Curtis Johnson ’23 grew up in an arts family. His sisters sing and play musical instruments, and his brother is a visual artist and also sings. Johnson, too, used to perform in a choir and still enjoys improvisational singing.
“I love to immerse myself in many different genres,” he said.
But, as a Babson College student focused on finance and business analytics, he didn’t truly appreciate the connections between the arts and entrepreneurship until hearing world-renowned opera singer Karen Slack perform and discuss the similarities.
Johnson, who moderated a live Q&A session with Slack following her recent performance and discussion for the College, says he has a lot of friends interested in music who are trying to reconcile that with their business interests—and the Entrepreneurial Thought & Action® (ET&A™) they learn at Babson. Slack’s insights opened his eyes.
“For me, it was really interesting to hear how she equated the musician to the entrepreneur,” Johnson said. “It doesn’t matter what you’re doing. There is a need for the business mindset, the ET&A mindset, regardless of what you’re going into. It was her focus on running her passion as a business that really intrigued me.”
Slack recently headlined a special College event, presented by President Stephen Spinelli Jr. MBA’92, PhD, and his wife, Carol Spinelli, as part of the College’s celebration of Black History Month.
Slack was introduced by their son, Steve Spinelli, the assistant director of choral programs at Cornell University and the co-founder of ONEcomposer, which celebrates musicians whose contributions have been historically erased. He was instrumental in introducing Slack’s virtuoso voice to Babson, in particular because of her entrepreneurial spirit on and off the stage.
“Our friend Karen Slack is the total package,” Steve Spinelli said in his introduction. “She sings on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera, but lives in search of new and creative ways to impact our world. She is the consummate leader and still the ideal team player.”
A native of Philadelphia and product of the famed Curtis Institute of Music, Slack has performed in the world’s most famous opera houses and concert halls, and also has appeared on screen in films such as Tyler Perry’s For Colored Girls.
“For me, it was really interesting to hear how she equated the musician to the entrepreneur. … It was her focus on running her passion as a business that really intrigued me.”
Curtis Johnson ’23, on opera singer Karen Slack
During the Q&A, Slack spoke about the racial bias she has endured and the importance of improving diversity in the arts—not only on stage but also behind the scenes in administration, on boards, and in companies. Her experiences and accomplishments have helped her use her voice not only to impress adoring audiences but also impact the industry itself.
“Now, when I’m going into creative spaces, I’m thinking, how can I be the boss? How can I produce?” Slack said. “Now, I’m thinking, how can I get my name from soprano or artist or singer to producer?”
She has done just that, recently releasing the social justice film #SayTheirNames—Women of the Movement, a project she conceived and curated to rise up the voices of Black women.
Watch #SayTheirNames—Women of the Movement on YouTube.
Johnson, meanwhile, has produced an impressive resume himself. A Baldwin Richardson Foods Scholar and resident of The Johnson House, the Chicago native is the chief financial officer and future president of Babson’s Black Student Union. He also is a College Advancement Ambassador, a member of the Hearing Board and Peers on Wellness, and the general manager of the Radio Club.
As an entrepreneurial leader on campus, Johnson knows the importance of including diverse voices in all conversations. Citing a pair of influential books—Poor Charlie’s Almanack: The Wit and Wisdom of Charles T. Munger and The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of The Learning Organisation—Johnson elaborated on a perspective that has been top of mind in his preparation for the discussion with Slack.
“It’s so important to gain multiple perspectives in order to approach the same problem from different points of view,” Johnson said. “If you’re able to look from different perspectives, you can see how whatever solution you come up with will affect the problem and groups outside of the problem. Perspectives like Karen’s really exemplify that interdisciplinary mindset, and why it’s so important.”
By the time he was done sharing the virtual stage with a virtuoso, Johnson was drawing rave reviews of his own for his role in moderating the Q&A with Slack. He even received a text while he was speaking during the event—from Nicole Denver of the College Advancement Ambassadors program—to say that he was doing amazing.
“I was just happy to be able to add anything of value to the whole process,” Johnson said. “Everyone that I talked to said that it was a great performance.”
Connection and Compassion
The sublime soprano’s soaring sounds captivated the virtual audience as she performed four songs: “Ride On, Jesus,” arranged by Nathaniel Dett; “Vissi d’arte,” an iconic soprano aria from Tosca by Giacomo Puccini; “Morgen!” composed by Richard Strauss; and “Watch and Pray,” by Undine Smith Moore, considered the “Dean of Black Women Composers.”
“It was beautiful,” Johnson said. “She was trying to draw a direct connection to the listener. And, I could see the authentic compassion in that. … (It’s) the way you feel when you know someone cares. That’s how I felt.”
As he wrapped up the Q&A, Johnson asked Slack for her final words of advice for Babson students, especially those interested in music.
“I think artists need to think more of themselves as a business,” she replied. “And, I also think that business people need to come into our world and embrace us as artists to support that.”
On this Sunday afternoon in February, Johnson and the rest of the Babson community were grateful to hear Slack’s voice and support her art.
Watch the full performance, discussion, and Q&A here:
Posted in Campus & Community