Joining the ‘Major Leagues of voice’

Music's Richard L. Hodges will take the stage in Seattle Opera's 'X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X'
Story by John Thompson, Photos and Video by Sean Curtis Patrick and Luke Hollister

As an opera singer, WWU Assistant Professor of Music Richard L. Hodges knows well that joyfully anxious moment of anticipation before the music starts.

But performing at the nation’s most prestigious opera house? That’s a whole different flock of butterflies.

Hodges spent a big part of fall 2023 singing at The Met, the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, as part of the cast of “X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X.”

“It was life-changing—a dream, really. Euphoric. Humbling. Electrifying. Beautiful,” he says. “There’s this moment at the start of ‘X’ when the curtain goes up, but you are still hidden, and can just draw a deep breath and take it all in. But you can’t get lost in the majesty—you've got a job to do.”

And more on-stage work is coming this month as Hodges will appear in Seattle Opera’s production of “X” at McCaw Hall, opening Feb. 24 with performances ending March 9.

Richard Hodges stands in the back of a group of singers, singing with his mouth wide and his face animated.
Richard Hodges, fourth from the left, in rehearsals for "X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X" at the Seattle Opera

The Prodigy

Hodges’s professional success is probably not a surprise to anyone who knows him: not his mentor, Elvira Green, and certainly not the church choir in his North Carolina hometown that he first directed at age 4.

“I grew up in a very musical household, and my mother and my aunts noticed my affinity for music very early on,” Hodges says.

At 13, he got into a summer opera program put on by the Greensboro (North Carolina) Opera Company led by Green, a mezzo-soprano whose own musical talent had led her from the tiny town of Macon, North Carolina (population 119 at last census) all the way to The Met as a permanent cast member for more than a decade.

Green said she saw something in the young Hodges that not only piqued her interest but made her want to invest time and effort in him, in the same way that those around her had done.

“He was just a bundle of intelligence and creativity,” says Green. “And so good at his craft that by the time that summer ended, he joined the opera company when it put on ‘Carmen’ that fall.”

“You can’t ‘hide it’ in opera; traditional opera has no amplification, it is just your raw voice over an orchestra. It’s the major leagues of voice.”

High school followed, and then college, when Hodges enrolled at North Carolina Central University, Green’s alma mater, and where she was then an artist-in-residence.

“By the time Richard got to NCCU, we had established a relationship where I just knew I wasn’t going to let him go ... it was as simple as that. His creative nature is so unique, and so his own. I just feel blessed and privileged to have been a part of his life,” she says.

Hodges beams as he listens to his mentor talk about him over the phone, and his eyes fill with tears when he talks about her and her influence on him, both as a singer and as a person.

“Between my mother and Ms. Green, I have two people I can look at as my heroes and my inspiration. I owe them everything,” he says.

Hodges faces away from the camera and plays the piano as he accompanies a student choir.
Hodges directs Voice Studies at Western. "Being a good teacher is just as hard as being a good performer," he says.

Graduate school followed, first at UNC Greensboro for his master’s degree and then at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas for his doctorate. Then came a series of on-stage opportunities, first in the groundbreaking opera “Sweet Land” with The Industry, an experimental opera company in Los Angeles, and then his first work in “X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X” with the Detroit Opera Company (which would later lead to his stint at The Met). His first tenured teaching job was at South Carolina State University, followed in fall 2022 by his start at Western, where he’s now director of Voice Studies.  

Inspired. And Inspiring.

That Can't Be Easy

Richard Hodges has sung operas onstage in six different languages: English, Italian, German, French, Spanish and Russian.

It is easy to see how the inspiration he gathered from his mother and Elvira Green is paid forward into his devotion to his craft.

“I fell in love with opera because of all the energy, and the performances, but most of all because of the focus on the VOICE. You have to just be so solid. You can’t hide it in opera; traditional opera has no amplification, it is just your raw voice over an orchestra. It’s the ‘major leagues’ of voice,” says Hodges, a baritone. “It’s so demanding on your body, and so difficult. But your voice determines everything—the mood, the energy, and the experience.”

He pours that love into his teaching, too.

“And the love I have for teaching comes from a lot of those same places, but the joy springs from seeing my students succeed, or seeing them have that ‘light bulb moment’ when everything clicks for them and they take their voice or their performance to the next level,” he said.

Richard Hodges, smiles as he leans in and chats with a fellow performer during rehearsal
Hodges, center, in rehearsal at the Seattle Opera for "X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X"

While in New York City, Hodges was able to connect with his students by having them come into his office for voice lessons while he connected and taught via Teams. It wasn’t ideal, he says, but he was grateful he could still connect with his students and listen to their work.

“Being a good teacher is just as hard as being a good performer. But what could be better than helping my students become who they want to be?”

Music education and vocal performance major Mia Lapingcao’s assessment of Hodges’ impact on her sounds eerily like that of the relationship between Hodges and his mentor, Elvira Green.

“He takes the deep dive with me into who I am as a person and helps me take these aspects of myself—my vocal color, my beliefs, and my experiences—to shape the music in a way that is most authentic to me,” says Lapingcao, who plans to use these tools in her own career as a choir and voice teacher.   

Hodges, at the piano, sits in the center of a rehearsal studio ringed with several rows of student choir members
Hodges was grateful he could continue to work with his students remotely while working in New York City.

“My experience as a student in Dr. Hodges’ studio is best summarized as a discovery of my voice as my instrument,” says vocal performance and music composition major Nehemiah Jones. “But I've come to learn that a discovery of your instrument is really a discovery of yourself. As I'm learning to continuously adapt to these new and wonderful changes with my own voice, I'm also looking forward to what can be done with both my singing and compositional voice in an ever-expansive world of music.”

Hodges also admits a vested self-interest to seeing students pursuing opera.

“There has to be the next generation that will carry opera forward ... that same way it took someone to inspire me and those of my generation,” he says. “And when I listen to my students sing, I know we will be fine.”

Ode to the Met

When he got back from his first night onstage at The Met, Hodges wrote a short poem trying to encapsulate his feelings when the curtain rose and he looked out at the most hallowed stage in opera:

At the first glimpse of you

The light shines an amber,

That glows hot and leaves trails of

burnt orange in its wake!