- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
“Go-DIVA! — Act III: The Swan Takes Flight!” is a lot of words for a simple concept: bringing more attention to women artists.
The musical celebration, headlined by local singer Jennifer Cooper, is scheduled for March 29 and 30 at Grace Lutheran Church Family Life Center in La Plata.
Cooper and her group GrooveSpan — guitarist Carl Reichelt, drummer Paul Christian and bassist James Fowler for this event — will be joined by 17-year-old pianist Jonah Yeh, 11-year-old soloist Bethany Yeh and the Southern Maryland Youth Orchestra.
“They’ll hear opera to music theater to jazz to blues, pop, rock — everything,” Cooper said in a telephone interview. “They’re basically going to hear 400 years’ worth of music in one show.”
The event also will help celebrate the sixth annual international Support Women Artists Now Day, which is held every March 28 and coincides with Women’s History Month. Proceeds will go to the S. Wayne Cooper Go-DIVA! Youth Music award to help benefit the youth orchestra.
“My first and probably most important influence in the world of music,” Jennifer Cooper said of her father, who died in January and for whom the award is named. “He was a passionate person who supported the arts and supported youth. He very much loved children, so we’re trying to carry on his legacy of support of the arts. And he was probably my No. 1 fan. If he could be there, he never missed a show.”
Cooper said the award will go to help an SMYO musician.
“The arts are being systematically cut out of the school system, which brought about the SMYO,” said Cooper, who grew up in Charles County and attended Maurice J. McDonough High School. “It’s to help specific members of the orchestra who are struggling to stay in, and we want to help those students stay in it and keep following their musical dreams.”
Cooper said she hoped the event would give a boost to women in the arts.
“There’s a double standard there, and I think it still is a little tougher, especially initially, for women to gain the respect for something a man might have contributed,” said Cooper, who said she knows of a female playwright who uses only her initials in order to be taken seriously. Cooper said the same thing happens to her when booking gigs for her band “often enough that I always have to be thinking about it.”
Cooper seemed destined to follow a musical path.
“To hear it from my older family members I was singing as soon as or before I could speak,” she said. “My grandfather used to tell my mother that I was going to grow up to be a singer.”
And her father kept her fires burning as the two spent countless days and nights listening to 45s in the basement of the family home.
“I learned a lot of music from the ’50s and ’60s just singing along with him,” Cooper said.
She did some high school productions and musical theater with the Port Tobacco Players before studying music and heading into a career in opera.
Everything came to a screeching halt in 2001 when she was diagnosed with a congenital cyst on her left vocal chord.
“There was a long period of time there I thought it was over,” she said of her musical career. “And music was all I knew and what kept me breathing very day and waking up every day. So not being able to express myself through song was ... devastating in every possible respect of the word.”
She was operated on at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, but the healing process was unnaturally lengthy. A 30-minute conversation would force her to rest her voice for the next several hours.
“It was simply not healing as it should have. They couldn’t explain why,” she said. “It was during those years I thought it was over and thus my life was over because that’s all I knew. My entire life was built around a career in music, and now I had nothing. The first two years after I couldn’t sing at all anything that was worthy of being performed in public.”
She taught swim lessons and custom framing, “anything to survive” — and changed her life musically.
“I had to turn away from music,” she said. “I couldn’t listen to any opera or musical theater, anything I had done. I turned on classic rock, things that weren’t part of my performing life, and I couldn’t watch live performances. I couldn’t watch anyone else [sing].”
By pure luck, she fell into a position teaching voice at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va., where, unable to sing, she was forced to adjust her teaching methods. Her singing voice eventually came back around 2006 but only in limited range.
“For a very long time I was adamant about getting back to opera, back to opera, back to opera, but as the years were passing and I was getting into the other genres I was embracing and honing my skills in those other genres,” she said. “I had to find a genre where I wouldn’t have to sing two or three octaves, so I ended up defaulting and picked up jazz and blues, which have a smaller range.”
She said her voice is now about 100 percent, though she added she doesn’t train as often as she’d like because of her other pursuits.
Cooper, who founded GrooveSpan in 2010, lives in St. Mary’s County and also teaches voice lessons.
She said her SWAN Day performance will be “the first one that I give that will have every genre that I sing.”
“I would say it’s definitely not even a couple’s night out, but it would be fun for a group of people to go,” Cooper said of SWAN Day. “You have the food, you have the wine, you’re walking around and looking at all the silent auction items, and then you get the show, as well. It’s really a celebration of the arts and for arts advocacy, not only for women who are in it and doing it now but for the youth who are the future of keeping the arts going.”