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Darius Sheppard: TALENT & TECHNIQUE

When vocal performance major Darius Sheppard met with his doctors for diagnosis, they were shocked by what they found. One of his doctors told the active young tenor that his heart was among the largest he had ever seen. Sheppard’s heart, which provided the energy to bring hope and joy to his life through singing, had deteriorated to the point where his life was now at significant risk. In April 2019, after waiting several weeks for a donor heart to become available, Sheppard received the gift of life and underwent successful transplant surgery.

Sheppard has been open in sharing details about his unusual situation. “At first I didn’t know how to approach it, you know, because I worried about being too open in sharing things that people didn’t need to know and exposing myself or being too shallow — I didn’t want to downplay anything. There are still pieces of my life that I’m trying to find. There are still answers that I’m searching for, and the pandemic did not make it any easier! Honestly, I can say I feel like I’ve gained a lot more than I’ve lost.”

Before his surgery, Sheppard was warned he would have breathing tubes in his throat when he regained consciousness. The nurses and doctors prepared him not to panic and potentially injure his vocal cords. Nonetheless, he was told he might never sing again, or if so, potentially at a reduced level.

Sheppard credits his ordeal with providing an avenue to grow in ways he had not realized would benefit him.

“There are experiences that one expects to grow from; and there are obstacles that I did not realize I was prepared to face,” Sheppard said.

In the days before receiving his new heart, Sheppard couldn’t imagine life after the surgery. Recovery required Sheppard to adapt in multiple ways to the changes his body had endured. He has a long list of people for whom he is grateful. At the top of the list are Paul Tucker, recently retired director of choral activities, and Roberta Gumbel, his voice teacher.

Speaking about Tucker’s mentorship after the surgery, Sheppard says, “He gave me a lot of songs to lead, but what was important was that he gave me a safe space. It wasn’t just a matter of having someone to sympathize with me, but it was coming to grip with the changes in my new reality.” Of the impact Tucker and Gumbel had when returning to KU, “Having someone that understood my mental state and emotional needs — I will take that in a heartbeat and am so grateful they were there for me. They knew when to give me advice and when just to listen.”

Sheppard laughs when Gumbel tells him to “stop singing on your talent.” He is amazed that she can pinpoint exactly where he eases off the techniques he has learned in the music. He appreciates the insistence for discipline to improve his musicianship.

“I admire Darius for his determination to return to school and finish what he started,” Gumbel said. In her opinion, his voice did not suffer from the surgery and is stronger than ever. She is concerned about him overdoing it sometimes and tries to watch out for him whenever she can. “He has a gift worth developing, and I look forward to seeing where it takes him.”

When he sought assistance from the KU Academic Support Center with a list of accommodations suggested by his doctor, he was welcomed with compassion. He is immensely grateful to Julie Loring (retired) for helping navigate his return to campus. His friends would look out for him, offering him a snack if his energy level appeared to dip.

“At that time, self-advocacy was a hard thing for me. I’m used to being a straight-A student, being totally self-confident, but this was a situation that was bigger than me, and I had to brace myself,” Sheppard said.

Growing up, participating in church activities was central to Sheppard’s weekly routine. He sang at his church regularly and was primarily influenced by gospel music and rhythm & blues. Only developing an awareness for classical music when he was in high school, he did not develop an appreciation for the genre until attending KU. Upon being introduced to opera, he was hooked.

“I learned about opera, and the first thing I learned about these opera singers is they were never mic’d up. Every single time I would sing or have a performance, I was always amplified,” Sheppard laughed. “A single person up against a 100-member orchestra in the pit, and I’m thinking how are they doing that? I wanna do that!”

The first tenor Sheppard connected with was Pavarotti. He also notes Franco Corelli and Lawrence Brownlee, but he says his all-time favorite tenor is probably Juan Diego Flórez.

“I go deep into these tenors, who are not big in body but big in voice. They would spin and be beautiful, and I want to do that,” Sheppard said.

Darius is excited to study with KU faculty tenor Genaro Mendez. “He is the real deal. I am excited to learn from his structure and counsel. Also, I will be able to relate to his perspective of being a man of color. I am really excited to have both those safe spaces — with Roberta and with Genaro. I am excited to see where my opera goes,” Sheppard said.

Sheppard has been building on his love of music since before he could walk. His mom tells him that he started singing while he was still in his crib. Every morning, she would wake up to Sheppard singing to the morning sun. His understanding of music has expanded with coursework in music theory and history, composition, and vocal technique. Sheppard is also a talented percussionist and pianist.

Last February, Sheppard performed for the first time after his transplant in a recital organized by Gumbel, titled Lift Every Voice and Sing. Every song on the program was composed by an African American.

“This life-changing experience really left me with a lot of things up in the air, including my identity and who I am. At that recital, I was singing this song about being Black. It took everything in me not to cry. In that moment on stage, I experienced a genuine awareness of who I am and what I am trying to do. It was fantastically beautiful,” Sheppard remembers. “One of my professors told me it was nice to see me back where I belong, and that made me cry.”

One of the performances that Sheppard was most looking forward to last spring was Josh Donaldson’s DMA conducting recital, which was canceled due to the pandemic shutdown.

“It featured music about Black men whose lives were taken by police brutality, and it was gorgeous! The performance was to be Josh’s doctoral recital, and it was also going to be featured at the Kaufmann Center for the Joy of Singing concert. I was to be a soloist with choir.” Sheppard recounts that Donaldson invited him to be the soloist because only a Black man could do justice to the music’s intent. “I was so humbled because he could have changed his entire concept for the recital. He decided to focus the program on Black lives mattering. He didn’t dismiss the theme, nor did he make himself feel comfortable by picking someone who couldn’t empathize with the situation. There is a line in one of my solos where I sing ‘Mom, I’m going to college,’ which was quoted from a student shot by a campus police officer. For me, this was one of the most moving parts of the song.”

Despite the disappointment of missed opportunities last spring, Sheppard is looking forward to the opportunities he will have this year. “There are a lot of performances that I’m looking forward to this year. It’s my senior year. I want to come into my own as a musician and stand firmly on the things that I’ve learned. Because I’m not the typical-looking lead role tenor, I feel like I have to work harder. I have to strive to go the extra mile. I cannot just be the tenor; I have to be the Black tenor. I have to be an elite tenor; I have to be beyond my peers.”  ■

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