e-mail us

Cover story

Diva Dever leads two lives

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
Camden, N.J.

At the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City, Delilah makes her entrance, splendidly dressed in a silken white gown edged with silver, her rich, long hair crowned with a sparkling tiara. She sings briefly, turns and leaves the stage. Enter Samson, handsome, wearing a tunic, his dark tresses cascading down his back. He paces to and fro as curtains billow in the nocturnal breezes. Delilah returns, and the two begin an operatic dialogue that reveals their passionate love for each other, a love that will betray the God of Israel and cause Samson’s downfall.

It is Epiphany at Sacred Heart Church in Camden, N.J., and an enormous pine tree trimmed with hundreds of glittering lights stands in the sanctuary. The leader of song, sporting a Christmasy red and gold scarf, approaches the microphone, guitar slung over her shoulder, folk-style. “All the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God,” she sings, raising her arms as the community joyously joins the refrain. The celebrant, a soft-spoken priest with an Irish brogue, smiles and joins in the musical prayer, a prayer that strives to offer hope amid the urban decay that has overtaken this formerly prosperous city.

What do these vastly differing scenarios have in common? Music, of course. But there is more. The opera diva and the folk singer are one and the same person.

Barbara Dever leads what could be seen by some to be two lives. For part of the year, the mezzo-soprano is on star-studded tour: performing in Mexico City (with Placido Domingo), in Palermo, Italy, (with Luciano Pavarotti), in Florence, Verona and Santiago, and at New York City’s Metropolitan Opera. The rest of the time, she’s home in Pittman, N.J., being a wife to her husband, Jack, and a mother to their two children, Chris and Shauna, and serving as music director at Sacred Heart Church.

Two lives, perhaps, but to Dever there is a rather seamless connection. Whether at the Met or at Sacred Heart, Dever is ever aware of that point where she becomes conscious of performing. “If I feel I’m on that edge where I feel like I’m performing, I’ve crossed the line,” she said. She is calling up a concept here — music performed, after all, is ultimately transitory — that doesn’t lend itself easily to words.

“For the music to have healing power in both liturgy and opera, to be a spiritual healing power and tool of God’s love for us and expression of what he has created in us, music has to evoke something in the people,” she said.

So one might be technically perfect in pitch and text and hitting all the notes and not really move anyone.

It is in this sense of openness to “being an instrument of God” that writing and performing liturgical works has informed her operatic career.

Dever is no ordinary woman, so it should come as no surprise that she has taken no ordinary path to her operatic career. Nearing age 50, she has been singing professionally for only the last nine. She credits her supportive family, her parish community and Fr. Michael Doyle, her pastor at Sacred Heart, for encouraging her to pursue her dreams.

While growing up in East Camden, she expressed an interest in music at an early age, an interest that her mother and stepfather went out of their way to nurture, despite their economic struggles. Her mother, Mary Ellen, who sang in the church choir, taught Barbara to read music. Both working parents eventually scraped together enough money to buy an old upright piano and to pay for private lessons with Klara Kase Bowman, a well-known piano and voice teacher in West Philadelphia.

Dever went to Camden Catholic High School where she had leading roles in the school musicals but where she also began to experience not only the normal confusion of adolescence but a questioning of how to merge her love of music with her developing faith and social concerns. Her religion teacher, Doyle, helped her through this difficult time, and the two forged a relationship that has lasted over 35 years.

After an unsuccessful stint at college, Dever took to the road as a folk singer, even cutting two albums. She performed at coffee houses, antiwar demonstrations and pro-life rallies across the country. At 19 she met Jack, a psychologist, who, as Dever says, was willing to “take a chance on marrying a folk singer.” But her fledgling career stalled when she ran head-on into the reality of the recording business in New York. It was the early 1970s, and Dever was told she sounded too much like Joan Baez and Judy Collins. She was branded unmarketable.

Once-a-week lessons

When her first child was born, Dever took a sabbatical from professional singing and found a way to turn her talents toward the service of her church: by singing and writing music for Sacred Heart, where her old friend Doyle was now pastor. She became involved in a number of ministries there, including liturgical planning, and helped turn Sacred Heart into something that is no ordinary parish.

As her first child grew older, Dever thought of returning to college and contacted the Music Department of what was then Glassboro State (now Rowan University). Eugene Simpson, a faculty member there, recognized Dever’s talent. Following an audition, he said the college would be glad to enroll her. But before that could happen, she became pregnant with her second child. Not wanting to start something she would not be able to finish, she called Simpson and, in talking over the situation, came to an alternative arrangement. She would study with him privately.

