Singing Down the Barriers

Updated November 15, 2023

Registration for 2024’s program is now open! See below for further information

Singing Down the Barriers (SDtB) is an intensive exploration of the repertoire of African American, African and African Diaspora concert composers for the university student, apprentice, teacher (private, high school or university), coach, choral conductor, church musician, professional singer, or organization administrator. The institute offers an approach to performance and is also designed to provide a historical perspective and discussions to examine our contemporary attitudes toward performing/understanding this music. Questions such as “who is allowed to sing this repertoire” are examined and addressed in sessions throughout the two week institute. 

Week 1 of SDtB (online) is an intensive introduction to this repertoire. In tandem with a directed curriculum of readings, resources, recordings, and reflective exercises, the SDtB Institute in Week 1 seeks to help participants overcome the barriers that prevent successful engagement with and eventual performance of African American and African Diaspora concert repertoire including art song, opera arias and spirituals. Attendees will take part in lectures and panels with scholars and artists specializing in this repertoire, join in discussions on practical topics, and explore repertoire in small group breakout sessions. From poetry analysis and historical background to surveying the songs of contemporary African American composers, attendees will leave with a stronger understanding of the cultural context and performance practices needed to successfully sing, teach, coach and present this repertoire. 

Week 2 of the SDtB Institute (in-person) is designed as a follow-up to Week 1 (or previous participation in the SDtB Institute) and will focus on performance aspects and practical applicability of information from Week 1. Daily coaching and lessons, sessions to help navigate singing/teaching dialect as well as guided readings, discussion groups, and sessions on special topics (including individual composers), will continue to enrich knowledge of repertoire from artistic, administrative and vocal practitioner stances.

SDtB Institute is an adult summer intensive offered through U-M’s School of Music, Theatre and Dance and is offered in partnership with the Hampsong Foundation via the Classic Song Research Intiative.

Program Dates:

(Online) June 3 – June 7, 2024

(In-Person) June 10 – June 14, 2024

*Registration Deadline: March 1, 2024

*Those interested in selecting the housing + meal option must register by March 1st, 2024.

See below for Tuition & Housing Information, as well as Registration Requirements


Karen Slack

Karen Slack - SDtBKnown for performances that “ripped the audience’s hearts out” (Opera News), Karen Slack is “not only one of the nation’s most celebrated sopranos, but a leading voice in changing and making spaces in classical music” (Trilloquy).

A recipient of the 2022 Sphinx Medal of Excellence, Slack is a sought-after collaborator, curator, and artistic advisor known for her fiery charisma and ground-breaking approach to engagement. She is an Artistic Advisor for Portland Opera, serves on the board of the American Composers Orchestra and Astral Artists, and holds a faculty position at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity in Alberta, Canada.

Slack debuted the role of Billie in the 2019 world premiere of Terence Blanchard’s Fire Shut Up in My Bones and made her film debut portraying the Opera Diva in Tyler Perry’s movie and soundtrack For Colored Girls.

Highlights of Slack’s 2023-2024 season include her solo debut with the New York Philharmonic, performing Beethoven’s Ah, Perfido! Op. 65 at David Geffen Hall, and her debut as a guest artist with Chamber Music Detroit, where she will give masterclasses and headline two programs: performing as a soloist in Of Thee I Sing, curated by Slack as a call for racial justice and an appeal to the healing power of love, and appearing alongside the Pacifica Quartet in works by Beethoven, Price, and James Lee III – whose featured work, A Double Standard, was commissioned for Slack and the Quartet by Carnegie Hall, Chamber Music Detroit, and Shriver Concert Series. In conjunction with Sparks and Wiry Cries, she performs in two productions of Songs in Flight, composer Shawn Okpebholo’s program exploring the stories of enslaved people who fled captivity, and she returns to the Dallas Symphony Orchestra for selections from the Great American Songbook. Slack returns to Bogotá, Colombia for a recital at the Festival Internacional de Música Sacra Bogotá and continues her deep collaboration with the Pacifica Quartet later this season with performances presented by Denver Friends of Chamber Music.

In addition to her appearances on orchestral, chamber music, and recital stages this season, Slack embarks upon an ambitious new recording project in collaboration with ONEComposer and pianist Michelle Cann, to be released later this season on Azica Records. In August 2024, Slack unveils her new commissioning project African Queens, an evening-length vocal recital of new art songs celebrating the history and legacy of seven African queens, revered as rulers but not widely heralded in the western world. The program weaves this historical narrative through new works by acclaimed composers Jasmine Barnes, Damien Geter, Jessie Montgomery, Shawn Okpebholo, Dave Ragland, Carlos Simon, and Joel Thompson along with carefully selected traditional repertoire – further illuminated through passages of spoken text and thematic artwork.

Justin Austin

Justin Austin - SDtBPossessing a “mighty lyric voice” (The New York Times) and praised in Opera News as “vocally impressive, verbally elegant,” Drama Desk Award nominated baritone Justin Austin has appeared on concert and operatic stages across the globe since the young age of four. Born into a family of opera singers, his early career took him to venues such as Teatro Real, Bregenzer Festspiele, Lincoln Center, and The Kennedy Center.

