Sunday, March 11, 2001

A gift of song

Caribbean singer's chance meeting with Cincinnatian brings her here to study music

By Janelle Gelfand
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        When La-Vaune Henry was growing up on the West Indies island of St. Maarten/St. Martin, she never thought she would one day be studying voice in the United States. She knew she could not afford the kind of training that could lead to a career singing opera.

        Pursuing classical music — especially opera — was unheard of on St. Maarten, the Dutch side of the two-nation island (the other side is French) known more for its casinos, shopping and beaches. Metropolitan Opera broadcasts could be heard only through a Caribbean Sea of static.

[photo] La-Vaune Henry of St. Maarten/St. Martin is a graduate student at UC's College-Conservatory of Music.
(Steven M. Herppich photos)
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        “Sometimes I could hear a singer, but it was really bad. That's all I had,” says Ms. Henry, who grew up in the English speaking capital of Philipsburg.

        Graceful and unpretentious, Ms. Henry, 28, laughs frequently, squinting her expressive brown eyes. But behind those eyes is a spark of fierce determination, an ambition to succeed and a tenacity to stick to her goals.

        Teachers recognized her talent, and a scholarship paid her way to the Rotterdam Conservatory in the Netherlands. Then a chance meeting 12 years ago on St. Maarten brought her to the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, where she is a graduate student — and closer to her dream.

        It was a brilliant Sunday morning in January 1989. Cincinnatians Paul and Carolyn Flory were on a cruise when their ship stopped at Philipsburg.

        Mrs. Flory was feeling apprehensive; she had just learned she needed a mastectomy. As the Florys walked silently through the town, they came across a pretty white church with blue trim. They heard music and went inside.

        The choir was practicing Handel's Messiah — with a calypso beat, Mrs. Flory recalls.

        “Then we heard a young soprano singing. Her voice reminded me of a young Leontyne Price. It was uplifting. I was so taken by this young girl's voice, it was like finding a rose in a desert. I said, “I just have to stop and thank her for this wonderful experience.' ”

[photo] Carolyn Flory with Ms. Henry. A chance meeting 12 years ago brought them together.
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        They waited until 16-year-old La-Vaune came down from the choir loft, wearing a pink dress.

        “I complimented her and she smiled and said, "I don't study with anybody. This is a small island; there's only one music teacher on the whole island, and he teaches band and piano,' ” Mrs. Flory recalls.

        She told La-Vaune that there was a fine conservatory of music in Cincinnati. If she was ever interested, Mrs. Flory would do what she could to help. They exchanged names and numbers, and parted.

        Fast-forward to 11 p.m. on a cold November night in 1999. The phone rang at the Flory residence in Anderson Township. It was a call from Rotterdam. The melodic, lilting voice on the other end belonged to La-Vaune Henry.

        She had been studying voice at the Rotterdam Conservatory for seven years and was packing to leave for home in St. Maarten. At the last minute, she learned she had won a $20,000 scholarship from Rotary International and the district of Delfshaven for further study.

        “Right away, I said to my voice teacher "I think I'm going to the United States,' ” Ms. Henry says.

        But she had no contacts. Then she remembered the lady from Cincinnati, Mrs. Flory. They had not spoken since that day in 1989. She crossed her fingers and dialed.

        As a little girl, La-Vaune loved music and art. When she was in third grade, her school music teacher realized she could sing. Soon, she was known as “the girl with the beautiful voice.” She was the soloist in every choral concert and festival. She won every competition on the island.

        “St. Maarten is considered one of the most musical islands in the Caribbean, in the sense that there are so many different nationalities there,” she says. “The economy was always booming.”

        It was not booming, though, for La-Vaune and her family. Life was “beyond hard.”

        Her mother was 17 when she was born, and her parents separated shortly afterward. Her father was from a poor family on the nearby island of Dominica. Because he was an illegal resident in St. Maarten, he could not get steady work.

        Her father died of cancer when La-Vaune was 5. After a hurricane flooded their home, she and her mother moved in with her grandmother, aunts and uncles. The two shared a bedroom.

        “I ask my friends here to define the word poor. My definition of poor is when you don't have food, like the children in Ethiopia,” Ms. Henry says. “I always had food. I had one pair of church shoes and one pair of school shoes.”

        She also had music. In high school, she sang in two choirs. When she was ready to graduate, a choir director who had studied in America encouraged her to pursue classical music. But to do that, she had to leave the island.

