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Lafayette will inaugurate a series of major conferences on the history and culture of civil rights and civil liberties with a three-day conference entitled “Paul Robeson: His History and Development as an Intellectual” on campus April 7-9.

Alvy Powell of the U.S. Army Chorus will perform “A Robeson Portrait” at 7 p.m., Saturday, April 9, at Williams Center for the Arts (see conference schedule). The writer, producer, and narrator of “A Robeson Portrait” is Jewell Robinson, award-winning actress and public program director at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery.

Alvy Powell was listening inattentively to a television news flash years ago when a deep and resonant singing voice grabbed him.

That phenomenal bass was Paul Robeson’s, aired when he died in Philadelphia in 1976. Hearing it gave new meaning to Powell, now a bass-baritone soloist with the U.S. Army Chorus.

“I’ve grown up doing spirituals, having learned them years ago, and Paul Robeson has been an idol of mine since my teen years,” says Powell. “To sing some of the songs that he sang, in the style that he sang them, is a great opportunity.”

Powell will perform spirituals and work songs in “A Robeson Portrait” during Lafayette’s April conference on Robeson’s history and development as an intellectual.

The 75-minute multimedia production tells the story of Robeson through narration, photographs, and music. It is written and produced by Jewell Robinson, public programming director for the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery. Robinson also narrates the program, which has been staged only once, last February in Washington, during Black History Month.

“Robeson was basically that incredible voice,” says Powell. “Without being particularly stylistic, he was overwhelmingly dramatic. The power of his voice, the way he would sing certain words, where he put his emphasis was just amazing.

“If you try and sing it in the same way, you find out that, although it sounds simplistic, it’s not,” Powell says.

By participating in the conference, Powell hopes to get the word out about Robeson, whose political aspirations were misunderstood by many.

“He was a star who was an African American and lived in a very different time. He was fighting for civil rights,” Powell says. “The way he was treated in the end was very unfair.

“I want the world to know about that, and to know of his multiple talents. I once mentioned his name to someone who said, ‘He was a communist, wasn’t he?’ I want to correct that.”

Fans have told Powell they hear hints of Robeson in Powell’s own voice. But while it may come close in some places, Powell says, his own voice is not as resonant – and, in any case, it’s different.

“I probably sing with a different emotion, and yet Paul Robeson sang with great emotion,” says Powell, who himself has brought tears to the eyes of former First Lady Barbara Bush with his own rendition of “Old Man River.”

Powell first came to national prominence singing “The Star Spangled Banner” at the inauguration of President George H.W. Bush in 1989. His performance as Porgy in the New York City Opera production of Porgy and Bess, broadcast live from Lincoln Center on PBS, was nominated for an Emmy for “Best Classical Music Production.”

“Paul Robeson was a huge star on every concert stage in the world, along with his plays, and he made quite a few films,” Powell says. “Me, I consider myself a working singer. I consider a person successful if they can take care of the family and pay the bills.

“He was an educated man with a law degree,” Powell continues. “He was treated well in other parts of the world, only to come home to a place where he wasn’t even considered a citizen. He spoke out about it with a worldwide voice and stage and was considered something of a threat.”

In contrast to Robeson, “I don’t have to go to the back of a restaurant to eat,” he comments. “Nothing ever compared with the life of Paul Robeson, although he was financially better off than most Americans.”

Even if he hasn’t achieved as much fame or faced the same persecution as Robeson, the entertainment business does “take a lot of fortitude” for anyone, Powell says.

“You need a good support group, family, a wife, it takes all of that,” says Powell. “What people see is the stage part of it, they don’t see behind the scenes. You stand there and perform, no matter what else is going on in your life – worries about the mortgage, your budget. And the work is not always continuous.”

Powell himself began singing as a child in church in the town of Cheriton on the Eastern Shore of Virginia.

“Sometimes I would be with my dad and people would ask me to sing. They’d give me 50 cents, a big deal back then!” he says. “I was encouraged, although I didn’t plan to be a singer. It was a hobby. And I had an older sister who used to sing to me. I tried to copy her.”

At the end of high school he was accepted into a choir that was about to embark on a European tour. His efforts to raise $2,500 for his expenses were answered with such generosity that he had to put an ad in the newspaper turning away contributions.

Although Powell expected to go to vocational school for electronics, he wound up graduating from the University of Maryland with a degree in voice, joining the Army Chorus in 1983.

He has performed the role of Porgy more than 1,100 times with companies including La Scala, Houston Grand Opera, San Francisco Opera, Cape Town Opera and in Sydney, Australia.

Powell considers Porgy to be his “international calling card,” a role he has often won because of his ability to bring realism to the character through acting, which he feels is one of his strong points as a performer.

His other roles include Balthazar in Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors for BBC films, Bartolo in The Marriage of Figaro, Timor in Turandot, and Sharpless in Madame Butterfly. He hopes one day to play Mephistopheles in Faust.

Powell has been bass soloist in the Verdi Requiem for the Rome Opera, which was sponsored by the Vatican; Handel’s Messiah, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, and Rossini’s Stabat Mater at the Kennedy Center.

He considers Paul Robeson an inspiration as an African American man who had a remarkable career “in spite of what the world was.” Like Robeson, he tries to reach out to humanity through music, “a wonderful, wonderful way to communicate.”

“It crosses all kinds of political bridges, all kinds of ethnic bridges, racial bridges,” says Powell. “I’m happy that my life has been a part of that, that I’ve been able to touch people’s lives, hopefully, so they do communicate better.”

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