Davóne Tines is already at the Upper West Side café where we’re scheduled to meet when I arrive. He looks great, dressed all in black, tight black t-shirt, small black stole around his neck. I look, I suppose, like a writer come in out of the rain. I take off my coat and self-consciously mention the cane I’m using, saying that it’s just a temporary thing due to a knee injury. He smiles and, with a wave of his hand, brushes the subject out of the air, then compliments me on the leather backpack my wife gave me. I tell him I like his Doc Martens boots – black, of course.

Davóne Tines in Everything Rises at Brooklyn Academy of Music
© Ellen Qbertplaya

I wouldn’t ordinarily write about a performer’s appearance or attire, but with Tines it’s on the table. His fashion sense made the youthful 35-year-old bass-baritone the subject of a Vogue profile a couple months before our meeting. It was something pointedly addressed in Everything Rises, a brilliant set piece with violinist Jennifer Koh that premiered in California in the spring of 2022 and came to the Brooklyn Academy of Music last October. With a cold stare fixed toward the audience, Tines sang:

I hated myself for needing you
dear white people
money, access, and fame
people collectors
moneyed benefactors
I’m just a thing
a Ming vase, a Picasso
you bought and sold me
in tank top and pajamas
meat on loan

Picking one point out of a powerful show is something of a misrepresentation, but the whole of the production only goes deeper, into Koh’s Asian heritage and how that is seen in the classical music world, and how the elders of both of their families struggled against racial oppression. But those lines, early on in the piece, come as a shock. I sat at the performance thinking he didn’t mean me, thinking if he met me he’d sense – even if he didn’t say it – that I wasn’t one of those “dear white people”.

Jennifer Koh and Davóne Tines at Brooklyn Academy of Music
© Ellen Qbertplaya

Everything Rises was developed with Koh over a long period of meetings with composer Ken Ueno and director Alexander Gedeo, sharing stories and shaping the show. That moment of being “meat on loan” came from a gala for a classical music organization (he doesn’t specify which) where he was put up for auction.

The auctioneer started “rattling through all of the things that were available, including an evening with Davóne Tines that would mean I would sing a half recital at their home,” he tells me. For this lot, Tines was pictured in Handel’s Aci, Galatea e Polifemo, in which he played the cyclops. “I’m sitting on the edge of a bathtub in a tank top and pajama pants looking kind of dumbfounded. It became a surprising experience. I think you can imagine what it feels like to be a Black man literally on an auction block.”

Tines grew up singing in the Baptist Church and studying violin in Virginia. (When he’s not travelling, which is most of the time, he now makes his home a couple of hours away in Baltimore.) He earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology at Harvard University before going on to study voice at Juilliard.

Davóne Tines and Jennifer Koh
© Ellen Qbertplaya

The address for his website, alsoanoperasinger.org, suggests a biography written before it was lived, and a rather humble one at that, chosen before he knew “opera singer” was to be his primary job title – before his 2018 Lincoln Center Emerging Artist Award and before he was named a Time magazine Next Generation Leader. It was before the premiere recording of Anthony Davis’s opera X, in which Tines sang the lead role of Malcolm X, later nominated for a Best Opera Recording Grammy. He registered the website when he still saw a career working for nonprofits in front of him.

“There’s this thing when you’re a younger singer and there’s all this guidance about how you should package yourself,” he says. “I was interested in a lot of things. Before I became a full-time singer, I was in arts administration.”

The web address was chosen as a catch-all to cover his work in theatre management, set design and administration. Between Harvard and Juilliard, he interned at the American Repertory Theatre and served as production manager for George Mason University’s opera program.

“I always knew I wanted to be connected to the arts in some way,” he explains. “I didn’t presume I could have a career as an opera singer. I decided to pursue something. I thought I should go to grad school I looked into business school, it sounded dreadfully boring. So I applied to Juilliard.

“It’s really been the reason why I’ve been able to make things,” he adds. “I really understood the makings of the machine before I stepped into it.”

Davóne Tines performs Julius Eastman’s Prelude To The Holy Presence of Jean D’Arc at Looking Glass Arts Festival 2021

I first heard Tines at Roulette in Brooklyn as a part of the 2017 Resonant Bodies Festival, singing a set of spirituals with piano accompaniment on a stage scattered with overturned furniture. It was a performance that had been percolating in Tines’ mind for several years at that point, a response to the frequent police killings of Black people, and a desire, he explained, to “do something engaging this that was also cathartic” and “engage the audience in feeling what the weight of this might mean.”

