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A guiding voice to the UTEP music community

Annabella Mireles
Professor Duke began teaching at UTEP in 2015 and is also the university’s director of opera.

The Opera may be daunting to some and a little unfamiliar to others.  However, the Opera is home to the craft of telling a story through music and singing. There is a combination of art, words, drama, and dance, where the singers use their natural, authentic voice without microphones. 

However, what would it be like to actually perform these shows? To actually sing one’s heart out in front of hundreds of people in real-time.

Look no further than performer, soloist, teacher and producer/director of Opera UTEP, Cherry Duke. Duke has traveled worldwide for her work, having a portfolio more extensive than some of the venues she has performed in. Those venues include Carnegie Hall and the Avery Fisher Halland famous shows like ‘David T. Little’ and Royce Varek’s landmark opera ‘Dog Days’.

Duke has done 60+ operatic roles and 30+ concert/oratorio roles. Duke leads Opera at UTEP, teaching an ensemble class and workshop where she works with students showing them the essentials of an operatic performance. Recently, Duke was one of 14 Texas Faculty members to win the University of Texas System Board of Regents’ 2023 Outstanding Teaching Award (ROTA).  

“I grew up in Burleson, a suburb in Fort Worth, and both my parents sang in the church choir,” Duke said. “When I was a little kid, I was very fortunate in that my parents could give me piano lessons, dance lessons, and voice lessons in middle school. We weren’t rich, but my parents’ prioritized art; we were an artistic family even though nobody was a professional artist.” 

Duke recalls growing up in the United Methodist Church and how hymns and songs were written differently than they are today. The harmony helped train her ears, connecting her with a sense of musical direction. She also detailed her father’s love of music during her formative years of youth.  

“But my dad loved classical and all kinds of music,” Duke said. “He was always playing music in the car, jazz, classical, and country. My mom had a lot of LPs, too, so I heard various music growing up, and I think that greatly influenced my tastes. I remember the first time I had a singing solo, wearing a bear costume in the fourth grade; I was terrified. But I feel at home if I’m on stage, with an audience away from me.”  

After the support of voice lessons and passion for music being evoked, Duke went to Texas Woman’s University (TWU) in Denton, Texas. After Denton, she traveled to Connecticut to pursue Graduate School at the University of Hartford, specifically The Hartt School; a performing arts conservatory within the university. After graduate school and time in New York City, Duke moved with her husband, tenured professor Brian Downen, to El Paso for a job offer. Soon, Duke was offered a position in Opera here at UTEP.   

Duke details the passion of the Opera, as well as her excitement in teaching the art form. 

“My opera students and I are in the business of getting out of your comfort zone and making an exchange of energy with the audience, scene partners, and character you’re playing,” Duke said. You really have to look outside of yourself and into someone else’s reality to try and find a relationship, which I think is the recipe for cultivating compassion and empathy regardless of whether you like Opera.”  

Duke also shares her experience with El Paso and the artistic community within it. 

“I love El Paso, and the weather really suits me, and I didn’t know it was going to be so pretty,” Duke said. “There’s so much freedom of expression and creative spirit here that I really respect. There are so many people here that are doing it their way, and the people that say, “there’s nothing to do here” are sorely mistaken.” 

Among  many supportive people in her life, Duke highlighted TWU professor Joan Wall’s efforts on her. 

“Joan is a remarkable person, and many of my students will recognize her because she wrote the diction textbook many of them use,” Duke said. “She affected me so deeply, and it’s her influence that has made me the person, teacher, and singer I am.” 

Duke also thanks her students for what they have given her and the music community. 

“I just want to thank them all so much for being game, for being so brave and for letting me be myself,” Duke said. “So, with this award I really want to thank my students for allowing them to be their guide and allow me to pursue my passion.”

H. Catching Marginot is a staff reporter and can be reached at [email protected] 

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About the Contributors
H. Catching Marginot
H. Catching Marginot, Contributor/Writer
Henry Catching Marginot is a junior at the University of Texas at El Paso majoring in multimedia journalism and minoring in English: rhetorical studies. He is a contributor at The Prospector and freelances. He plans to pursue writing in the future.
Annabella Mireles
Annabella Mireles, Photo Editor
Annabella Mireles is a junior at the University of Texas at El Paso majoring in digital media production and minoring in film. She is the photo editor at the Prospector newspaper and Minero magazine as well as owning her own photography business. She plans on pursuing photography full time.
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