Jarvis Miller performing in “The Magic Flute” (Photo courtesy of Opera Carolina)

Jarvis Miller’s mother used to clean the house to song. She was a singer, as was her mother before her, as would be her son after her, too.

“I’ve heard people singing my whole life,” said Miller. “My mom was the children’s choir director at church, and it seems like everyone in my family either loved singing or they loved music.”

It would be Miller (second child of three) who would “institutionalize” song, make it official by studying music in college. While there, he would be invited to join Opera Carolina after placing third in a national competition for young African-American singers. He would accept, becoming a bass baritone in the chorus — performing both in main stage productions as well as in central roles in the opera’s touring company. After losing 80 pounds (“I wanted to see how it affected my voice”), he would become a full baritone. The voice fit well with his big personality. And though he was a young African-American male taking on a traditionally European style of singing, he will tell you, “… me being involved in opera, it just solidifies the fact that anybody from anywhere can enjoy this art form.”

All this would come about much later, though. The Millers were a church-music family first, and it was in the sanctuary he first became emotionally attached to music. “I would sit in church and I would feel all these great emotions from all these different songs,” he said.

Miller grew up in a low-income neighborhood in Rock Hill, and would not be exposed to opera until his junior year at Rock Hill High School. That year, his choir director would took the class to see Opera Carolina’s Student Night performance of “Carmen.” The experience was like a curtain drawn in a pretty sitting room: He could look in and appreciate the beauty, but didn’t necessarily want to enter. “I was still looking at going to other colleges and doing other things,” said Miller.

His class returned to see “La Boheme” his senior year. An International Baccalaureate, AP and honors student, Miller said the performances made an impression on him, but still, “music wasn’t something calling out for me.” As a sophomore at Winthrop University, he would take his first opera class and find the more he learned about opera, the more he loved it. James Meena, general director and principal conductor at Opera Carolina calls Miller “the poster-child for effective arts-education programming.”

“He was a young man whose first exposure was seeing one of our performances in school and that motivated him, that struck the spark,” said Meena. “When he was still a student at Winthrop, he started singing with the opera chorus, and four or five years later, here he is … in the touring company, as well as singing on the main stage. He is … exactly what you hope will happen with these … programs: that you click with one of the kids in the audience.”

“Opera Express provides an experience for these children that a lot of them wouldn’t have otherwise,” said Ashley Lam, Opera Carolina’s assistant director of education. “By taking it into the schools, we’re really trying to break down that stereotype [that opera is stuffy and boring] and to create future opera lovers.”

In 2007, his junior year in Winthrop’s Music Education program, Miller began his first season with Opera Carolina. By the end of the next year, he was rethinking his focus. “It wasn’t that I didn’t want to teach anymore, it was that I felt like, the way that I could educate people about music would probably be best done through stage performances and not classroom instruction.”

There is a moment in Act II of Gaetano Donizetti’s “The Elixir of Love” (Miller’s favorite opera), when Adina, a wealthy landowner, has to make a choice. Does she marry Belcore, a self-assured sergeant, or Nemorino, a poor peasant who loves her? She chooses love, and soon learns Nemorino has inherited a nice sum of money. Four years into his music education degree, when Miller decided he was more passionate about performing, it was his own “Adina moment” — one that would be solidified through his involvement with Opera Express.

“A lot of these kids, they go to the same high school I went to and I tell them, ‘I sat in the same exact class … and now, here I am singing opera,” he said. “After each Opera Express performance, we’re generally allowed 10 minutes to do a cast ‘question and answer,’ and when the other cast members go back and start taking off their makeup … I just go back into the audience and I talk to the kids some more. …The performance we do is like 50 minutes long, but I feel like in those 15 minutes of no singing, is where I do the bulk of my work.”

In January, Miller will reprise the role of Papageno, the narrator and central character in Opera Express’ “The Magic Flute.”

“The message of ‘The Magic Flute’ is that music can make us happy, music can make angry people calm, it can make us find true love, it can remind us of good times. Music has the power to create all of these emotions within us,” said Miller. “Saying ‘I love you’ and singing ‘I love you’ inspire us in two totally different ways. And that’s what’s beautiful about music is that there are so many spiritual elements that go into the experience. Maestro Meena called it ‘A community-building experience.’ And he was saying that … if the artist has no audience to perform for, and the audience has no artist to listen to, then the art can never take place.”

Nearing the end of his “four-year plan,” Miller expects, within the next year and a half, to leave the region to further his training. “Charlotte is about to become a top-10 city in the U.S.,” he said. “That means that everything connected to Charlotte has to also then become [top 10]. … I’m very inspired by what Charlotte is trying to become, I am very inspired by what Rock Hill is trying to become, and I am especially inspired by what Maestro wants Opera Carolina to be.

“What’s so exciting about having been from this area is to have seen it go from this relatively unknown area of the U.S. and see it becoming its own self. Because it’s doing it around the same time I’m doing it in my life: I’m 25 years old, and here I am trying to become my own person. … So I’m really hopeful that after the next decade or so, I can come back, and instead of having to live in New York and be a New York- or San Francisco-based singer, I’ll be able to do it from right here in my own neck of the woods.”

This article is part of the Charlotte Arts Journalism Alliance, a consortium of local media dedicated to writing about the arts.

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