That effort led to Were You There, a set of hymns and spirituals performed with the Knoxville Symphony Strings at the Big Ears Festival in Knoxville, Tennessee, the following year. For that concert, he had light bulbs suspended in the theatre to represent victims of police violence and read their names during the concert. Some orchestra members objected to the content, he said, and he considered revising it, but decided against it.

For his Concerto No. 1: Sermon, premiered digitally with the Philadelphia Orchestra and performed live in 2021, Tines combined recitations of short texts by Black authors with works by John Adams, Matthew Aucoin, Anthony Davis and Igee Deiudonné. In preparation for that concert, he had weekly meetings with the orchestra for what he described as “a self-taught course” to lay the groundwork for the concert. 

Davóne Tines at Carnegie Hall
© Jennifer Taylor

Tines made his Carnegie Hall recital debut in November, 2022, with Recital No. 1: Mass, building again on the form. A set of 80 selections for the programs was winnowed down to Bach, Caroline Shaw, Julius Eastman and Tyshawn Sorey, intermingled with old spirituals. For this concert, he engaged the audience, again and again, asking them about their dreams and problems and ultimately to introduce themselves to one another.

The works grew from one another, and continue to build. Tines hopes to bring Concerto No. 1 to Lincoln Center this year, and may revisit an early plan to shape his Recital as a holiday show (the working title is “Davóne Tines’s White Christmas”, he says with a smile) during his 2023 tenure as Brooklyn Academy of Music’s first institutional artist in residence. Whatever shape they take, the shows will no doubt continue to challenge audiences and orchestras alike.

But while addressing social issues through his concerts, Tines has avoided speaking directly about social issues.

“I made an early decision not to be a part of panel discussions about George Floyd, I just wanted to have my space,” he says. “If it’s a problem that has that much context, you’re not going to dig yourself out of it in one or two years. I don’t want to talk about how to go toward diversity and inclusion until you talk about how we got here in the first place.”

Davóne Tines and Jennifer Koh
© Ellen Qbertplaya

At this point, I put my notebook aside. It’s an interview device I use to suggest “we can really talk now”, to allow the conversation to open, but it’s not an insincere one. I later wish, though, that I’d been covertly recording. We talk about race. He quotes Martin Luther King, “the arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice”, and describes his visualization of that arc, floating somewhere in space.

I tell him that I used to think I was enlightened and compassionate enough not to hold racist beliefs, but I’ve come to understand it’s something I can’t actually internalize. I tell him how it struck me recently to hear a Black woman say she can’t walk down the street without being Black, that she doesn’t have a choice in the matter. (It only dawns on me later that unlike skin color, the cane I was so concerned about is something I can set aside.) He hears me out graciously and relates experiences of his own upbringing and experiences in school. I then ask him if he’s optimistic about the future. He breaks eye contact and exhales, and I open my notebook again. After a few moments, he responds.

“I think my sigh says a lot,” he says. “I am optimistic as much as I believe in Dr King’s metaphor. I think there is a larger trend toward bending toward something better than where we are. The sigh is the tired hope that people might broaden their investment in humanity beyond their lifetimes. Ever since I was aware of that metaphor, I have always connected to it and seen it very clearly.”

I then ask him if he’s always felt racial divisions in his career.  

“I didn’t feel it until I stepped into the professional world,” he says. “I did feel like I was, unknowingly, in a very safe playground. I started to actually feel it when I went to Juilliard. I started to question why I was being required to engage in the pedagogical journey of singing from a white Western perceptive.

“Sometimes my work is considered as activism,” he adds. “It is not. There are people who do that. My work is just trying to engage my identity.”

Davóne Tines at Carnegie Hall
© Jennifer Taylor

In March, Tines will sing the part of Vox Christi in Bach’s St Matthew Passion with the New York Philharmonic, a not inconsiderable appearance. I wonder if I am looking to him, across our small café table, to forgive me my trespasses of thought and perception. But I don’t ask him for that. Instead, I ask him if he can walk onstage without his identity.

“Yes and no,” he says. “I was coaching the Bach this morning. I have a German language coach. I have a German acting coach. I will engage with the staff. In the back of all of this is the very personal work of engaging what it really means to me to portray Jesus. When I walk on stage, I can embody that role from a journey of self-engagement.”

See Davóne Tines’s forthcoming performances here. St Matthew Passion with the New York Philharmonic is at David Geffen Hall, 23rd–25th March.