Luther Lewis III is a multidisciplinary artist, singer, teacher and director within classical singing/opera, theater and visual arts, and is currently the Crane Directing Fellow at Opera Columbus. He is deputy director for fellow travelers, is coming to the Southern Theater on February 25 and 27.
Rachel: What made you interested in the Crane Directing Fellowship at Opera Columbus?
Luther: It was the culmination of the perfect opportunity of everything I was looking for. I didn’t know it would exist or have existed. Of course I had heard of a lot of programs for young artists, for directing and the like, but this one was very specific and lasted more than two years. The fact that it mainly highlighted BIPOC artists was significant.
It wasn’t just the opportunity itself, but researching the company and seeing that Opera Columbus has a history of incorporating diversity into their structure, within the artists they highlight and exhibit is crucial. It also combines all my different interests, and I wanted to focus specifically on opera directing. I wanted more experience and support, and working closely with the company and other directors and seeing what the process is like behind the table.
As for my passion for directing versus singing; it is to be the person or one of those people who sits behind the creative team table, guiding them and helping them tell stories. Just to know that we have, what are our perspectives in the canons of opera, or in the future creation of opera, which is probably also the most exciting, the new commissioned works and the like. My wish is to just be there and have a voice in the creative process and shape our artistic future.
Rachel: What does your artistic process look like?
Luther: I grew up in the church, Pentecostals. Part of that is that we talk a lot about following the mind and how the mind moves you. There is a cleric who says: Every time I feel the spirit in my heart, I will pray. Even as a child there was always something that moved me and I was always looking. I would go home, and I would play church. Actually that would be my thing because I just love the energy and I loved feeling whatever this feeling was. I was always looking for what is that ghost? What kind of spark is that? What is it that I can share these things with people and it resonates, and people appreciate it?
They felt it was conveyed by my feeling and my emotions. My process is reactionary. I react to events and things that happen in my personal life, but I am always looking, where is the ghost? That something that really touches my heart, and makes a difference to me, and then use my abilities to make those things, make an art statement and turn that into a performance. And it’s always about sharing: I want to share this with you, I want to discover, I want to communicate.
I always want to include people who look like me, so even my early drawings were like Langston Hughes or something like that, or comic books. My father was a great illustrator, so that’s what got me into drawing and that was my hands-on approach. Singing was about how do I get a message across? How do I share my heart? How can I emote and give back to people? I was a praise and worship leader in the Church, even in high school, and I loved it. I was myself and I could cross that out to the expression of myself. Direction brings everything back together for me.
Rachel: Who are some of your inspirations?
Luther: Probably my father in the visual arts. He did art just because and never just for a trade or anything, so that gave me permission to create. That was probably the first real influence that my father gave me permission to make art out of because you love it, because you enjoy it, and that made it therapeutic. There has never been any pressure attached to it.
The other was my first voice teacher, Jerry Hoover. I always tell the story that he kind of found me. He was older, a teacher in my hometown, probably in his 70s when he discovered and found me. I have never had to pay for a voice lesson. He was very prominent, he really showed it to me and he was a white man, a Methodist organist. A high school choir teacher became a counselor, but he showed me that help can come from anywhere and not to limit the environments in which you can express yourself. He believed in me so much, that investment, I couldn’t pay it back. Some kids really just need someone who believes in them and goes the extra mile. He made me feel valued and seen.
Going to a live show is a prize and it really is something that we should honor and keep alive.
-Luther Lewis III
Rachel: What would you like people to know about opera and the other facets of the art you perform?
Luther: I think people like classical sounds and people like beautiful singing. Sometimes the stories or the environment are intimidating. I appreciate Opera Columbus and the Make It Yours tagline for taking some of the pretension and being authentic. If you take it off and just listen to the sounds, they say, “Oh, I don’t know what you said, but it just moved me.” Opera makes me cry. That’s what people say all the time. “It makes me cry.” And to me that means you’re onto something. You can tell stories just by singing.
I wish more people would give opera a chance. Again, you make what you want to make it and we just scratched the surface on what opera can be. I’d like to see more improvised operas – I’d love to see that. If we’re making art right now, it should speak to the present time and to people, the current people, whoever. Getting feedback from people unfamiliar with art form is crucial.
Rachel: As deputy director of the upcoming opera Fellow travelers, what are you most excited about?
Luther: We are in a time where we are becoming more inclusive and welcoming, we are becoming more and more comprehensive in our representation of different ways of living and living. Now romance is showcased in ways that may not be conventional. The core of the piece is romance. Sometimes the stigma attached to the subject is in Fellow travelers is that it’s a little gross, or it’s just about the physical interactions. It is real and true, romance. It allows us to empathize and understand that we all have a human experience and that we are all looking for love and acceptance.
We are all in our workplace, in different places we are, we just want to be who we are, whatever that looks like or how that feels. Ultimately, our hearts just want to feel love returning to us in whatever that looks like. Realizing that struggles are not easy to solve, our problems and these things we deal with are not new problems, but sometimes they take a while to start to unravel to resolve. We ourselves, of course, the piece really unpacks how we navigate these things. I am excited about working with Bruno Baker and working with the cast. It will be great to see the dynamics in the rehearsal room and how it translates to the stage.
Rachel: What’s the best thing about the Columbus art scene right now?
Luther: Most surprising is the fact that Columbus has so many theaters that support live theater year-round. It’s phenomenal and very unexpected. It says a lot about the culture; people are interested and investing in going to see shows. The art that is everywhere here. The identity of the city is to promote art. It really gives an ‘art community feel’ throughout the city. That’s why I chose to live here. It was exciting to learn more about the art scene and history in Columbus. It’s a hidden gem as far as the art world is concerned, but the world is catching on.
Rachel: What do you want to tell the readers?
Luther: I hope opera goers will give Fellow travelers and pieces like these have a chance to resonate with them. To understand that opera is not monolithic, that we are not just traditionalists and that there are contemporary stories that we can tell in contemporary classical ways. To give the art form a chance. For newer opera-goers, don’t think of it as opera or whatever the obstacle is, because people have a preconceived notion of what going to an opera means, and it’s intimidating. But in reality, it’s just the way we tell the story, and that’s beautiful. Going to a live show is a prize and it really is something that we should honor and keep alive. We’re all thirsty for that, especially in Columbus.
Opera Columbus presents Fellow travelers 25 and 27 February to the Southern Theater. For tickets and information go to operacolumbus.org/fellow-travelers.
Columbus makes art gifts is a biweekly column brought to you by the Greater Columbus Arts Council – supporting and promoting the arts and cultural fabric of Columbus. The column is a project of the Art Makes Columbus campaign and tells the inspiring stories of the people and organizations that make Columbus art. Learn about local artists, organizations, public art, and events at ColumbusMakesArt.com.