Ed Grisamore

Opera star from Macon ‘lived well and was loved’

Allen Evans became a well-known opera singer in Europe but before that, grew up as the oldest of eight children in a three-room house in downtown Macon. Growing up in the South under Jim Crow laws, he fought for racial equality and justice all his life.
Allen Evans became a well-known opera singer in Europe but before that, grew up as the oldest of eight children in a three-room house in downtown Macon. Growing up in the South under Jim Crow laws, he fought for racial equality and justice all his life. Submitted by the Evans family

A cold rain was falling the afternoon Allan Evans was remembered in his hometown.

There was no casket or pallbearers. There was no graveside service. Evans died on Nov. 7, and he was buried three weeks later on Nov. 27 in his adopted country of Germany. He was 77.

So, the gathering of folks at the Lundy Chapel Baptist Church did not come for a funeral but a post script to a life well-lived.

Evans, an internationally known classical bass baritone, was eulogized with words from family and friends. His spirit was lifted up with lyrics, chamber music and a gospel choir. Commissioner Elaine Lucas read a proclamation from the mayor, declaring Dec. 8 as “Allan Evans Day” in Macon.

Although Evans made his name in opera, his career wasn’t launched at the Grand Opera House. He sought and found his fame on the stages of another continent. Born and raised in the Jim Crow South, he had to look elsewhere for opportunities in a profession where African-American opera singers are rare.

His enormous talent could be considered a reflection of the city’s diverse musical heritage. Little Richard is the self-professed architect of rock n roll. The late Otis Redding, a classmate of Evans at Ballard-Hudson High, has been called the “King of Soul.’’ The Allman Brothers Band were at the epicenter of Southern rock. Macon’s Mike Mills and Bill Berry made up half of R.E.M., one of the world’s most influential alternative rock bands. Native son Robert McDuffie is an internationally renowned violinist. And homegrown talent Jason Aldean is one of country music’s biggest superstars.

Evans grew up the oldest of eight children on Elm Street in a house built in 1925 by his father, Will, who worked for the railroad. His interest in music began while singing in the choir at Fulton Baptist Church and at Ballard-Hudson, where he graduated in 1959. He attended Knoxville (Tenn.) College and later Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn.

It was at Macalester where he met DeWitt Wallace, the founder of Reader’s Digest magazine, whose father was on the faculty. Wallace was so impressed with Evans’ beautiful baritone voice, he established an endowment for him to study at the famed Julliard School of Music in New York.

Evans made his professional debut 50 years ago this year, when he performed with the Vienna Chamber Opera in 1968. In 1996, he was awarded the title of “Kammersanger,’’ which translates to “chamber singer.’’ It is considered the highest honor for artistic excellence bestowed by the German government.

He was beloved in his adopted city of Mannheim. Susan Morton, of the Macon Concert Association, said she made multiple trips to Germany for his performances and thrilled to see posters of him around Mannheim to promote the opera. His brothers, Otha and Billy Joe, also traveled to see him perform in Germany. Otha recalled an usher once taking them backstage following a performance.

“When Allan went out for a curtain call, the stage manager looked over at me with a big grin on his face,’’ Otha said. “He said, ‘Your brother speaks German better than we do.’ I’ve never forgotten that.’’

Gina Ward, the director of the Historic Douglass Theatre in Macon, said she once tried to impress Evans with her German vocabulary.

“I grew up in the Midwest, and we were taught German in elementary school as a second language,’’ she said. “Over the years, I hadn’t had the opportunity to use it. When I met Allan, I not only was excited to meet someone who sang in the world’s greatest opera houses and concert halls, but I was excited that I could finally recite the few German phrases I remembered. When I did, he just kind of looked at me like, ‘That’s nice.’ ’’

As embedded as he was in European culture, Evans never cut the tether on his Macon cornerstones. He started a music scholarship in memory of his mother, Mildred O. Evans, awarded annually to a music student from Macon.

“For all of his appearances around the world, he never was too busy to save a date for the Douglass,’’ Ward said. “We were blessed to have Allan sing from his favorite repertoire of opera and beloved Negro spirituals. He was always excited about conducting student workshops.’’

She remembered one year when his performance at the Douglass had to be stopped and the theater evacuated after the fire alarm went off. It turned out to be a minor mishap by a caterer in the kitchen preparing for the reception. But everyone got a chuckle out of it. Ward said Evans’ performance “set the house on fire.’’

The Evans family has been among the most accomplished in Macon. His brother, Billy Joe, was a professor at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and received the President’s Award in Science, Math and Engineering Technology in a ceremony at the White House in 1998.

Brother Otha was an electronics administrator at AT&T for 36 years. Sister Martha Grant was a high-ranking director at GEICO and was named Macon’s Professional Woman of the Year in 1999. Brother Jesse has a degree in physics and once headed a cryogenics program for NASA. Brothers Terry and Jonathan were employees in the Bibb school system for many years.

Allan was proud of his family, and they were proud of him … even from a distance.

Said Billy Joe: “He lived well and was loved.’’

Ed Grisamore teaches journalism at Stratford Academy in Macon. His column appears on Sundays in The Telegraph.