As this year’s Marian Anderson Vocal Award winner, Justin is featured in recital at The Kennedy Center, presented by Washington National Opera. He also gives solo recitals at Carnegie Hall, Pickman Hall with the Celebrity Series of Boston, and Spivey Hall in Atlanta this season. On the operatic stage he makes a return to Lyric Opera of Chicago, starring as Young Emile in Terence Blanchard’s Champion; Washington National Opera’s production of Romeo and Juliet, portraying Mercutio, at The Kennedy Center; Opera Theatre of Saint Louis in The Barber of Seville, playing Figaro; and the Metropolitan Opera in Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking. Justin also joins Des Moines Metro Opera for the world premiere of Damien Geter’s full-length American Apollo; stars in the New York premiere of Lyric Fest’s COTTON, composed by Damien Geter, at the 92nd Street Y; and performs in two renditions of Fire Shut Up In My Bones: Opera Suite in Concert at the Kimmel Center and then with Strathmore and Washington Performing Arts.

Last season, the “standout” (Operawire) baritone appeared as Ned Keene in Peter Grimes at the Metropolitan Opera; sang Carl Nielsen’s third symphony with the Cleveland Orchestra conducted by Alan Gilbert; premiered Damien Geter’s song cycle COTTON alongside Denyce Graves with Lyric Fest in Philadelphia and Washington Performing Arts at The Kennedy Center; and premiered a new edition by Damien Sneed of Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis in the roles of Scott Joplin/Remus. Justin also sang on a concert tour of Our Song, Our Story, a tribute recital to African American operatic pioneers Jessye Norman and Marian Anderson, with music director Damien Sneed, giving performances in Tucson, St. Louis, Washington D.C., Akron, and Aspen.

With a “velvety-dark baritone” (Cleveland Classical) described as “heroic” by Broadway World, Justin has received accolades and awards from The Recording Academy, NAACP, George London Foundation, Washington National Opera, Opera Ebony, Gerda Lissner Foundation, Manhattan School of Music, NANM, Choir Academy of Harlem, and Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts. He is the recipient of a 2023 Mabel Dorn Reeder Award from Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, which goes to “the single artist in each season with the greatest potential to make a significant contribution to the art form of opera.” Justin is under the tutelage and mentorship of Catherine Malfitano.

Born in Stuttgart, Germany, Justin Austin is an alumnus of the Choir Academy of Harlem, Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, Heidelberg Lied Akademie, and Manhattan School of Music (M.M. and B.M.). To learn more, visit

Workshop Faculty

Louise Toppin

Program Director, Prof. of Music (Voice), University of Michigan

Louise Toppin has received critical acclaim for her operatic, orchestral, and oratorio performances in the United States, Europe, Czech Republic, Sweden, Uruguay, Scotland, China, England, New Zealand, the Caribbean, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Colombia, Bermuda, Japan, and Spain.

Toppin has appeared in recital on many concert series including Carnegie Hall, Merkin Hall, Kennedy Center, and Lincoln Center. Orchestral appearances include: the Norrköping Symphony (Sweden), the Czech National Symphony, Mälmo Symphony Orchestra, (Sweden), Tokyo City Orchestra (Japan), The Montevideo Philharmonic (Uruguay), the Scotland Festival Orchestra (Aberdeen, Scotland), the Honolulu, Toledo, Canton, North Carolina, Charlotte, Lafayette, Erie Chamber and Raleigh Chamber Symphony Orchestras, The Bach Aria Group, Phoenix Bach Consort, and the Washington D.C. Bach Consort with conductors such as: Murry Sidlin, Paul Freeman, Richard Aulden Clark, Justin Brown, James Meena, Vladmir Ashkenazy, and Gearhart Zimmerman.

Toppin’s opera roles include: the title role in the world premiere of the opera Luyala by William Banfield, Treemonisha in Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha, Mary in William Grant Still’s Highway One, Maria in the world premiere of Joel Feigin’s opera Twelfth Night, the Queen of the Night in Mozart’s Magic Flute, Donna Anna in Mozart’s Don Giovanni, and Clara in Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. She most recently was contracted to sing Clara in Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess for Baltimore Opera, Opera Carolina, and Piedmont Opera companies.

Christie Finn

Hampsong Foundation & Classic Song Research Initiative, University of Michigan

American soprano Christie Finn is actively involved in the world of contemporary vocal performance and new music theater.  Finn has performed as a soloist with the Asko | Schönberg Ensemble (Netherlands), ensemble variances (France), the Hezarfen Ensemble (Istanbul, Turkey), Nadar (Belgium), Oerknal! (Netherlands), oh ton-ensemble (Germany), VocaalLAB (Netherlands), and Voces Suaves (Switzerland), as well as several ensembles in New York City, including ekmeles, the S.E.M. EnsembleExperiments in Opera, and Tactus. She is a co-founder and member of the experimental music duo NOISE-BRIDGE, collaborating with clarinetist Felix Behringer, and Co-Artistic Director of ExVoCo. She is also a permanent member of CrossingLines (Spain) and Forum Neue Vokal Musik (Germany).

