PORTLAND, Ore. – Whether singing, writing music, or giving artistic advice, Damien Geter has been one busy fellow despite the pandemic. The bass-baritone appears as the Immigration Officer in Seattle Opera’s production of Jonathan Dove’s opera Flight, which will be presented April 23-25. In the meantime, Geter’s opera American Apollo is scheduled to be premiered by Washington National Opera as part of its American Opera Initiative on May 1.
His Cantata for a More Hopeful Tomorrow, commissioned by the Washington Chorus and turned into a film, recently captured the Best Experimental Short and Best Sound Mixing for the Los Angeles International Film Festival Indie Short Fest. As an artistic adviser for Portland Opera, Geter has curated a program of African-American music for the company that will be livestreamed on April 16. Portland classical radio station 89.9 KQAC FM commissioned his string quartet, Neo-Soul, which received its premiere last November.
Geter is also an artistic adviser to the Resonance Ensemble, which commissioned his African-American Requiem, a large work for soloists, chorus, and orchestra. It was to be premiered last year with the Oregon Symphony, but that has been rescheduled for May 2022.
That’s a whirlwind of projects for the multi-talented singer-composer, who turns 41 this month.
“I grew up in a musical household,” said Geter. “My mom sang – not professionally – and my dad had a beautiful voice. We sang in church. My grandmother played piano by ear for the church, and sometimes my mother did that as well. My earliest memories of singing involved me participating in what was called the Tiny Angels Choir.”
A native of South Chesterfield, Va., about 25 miles south of Richmond, Geter took piano and organ lessons and can remember his first solo.
“My grandmother was my first accompanist,” he recalled. “She would go to the senior center and hang out with other seniors during the day. I remember going there with her. She played the piano and I sang ‘This Little Light of Mine.’ I was maybe six years old.”
He went to Old Dominion University as a trumpet major and received a bachelor’s degree in music education. But it was during his college years that people really began to notice his voice.
“I was in my voice class with a lot of other students, and we had to get up and sing ‘America the Beautiful’ or ‘My Country ‘Tis of Thee,'” he said. “I sang it, and after I sat down, the teacher asked to see me after class. I thought to myself, ‘I must have been really bad. I thought I was pretty good!’ She wanted me to have lessons because she heard something in my voice. As the years went on, I started liking singing more and more. I took lessons from that point on through graduate school. But I didn’t switch to a voice major because I had a sense of loyalty to my trumpet teacher. I didn’t want to mess that up!”
At Old Dominion, Geter sang in the choir, which led to his first paid experience at a Lutheran church in Norfolk and many other professional gigs. But the 6-foot-5-inch basso profundo hit a wall after college when trying to land a teaching job. That caused him to seek some advice.
“My band director told me that there was a fellowship in conducting at Indiana State University,” said Geter, “so I applied and got the fellowship. I have always wanted to be a conductor.”
After earning a master’s in conducting at Indiana State, Geter moved to Indianapolis, where he started teaching at University High School, a college prep school in suburban Carmel, Ind. During that time, he made his professional opera debut in the Indianapolis Opera production of Madama Butterfly as the Imperial Commissioner.
“It was a great experience,” said Geter, “but I had no idea what I was doing. I hadn’t been in an opera before – even in college. I was going by the seat of my pants.”
He stayed in Indianapolis for 10 years, then took a music teaching job at the Catlin Gabel School, a private school in Portland, Oregon.
“It was getting kind of crazy,” said Geter. “I would drive three or four hours depending on traffic to Seattle, do a rehearsal, and then drive home to Portland, teach during the day, then drive to Seattle afterwards for the next rehearsal. Or drive to Seattle and stay the night and get up very early in the morning and drive to Portland and teach and then drive back to Seattle afterward. It was stupid. You suffer for your art. But I wanted to keep singing. So I finally had to let the teaching job go.”
In September 2019, Geter made his Metropolitan Opera debut in Porgy and Bess. The last performance of Porgy came in February 2020, just before the pandemic hit. Now, with upcoming gigs canceled, Geter had more time to pursue his interest in composing.
“I have always written music,” he said. “I have written things for myself mostly and here and there for friends. It is the most vulnerable thing that I do. My hesitancy to share my work ran very deep.”
But he decided to go for it in 2016, “when I didn’t like the way that the world was going and that I needed to say something about the situation. It represents thoughts that I can’t express by singing Bohème.”
“I wrote An African-American Requiem largely in response to the election of 2016, but also as a commentary on how African-Americans are treated in this country,” he said. “It is a full, 20-movement piece that uses the Latin liturgy and some modern texts as well – civil rights declarations, poetry, and the last words of Eric Garner – plus a couple of spirituals are interwoven. Verdi is sort of the model for the form. It’s a big, full, evening-length piece with a Verdi-sized orchestra.”
While working on the Requiem, Geter was commissioned by the Resonance Ensemble to write a choral piece that also deals with the Black experience. Geter wrote The Talk: Instructions for Black Children When They Interact with the Police, in four movements titled (1) Pull over. Don’t Run. Keep Calm, (2) Keep Your Hands Where They Can See Them, (3) Be Polite. Save Your Rage, (4) Get Home Safely.
Katherine FitzGibbon, artistic director of the Resonance Ensemble, has worked closely with Geter to select music by new and underrepresented composers.
“We call ourselves musical soulmates,” said FitzGibbon “We talk about how music can have a transformative effect and how art can lead to social change. We’ve become aware of fantastic work around the nation by composers of color. Damien and I do a lot of research about issues facing our communities. He is able to convey nuance about the Black experience in the U.S.”
FitzGibbon introduced Geter to Eugene Rogers, director of choral activities at the University of Michigan and artistic director of the Washington Chorus, and they hit it off from the get-go.
Rogers commissioned Geter to write a joint symphony for the University of Michigan choir and The Washington Chorus called Justice Symphony, with orchestra, soprano soloist and rapper. When COVID derailed that project, the Washington Chorus commissioned Geter to write a piece “for the COVID times,” as Rogers put it. The multimedia work, Cantata for a More Hopeful Tomorrow, combines film with chorus and a small instrumental ensemble.
“Damien’s cantata uses Bach Cantata 12, Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen, as its core and it contains spirituals,” Rogers said. “It tells the story of a Black couple separated because of the pandemic, and it takes you from darkness to hope. I consider it a truly American sound. Damien uses African-American idiom and combines that with his background in contemporary classical styles.”
“I am inspired by different things,” said Geter. “It depends on what I am writing about. I’ll take a walk and think about things. Sometimes it is through conversation. An idea might pop up in my head, and then I have to excuse myself and sing that phrase into my cell phone. You never know.”
Washington National Opera will present Geter’s American Apollo, with a libretto by Lila Palmer. It’s a 20-minute opera that explores the relationship between the painter John Singer Sargent and Thomas McKeller, a Black man whose body was the image for a number of Sargent’s pieces.
“This opera raises questions,” said Geter. “What does it mean to use a Black man’s body to create images of Greek gods? What is the white man’s gaze? What was the relationship between the Singer Sargent and McKeller?”
Geter and Palmer are also collaborating on The Battle of Atlanta as part of the Aperture program offered by West Edge Opera (Berkeley, Cal.). Based on the huge cycloramic painting (49 feet by 358 feet) that is part in the Atlanta History Center, The Battle of Atlanta will be a multimedia event.
Now he is working on a piece for organ and another for two marimba. Yet despite his success in performing and composing, Geter still clings to an unfulfilled hope.
“I haven’t conducted anywhere,” he said with a laugh. “I still want to be a conductor!”