The blog of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

Nov 19, 2012

Inside the VocalEssence WITNESS Program

Posted by Valerie Nahmad

By Elissa Weller, VocalEssence

On a Friday morning in September 2012, students from South High School in Minneapolis crowd into the choir room and listen intently as soprano Marlissa Hudson sings for them. Hudson is a lyric coloratura soprano visiting Minnesota from her home in Washington, D.C. Her visit to Minnesota is the first of two visits as part of the VocalEssence WITNESS Program. Hudson will star as Marian Anderson in a semi-staged production telling the story of Anderson’s life, which will be performed at The Ordway Center for the Performing Arts in February 2013.

WITNESS 2012-13: Marlissa Hudson visits MN to tell students the story of Marian Anderson

WITNESS is one of the nation’s premier initiatives celebrating the contributions of African Americans to our shared American heritage through concerts, recordings and comprehensive educational programs. The 2013 WITNESS theme focuses on the life of Marian Anderson (1897-1993), celebrated African American contralto. In 1939, after being refused permission to perform at Constitutional Hall, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt helped Anderson arrange a concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. She sang for more than 75,000 people and to a radio audience of millions. As part of the program, students will learn how Anderson’s undeniable talent made her a force more powerful than the discriminatory norms of that time.

While in town, Marlissa Hudson visited three high schools to give vocal master classes to choir students. She also met with more than 30 teachers attending the WITNESS Teacher Orientation Seminar – a professional development opportunity for teachers participating in the WITNESS program. At the seminar, teachers received a WITNESS Teacher Resource Guide and Companion CD, learned strategies to incorporate the life of Marian Anderson into their school curriculum, and had the opportunity to hear Marlissa Hudson sing as a preview of the concert that their students will attend in the spring.

Hudson also sang at the Sunday morning service at Zion Baptist Church in Minneapolis and spent time meeting with her co-star Greta Oglesby, staging director Jon Cranney and VocalEssence Artistic Director Philip Brunelle. Hudson commented on the experience, “I want to extend my heartfelt thanks to all of you for your warmth and support…. The opportunity to share a bit of Marian Anderson's story and music with you all was an honor. I had so many meaningful, thought-provoking conversations, and as a result I left energized and inspired for the concerts in February.”

Hudson will return in February to conduct additional outreach and to star as Marian Anderson at three performances of the WITNESS concert. One performance for the public on Sunday, February 17 and two for students grades 4-12 on February 19 & 20. More info at

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