Dr. Todd Payne's Vocal Recital Includes New Work With Ties to Memphis, Civil Rights Movement

Feb 26, 2015

MSU Associate Professor of Voice, Dr. Richard Todd Payne, visiting his first voice teacher, Ethel Taylor Maxwell, not long before her death in 2014 at age 98.
Credit (Photo courtesy Dr. Richard Todd Payne)

As part of African-American Heritage Month at Missouri State University, Associate Professor of Voice Dr. Todd Payne will present a vocal recital Thursday Feb. 26 at 7:30pm in Ellis Recital Hall. It’s free and open to the public.  Dr. Payne will be accompanied by two other MSU faculty members, pianist Dr. Peter Collins and organist Jeremy Chesman, along with the MSU Chorale.

The concert includes a group of German songs by Robert Schumann; the “Te Deum” scene from Puccini’s opera Tosca; then a group of spirituals.  Finally, Dr. Todd Payne will be joined by award-winning New York composer, pianist and musicologist Zach Redler in a performance of a 15-minute one-character opera (or vocal monodrama), Movin’ Up in the World, with libretto by Jerre Dye. The work was commissioned by Opera Memphis, a company with which Todd Payne has a long history.  The pieces is based on the true story of LaFayette Draper, an African-American elevator operator in the old Sears Crosstown building in Memphis in April 1968, right around the time of the Martin Luther King assassination in Memphis.

“You can imagine what things were like during that time, with him being an elevator operator,” says Dr. Payne.

In February 2014 Opera Memphis, where Dr. Payne, a baritone, made his professional operatic debut, contacted him about premiering this new 15-minute piece, part of series of five short works commissioned by Opera Memphis, all dealing with specific incidents that actually occurred in the Sears Crosstown building. During the time LaFayette Draper was the elevator operator there, he apparently experienced negative racial comments from some of the white employees in the building.

But, says Todd Payne, “he never retaliated.” When the passengers would ask condescendingly, “How you doin’, Mister John?”--despite his real name being LaFayette)--“his response was simply, ‘I’m moving up in the world.’ What he meant by that was, he had a plan. His ultimate goal was, ‘I want to be in a position to put my kids through college. So if this is what I have to endure, then I’m going to endure it so I can be victorious in the end.’ And he became the first African-American to be promoted to a managerial position there at Sears Crosstown.”

“And on the last night of his position as an elevator operator, his superior asked him to train the young African-American gentleman who was going to succeed him as an elevator operator,” says Dr. Todd Payne.

The stage setting consists of a stool where LaFayette Draper sits, and an empty chair that represents the young man Draper is training. The audience sees Draper address the empty chair as well as greeting the unseen people riding the elevator. Draper demonstrates his courteous attitude toward the riders. But, says Dr. Payne, “when those doors close and it’s just him and that young man, he allows him to see some of how he really feels about some of those people who get on the elevator!”

Draper also reveals a more personal side to his trainee: he talks of his beloved father and what he went through working in the cotton fields. And, adds Dr. Payne, “that’s where (LaFayette) developed his strong work ethic.”

Jerre Dye, the librettist for Movin’ Up in the World, managed to cram a great deal of Lafayette Draper’s life into a 15-minute piece. “Jerre was the lucky one,” Dr. Payne feels, “because he had the opportunity to go and meet with (Draper) personally.  And this was just last year. Mr. Draper was supposed to be at the (premiere) but he was ill.  And I was hoping to have had the opportunity to meet him, but I think it was in September of last year that he passed away.” He was 77 years old.

Dr. Payne tells his voice students that he received invaluable training in his undergrad days at the University of Memphis from his voice teacher Ethel Talor Maxwell, who was very hard on him—despite standing only five feet tall. “And I’m towering over her! (But) she had a way of really getting under my skin, to say to me, ‘I’m not only teaching you about music, but I’m teaching you about life through music!’ And I’m glad she did that.”

Dr. Payne describes Zach Redler’s music for Movin’ Up in the World as “beautiful—it goes from being lyrical to being dramatic.  When I decided to do a faculty recital in February in honor of African-American Heritage Month, I asked Zach, ‘would you come and play for me?’ With him at the piano, I knew that he would give me more insight into how he wanted me to portray the role.  But he also allows me to bring my own personal experiences into the role—because some of the things Mr. Draper endured, I also experienced.

“As I read through the libretto, I thought, ‘you know, I’ve experienced some of these things. I know what it’s like to called something negative’—but at the same time, just smile and bear it, because I knew that I would receive my reward at the end... by rising above it.” He adds quietly, “and that’s exactly what Mr. Draper does! He rose above it.  Before he died he had two establishments (in Memphis) named after him.”

Dr. Payne muses on what this piece means to him, and relates that his mother used to tell him, “’When you encounter adversity, trust me, son: silence is your most powerful weapon.’ So when I began to read through the script and (heard) how the music complements his words, what I learned—and I even teach it to my students, no matter what color they are—is that when you stand true to what you believe in, this world will roll out a carpet form you. And that’s what I’ve learned as I’ve continued to do this work.”

Dr. Todd Payne sang the work four times in Memphis, and Springfield will be only the second city to hear it. Dr. Payne fervently hopes he’ll have more opportunities to perform it. “Because the message it gives to me, again, is to stand for what I believe in, and to know that there’s a time and a place when you need to be quiet, and just listen. And that is one of the greatest tools that my mother could ever have given me.”