After six months of once-a-week lessons, she was ready for a competition. It was sponsored by the National Association of Teachers of Singing. Because of her age, she had to compete at the second college level, meaning in a group with young women who were studying voice every day and performing in college settings.

“I was taking care of two kids and singing at church on Sunday. I sang my three pieces and won first place.

“I said to my husband — he’s always been my greatest support — ‘What do you think?’ He said, ‘I think it’s just wonderful and I hope you follow your dream.’ ”

Simpson, her voice teacher, agreed, and she has.

By 1989, she was making her professional operatic debut in “Il Trovatore” at the Virginia Opera in Richmond. A busload of parishioners from Sacred Heart made the six-hour trek to be there to offer their prayers and support.

Her performance in Richmond landed her an agent in New York, and her career blossomed.

But, for Dever, following her dreams means more than professional success. She still searches for ways to bring her “two lives” together. She wants her music to be heard beyond the walls of the opera house, and she wants her faith to extend beyond the walls of her century-old parish church. Her singing has seduced some parishioners (who previously had no interest whatsoever in opera) into becoming aficionados. And she openly talks about her beliefs, her family and her community when she is on the road.

‘Aida’ in Sardinia

During the coming months, the road will extend far from home, to the island of Sardinia in July, where she will perform the role of Princess Amneris in “Aida.” She’ll also spend two weeks in Switzerland at the St. Gallen Opera House for a gala performance of Verdi’s “Don Carlo.” In March, she’ll be in “Aida” again in Knoxville, and in April, Verde’s “Un Ballo in Maschera” in San Diego with Tenor Richard Leech.

This summer, she is scheduled to perform at the Casals Festival in Puerto Rico.

In September, her career will take another significant step with her debut with the Staatsopera, performing “Don Carlo,” at the Vienna Opera House.

In October, she will perform a series of six gala concerts, with some of the opera’s major names, at Philadelphia’s Academy of Music.

And as of this writing, arrangements were being made with conductor Zubin Mehta for a fall concert in Israel.

Her professional reputation has lured visitors to come hear her sing at Mass. Some of them have stayed, have become part of the parish and have involved themselves in social ministries there.

Her own experiences growing up in a poor family have encouraged her to use her voice as a way to “bring a richness back to an impoverished neighborhood,” and she sees it reaching out through the church doors and into the streets. Led “by faith and hard work,” Dever can be found singing at the Metropolitan in New York on Saturday night and leading the song at Mass in Camden on Sunday morning.

Vibrant liturgies

Sacred Heart suffers from the same contradictions that afflict many poor urban parishes with vibrant liturgies: White people from more affluent sections of the city or the suburbs drive in for Sunday Mass. But because they do not live in the neighborhood, their property taxes go elsewhere, their children attend school elsewhere and they are often unaware of the day-to-day problems faced by residents.

Nevertheless, a parish like Sacred Heart serves as a much-needed anchor in an otherwise neglected quadrant where there are few remaining Catholic inhabitants. The students enrolled in the parish school are mostly of other faiths; parishioners sponsor them at $300 a child. Dever’s work as music director and in other areas of ministry in no small way contributes to Sacred Heart’s continued presence in this blighted area.

Dever does not envision becoming an opera superstar partially because of the nontraditional path her singing career has taken but also because of her commitment to her family and faith community. Ordinarily, artists in all genres who want to reach the top must spend an enormous amount of time schmoozing with the powerful and promoting themselves to the proper people. But, again, Dever is no ordinary opera singer; she has chosen to spend her time with those who hold no benefit for her career.

As wonderful as her performances with Pavarotti and Domingo have been, stories of her operatic success will take a back seat to the legacy she prefers to leave her children and grandchildren: the gift of faith and the connection to a believing community.

Back at Mass on Epiphany, Michael Doyle welcomes Dever home from a recent trip to Switzerland. He remarks that Dever’s “lifting of arms at Sacred Heart” as leader of song is a “million times greater” than was her “lifting of arms at the Mexico City opera house.”

The liturgy continues, warmed on the cold, rainy day by the heaters suspended from the wooden-beamed ceiling and by the expectant hearts of those in the congregation. Children begin to fidget and the adults grin. Today is the day the Wise Men will make their appearance.

At the end of Mass, three royally dressed figures approach the altar carrying incense and two carved, wooden containers. One of the wise men opens the treasure boxes and reveals a cache of shiny new Susan B. Anthony dollars. He prays over them (no ordinary prayer) and makes the sign of the cross. Dever leads the singing of “We Three Kings” as the people process up the center aisle and extend their hands to receive their coins made holy.

National Catholic Reporter, February 26, 1999