        It was hard to think of leaving. She was close to her mother, her younger brother and her grandmother. Then she received some advice from a great-aunt, Oldine Bryson-Pantophlet, who was a high school principal.

        “She told me, never close any doors,” Ms. Henry says.

        Because St. Maarten is Dutch, Ms. Henry was awarded a government scholarship to attend the Rotterdam Conservatory. But when she showed up in the Netherlands, she learned she had not been accepted. She had to audition.

        “They asked, "Why didn't you just send a cassette? You've come so far, and you're never assured of just getting into a school,' ” Ms. Henry recalls. Her heart sank.

        “I didn't have any repertoire at all. I had never heard an opera. I didn't know anything, really. I sang "I Know That My Redeemer Liveth,' from the Messiah. It was horrific, because I didn't speak German or Dutch.”

        But the faculty heard something in her voice. She was accepted.

        Ms. Henry plunged into a new culture, making friends, learning Dutch and becoming fluent.

        “Can you imagine going to a school, watching the mouth of the teacher going wah, wah, wah, and not understanding a word?” she says, laughing.

        She also had to support herself.

        “I have been independent financially my whole life,” she says. “I knew no one could send me a cent. So I cleaned, I worked at McDonald's, at old peoples' homes, at the post office, I cleaned schools, I cleaned the police station.”

        Musically, she was woefully behind. She spent much of those seven years playing catch-up.

        “I had a primitive knowledge about the music itself, and I still do, because of not being exposed to it at an early age,” she says. “My goal then was to get the voice under control first, to try to understand what type of repertoire I should be looking at.”

        While living in Europe, she worked with vocal teachers in Germany, Switzerland and England. She performed in concerts, and sang roles in productions of Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro and Puccini's Gianni Schicci. But she did not feel ready for an opera career and turned down job offers in European opera houses. She knew she needed more training — and more confidence.

        “I was totally scared of getting onstage,” she says. “I thought there were others who probably could do better than I could.” When she won the Rotary scholarship over hundreds of others, she was ecstatic.

        “I was overwhelmed. I realized that it wasn't just luck anymore,” she says.

        But she had little money to spend applying to many schools.

        “I thought I would look at one school and that was it,” she says.

        Mrs. Flory sent her a CCM application, then didn't hear for months whether Ms. Henry had received it. In a rush to pack, Ms. Henry had tossed the application into a box, which went on a slow boat to St. Maarten.

        Finally, she got the forms, applied and received an audition date in Cincinnati last March. Delayed by a storm in the Caribbean, she barely made the audition. Mrs. Flory, who had not seen Ms. Henry since she was 16, met her at the plane with a balloon.

        “She was one of the later auditioners,” says CCM professor of voice Mary Henderson Stucky, Ms. Henry's teacher. “She came out looking self-confident and assured, the voice sounded as if she was singing easily and had a lot of color in it.”

        The audition committee heard potential.

        “She could easily sing in European opera houses. She has the sort of sound that could be a lovely lyric sound. She has a lot of drama and lot of expressiveness in her singing,” Ms. Henderson Stucky says. “It's an exciting timbre and quality. She has a great deal of tenacity.”

        “When she got into UC, I was crying,” says Mrs. Flory, who is tennis facilitator for the Tennis Masters Series Cincinnati, the tournament chaired by her husband since 1975. ""I wanted to take full credit for that.”

        Today, Ms. Henry is one of 140 international students at CCM. She is adjusting to another new culture, making new friends and again playing catch-up with her studies.

        The international students “all have a certain amount of drive and ambition to go out of their own comfort circle,” Ms. Henderson Stucky says. For each of them, succeeding at a competitive conservatory such as CCM is challenging and difficult.

        “It's inspiring to see them persevere to try to reach their different goals,” Ms. Henderson Stucky says. “With enough drive and persistence, there is often a way there.”

        Ms. Henry does not know what her future will hold. Her scholarship is for one year. Undaunted, she praises her teacher, and is grateful for the chance to study here. It has been a long road, but her goal is to sing opera professionally and give recitals. She will perform in a recital at CCM in May.

        She will not forget those who have helped her along the way: her choir directors, her voice teachers, the Rotary and Mrs. Flory. And she has never forgotten the advice she received once in high school from an artist named Ruby Buite.

        “She said, "Whatever you do in life, whether you get money or you get fame, don't feel that you should be higher than anyone else,' ” Ms. Henry says. “That is one of my goals for myself, to be myself as much as possible.”


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