  
“What should I ask for?” Colenton asked Simon.
Simon gave him a price, but added to take it even if they offered less.
Simon was flabbergasted that Hamburg without hesitation agreed to pay an unknown singer so much money. The one performance pleased the Hamburg Opera so much that Colenton was offered another show. The enthusiastic young tenor phoned home from his European hotel, calling friends and family about the success. As a result, he ended up paying one entire performance fee of 4000 Deutsch Marks for the hotel and phone bills.
How ironic that his loving and supportive mother died in January of 1982, just as his career took off. Brilliant artists are spiritual people, though, and I am sure that Colenton knew that his mother’s soul was there with him on stage when he sang Alfredo in Verdi’s “La Traviata” in Carmel Valley. Because of the evident emotion in Colenton’s voice as a result of his mother’s passing, during a musical run-through of the opera, the conductor came up to him and said: “That is some of the most beautiful singing I have ever heard in my life.”  
The love Colenton had for his mother filled his voice with beauty and inspiration.
Gratitude turned into spirit, spirit turned into artistry, artistry turned into success.
After spending the summer with his family, he went to New York to audition for an agent at Columbia Artist. The agency ended up taking him on as a young singer with conditions.  The conditions being that they would work together for two years and see how things go. It ended up becoming four exciting, yet difficult years.  In fact, like many young singers living in New York, he had to get a temporary job to make ends meet.  He was a very good typist and was able to get constant work at Law Offices, Banks, etc.  
He was offered a permanent position at Chemical Bank, working for a female Vice-President.  Colenton’s always honest and sometimes even cheeky attitude came exploding out, reminding him of his mother’s constant reminders to control this honesty.
Colenton thanked the boss of the Chemical Bank for the offer, but told her:
“You know, you treat me special now because I am an artist and temporary.  However, if it became a permanent situation, you would start to see me differently and I could not live with that.”  
This self-confidence, however, was the attitude that gave him his Carnegie Hall debut singing with two orchestras, making his Carnegie Recital Hall debut, singing with the Santa Fe Opera, Glyndebourne Opera Festival, the Bellas Artes in Mexico City, Opera Orchestra of New York, Chicago Lyric Opera, among others.  
Still, the work was not enough to live on 12 months in the year.  He would be singing these glorious operatic roles for 3 months and then going back to the office.  
He invited his boss at the International Center for the Disabled in New York to hear him sing the tenor role Calaf in Puccini’s “Turandot” at the Boston Concert Opera. At the office on Monday morning, he told Colenton how much he enjoyed the performance and then added: “My colleague, who came with me, leaned over during the performance and said: how could you even possibly give that man a letter to type?”  
What had “Old Blue Eyes” crooned, a phrase that actually proved to match this situation?
“If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere. New York, New York.”
Colenton not only was making it.
He already had.

After 4 years in New York and being released from Columbia Artist, because they felt they could not give his career the time and care it needed, he was advised to come to Europe and try his luck there.  He won a grant from the Astral Foundation in Philadelphia, which financed an “Audtion Tour” of Germany for 3 months.  
In fact, the very doctor who had attended the Turandot performance in Boston helped him write the grant proposal.  He contacted German agents and auditioned for them when he arrived and was sent on several auditions.  A grueling, but exciting experience.
Arriving in Germany three months before, he finally got an offer for a “Fest” contract at the Stadttheater Giessen, he brought with him a splendid proverbial treasure chest of operatic gems.  Mind you, he had already sung at some important places and the best he could do was a small German theater in the middle of nowhere?  On one hand, he was relieved to finally get a job, because he did not want to return to America empty-handed.  But, he felt that he should be singing in Munich, Hamburg, Berlin or even Cologne.  But, Giessen?
Well, he said yes to the offer, thinking he could change his mind later if he wanted to.  The tenor returned to New York in the middle of December. After several weeks, the agent from Munich called him to talk about the terms of the contract with the Stadttheater Giessen.  She was so excited about the roles they offered.  
He would make his debut as Rodolfo in Puccini’s “La Boheme”, then Alfred in “Die Fledermaus”, Lionel in “Martha”, the title role of “Idomeneo” Melot in Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” and L’amante in Menotti`s “Amelia goes to the Ball” with Menotti as guest stage director. It all sounded good, until she told him what his monthly salary would be.  He had really no idea about salaries and life in Germany.  Only, the amount they offered did not sound like enough.  
So, he told the agent, “I want more!”  
There was silence and then a flabbergasted:
“How much more?”  
The answer: “A thousand D-marks more,” came as a surprise to say the least.  
“Mr. Freeman, Giessen is a small theater.  They cannot pay that kind of salary.  And this is your first German contract.”  
He then said:
“Well, I am not coming, if I do not get more money.”
Colenton Freeman put his goals and talents on this high roulette-wheel-like bet, knowing that his brilliant abilities would have him win in the end. So, she said she would relay the message.  The next week she phoned and was almost hysterically excited:
“Herr Freeman, they said YES to your conditions!”  
Colenton again had won over professional opera directors by being honest, cheeky and self-confident. So, he ended up here in Europe, travelling a long, glorious, exciting and sometimes difficult ride of operatic bliss.  
This gift of singing made all the difference in his life.  Such chances were not easily obtained for African-American young males back in the 1960’s and 1970’s.  However, through the grace of God, his family, teachers and mentors, he was able to pursue and achieve excellence.  He was never taught to feel inferior in any sort of way.  He came from very humble beginnings, but always given the very best that his family had to offer.  Also, his church family was constantly supporting him morally and financially.
In many ways, he is still the little boy from Atlanta, Georgia.  Although, he has been fortunate in his adult life to experience life at it’s best, he has remained true to who he is and true to his background.  He can sit down at a dinner table with royalty, wealth and power and enjoy a 6-course meal with a place setting consisting of 10 pieces of silverware, eating caviar, drinking Chateau Margaux wine and the next day eat a simple Southern meal of fried chicken, cornbread, collard greens, potato salad, fried corn and squash casserole and be just as happy and content.
Today, he sings a lot less. He devotes his life now to teaching young up and coming future talent.  He has taught students from all over the world, including Japan, Korea, China, Italy, France, Spain and, of course, Germany.  He also teaches those who just like to sing and want to have better control over their voices.  He helps to prepare young people for the entrance auditions at conservatories and universities in Germany where he resides.  
This work is also fulfilling, he tells me, although naturally different from his previous life on the stage.  He does not have to worry about his voice anymore. He is concerned about the voices of others.
The main lessons we learn from his life and career, though, are twofold: persistence always wins in the end. Above all, however, we learn this: that a child’s talent supported by a loving parent can turn into a glorious future.
I can only say, being a singer myself, that having a vocal pedagogue with his kind of experience would feel like winning the lottery three times over. During my time working as a baritone in Hamburg, we met at a Voice Teacher Conference at the Music Academy. Colenton, my mother, the experienced operatic mezzosoprano Gun Kronzell (1930 – 2011), and myself really hit it off and I have kept contact with him even after my mother’s passing.
And you know what?
The greatest thing is this: Colenton Freeman is not just a man with a wonderful voice.
He is a wonderful person. 

~Charles E.J. Moulten

1 comment:

  1. very nicely written, thank you for this!

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