Candace Yvonne Johnson
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Candace Yvonne Johnson

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"Johnson’s Voice Brings Together Classical, Jazz, Spiritual"

Candace Johnson can belt out a Mozart opera aria with the soul of gospel singer Mahalia Jackson. A chancellor’s postdoctoral fellow at UC Berkeley’s music department, Johnson dazzled an audience at her debut vocal recital on campus in September.

Johnson, 33, infuses classical music with jazz, spiritual, and improvisational elements in a repertoire rich with African-American art songs.

“I sing the music that represents what I have to say,” Johnson said. Her latest program, which consisted of works by African-American composers, gave her that very opportunity.

“I enjoy singing all classical music, and I chose to specialize in works by African-American composers,” she said. “This body of literature is rich and beautiful, but unfortunately is infrequently performed.”

One series of songs, entitled “Three Dream Portraits,” includes verses written by Langston Hughes. “These powerful words are couched in this sweet-sounding music,” she said.

Her music advisor Olly Wilson said Johnson has successfully put the art form within a cultural context.

“A real serious interest in scholarship in the tradition feeds her performance,” Wilson, an African-American composer and UC Berkeley professor emeritus, said.

The Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Fellowship, a two-year program designed to increase minority representation in university teaching positions, is awarded to four people annually.

“Candace has an incredibly unique background in terms of not only her discipline, but also as a remarkable performer,” said Cristina Perez, facilitator of the prestigious fellowship. “Her work crosses so many boundaries. It makes your heart stop, it’s truly beautiful.”

Johnson began singing at the age of 5 when she volunteered to perform in a church concert in her hometown of Jackson, Tenn. She continued to sing in local churches and took music lessons in elementary school.

“Singing was always my first love because it felt very natural to me,” Johnson said.

Johnson’s mother, who served as her daughter’s first voice coach, helped develop her skills. “My mom knew how to cultivate talent,” Johnson said.

Growing up, Johnson never thought she would make classical music a part of her life.

“I expanded from church music to inspirational and light pop. Classical wasn’t in the picture. I thought I was going to be the next Whitney Houston,” she said.

But when Johnson entered a NAACP-sponsored singing contest in high school, a judge saw her potential for singing classical music.

“This was the first person who helped me realize there was a difference in the way you sing classical. I didn’t really know what it was because you don’t really see a lot of African-Americans singing classical. You tend to do what you’ve already seen,” she said.

Soon after Johnson watched a DVD concert of two popular African-American classical singers, she started to become more interested in this musical style. “I became entranced with what I saw. I could relate to this because they were singing spirituals, which is part of my cultural heritage. They were singing it in a way that was glorious.”

She decided to study voice at Vanderbilt University, where she was confronted with a dilemma: whether to give up the style of singing she grew up with in order to further her classical career. Her instructors told her she couldn’t do both since it would strain her voice.

“I had a struggle going on in my heart,” she said. “I wanted to do what I loved, which was gospel and inspirational while studying classical. I really believed I could do both.”

During her doctoral studies in Michigan, Johnson discovered that art songs could combine soulful, spiritual expressions with the European classical tradition. So, she decided to make that her focus.

Though she enjoys the academic part of studying music, she remains a performer at heart. “I wanted to do something with music that would touch people’s lives,” she said.

Not only does Johnson reach out to audiences through her singing, but she also instructs a new generation of singers as a teacher for underprivileged children in the Young Musicians Program.

“She has the god-given gift to inspire young children to want to learn classical music,” said Daisy Newman, Director of the Young Musicians Program.

Johnson, who has enjoyed teaching from an early age, hopes to influence young people.

“Historically, classical music was a tradition designed by and for affluent people. I want to make classical music accessible to everyone, from the inner-city person who listens to rap to the rural person who listens to folk.”

She plans to audition for regional opera houses and continue performing. “I enjoy acting, so I’ll definitely do opera. It demands a lot of energy.”

- The Berkeley Daily Planet


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Candace Johnson received her Doctorate of Musical Arts in 2006 in voice performance at the University of Michigan, where she studied with grande dame Shirley Verrett. Candace now holds a prestigious Chancellor's postdoctoral fellowship in the department of music at the University of California, Berkeley.

Candace has performed the lead soprano roles in Puccini's Suor Angelica, Menotti’s The Medium, and Mozart's Bastien and Bastienne. She has also appeared as Cherubino in Mozart’s Nozze di Figaro with Capitol Opera (Sacramento, CA). She frequently gives sponsored recitals and makes guest appearances throughout the states of Tennessee, Michigan, and California and in select cities across the country.

She is a featured soloist on the CD recording of Willis Patterson’s New Anthology of African-American Art Songs, and on the TV special “My Life as an Opera” with Michigan Opera Theatre and Detroit’s Channel 4. Other honors and awards include being a finalist in the National Leontyne Price Competition, garnering a bronze medal in the National ACT-SO Competition, and previously holding the title of Ms. Black Tennessee.

Performing since age 5, Candace is a versatile artist with experience not only in classical singing, but also in musical theater, television commercials, popular songwriting, spoken-word poetry and piano performance.

She is known for bringing audiences a tangible, moving experience through her angelic voice, dramatic stage presence and musical interpretation. Composer Adolphus Hailstork praises her performance of his works as “the best interpretation of my songs I’ve ever encountered.”

Candace is not only a phenomenal artist, but she is also a highly sought after teacher. Dedicated to sharing her music knowledge with others, Candace teaches applied voice at the Young Musician's Program (Univ. of California Berkeley). She is also on faculty at Los Medanos Community College and at Revival Center Ministry’s Training Institute in California, where she designed the voice curriculum and offers a variety of classes on singing and creative arts in worship. Candace recently established her own faith-based business, SweetPsalm Music, which provides entertainment services and workshops on vocal health and performance skills to a diverse, community-based clientele.

She has coached with and been instructed by Shirley Verrett, Oliva Stapp (Opera San Jose), Willis Patterson (University of Michigan), George Shirley, David DiChiera and Suzzanne Acton (Michigan Opera Theatre), Grace Bumbry, and Stephen Penn (New England Conservatory of Music).