International festivals and concert series include the Bregenzer Festspiele (Austria), the Beijing Modern Music Festival, ensems (Valencia, Spain), klarafestival (Brussels, Belgium), Hamburg International Music Festival, (Germany), Festival Mixtur (Barcelona, Spain), MUSICON (Durham, U.K.), and Resonant Bodies (New York City, U.S.A.) In the Stuttgart area, festivals include Musik am 13., Südseite Nachts, Klangraum, Sommer in Stuttgart, Konzertreihe für aktuelle Musik, tonArt (Esslingen a. N.), musica nova (Reutlingen), Zeitgenuss (Karlsruhe), and Opernfestspiele Heidenheim. Finn is a two-time winner of an interpretation prize at the International Stockhausen Concerts and Courses (Kürten, Germany) and was awarded a prize in the Karlsruher Wettbewerb für die Interpretation zeitgenössischer Musik 2014.

Caroline Helton

Assoc. Prof. of Musical Theatre (Voice), University of Michigan

Caroline Helton is a pedagogue, performer and researcher who teaches Voice in the Department of Musical Theatre at the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance. Over the past decade, she has performed and recorded classic song repertoire by composers whose art was suppressed, and through her teaching, recordings, and publications, she is a tireless advocate for integrating the canon of American vocal music to reflect and respect its true diversity.

As a concert and recording artist, Dr. Helton’s area of interest is bringing to light newly rediscovered repertoire by Jewish composers whose lives were affected by World War II. Along with pianist Dr. Kathryn Goodson, the duo has recorded three compact discs of rare song repertoire by Italian Jewish composers from the first half of the twentieth century, in collaboration with Aloma Bardi, musicologist and President of the International Center for American Music. Their series of recordings is entitled Songs from a Lost World of Italian Jewish Composers, and features first recordings of art songs by Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Vittorio Rieti, Leone Sinigaglia, Renzo Massarani and Guido Alberto Fano, among others.

Emery Stephens

Emery Stephens - SDtB

Asst. Prof. of Music, St. Olaf College

Emery Stephens, baritone, joined the music faculty at St. Olaf College in 2019, where he teaches voice students and music-related courses. Praised by the Boston Phoenix for his singing “with ringing suavity and articulate intelligence,” he performs a diverse vocal repertoire, from traditional to contemporary. A versatile and charismatic singer, Dr. Stephens has performed with the Boston Art Song Society, Bridge Chamber Music Festival, Abridged Opera of Ontario, Wilmington Symphony, Carolina Ballet with members of the North Carolina Symphony, Arbor Opera Theater, Michigan Philharmonic, Ann Arbor Symphony, Boston Lyric Opera/Opera New England, Michigan Philharmonic, Michigan Opera Theatre’s Community Education Programs, and the Detroit Jazz Festival in a revival of Dave Brubeck’s The Gates of Justice with renowned jazz pianist Jason Moran and his trio, The Bandwagon. He has performed works by American composers, such as True Witness: A Civil Rights Cantata by Jodi Goble and the role of Brother Dosher in a blues opera De Organizer by James P. Johnson with lyricist Langston Hughes, recorded by Naxos Music. As a narrator, he has collaborated with Michigan Philharmonic on the Passion of John Brown by Jesse Ayers and Paddle to the Sea by Andre Meyers, and the jazz-inspired Sweet Music in Harlem premiere by Andy Kirschner with the Ann Arbor Symphony.

Program Highlights

Specific program highlights will be posted in the coming weeks. For a sample of what to expect from 2024’s program, click below for the final schedule from last year’s workshop:

2023 Singing Down the Barriers – Final Workshop Schedule

Tuition & Housing Information

Tuition options for the 2024 Singing Down the Barriers Workshop are listed below. Participants will be able to select their preferred option via the workshop Acceptd ® application.

Program Tuition


  • $1000 – In-Person Participation + Housing & Meals
  • $700 – STUDENT In-Person Participation + Housing & Meals (with valid Student ID)


  • $500 – In-Person WITHOUT Housing & Meals


  • $350 – Virtual Week Participation

IMPORTANT NOTE: Cost provides housing 3:00 P.M. Sunday, June 9, 2024, through 12:00 P.M. Saturday, June, 15, 2024. Meals provided will include breakfast, lunch, and dinner, beginning with dinner on Sunday, June 9, 2024, and ending with brunch on Saturday, June 15, 2024.

Housing / Meal Information

Participants will be housed in the following dormitory: Baits Housing

Participants will receive meals in the following dormitory: Bursley Dining Hall

Tuition will include all program activities for the duration of the week. Those participating during the second in-person week must pay for their own travel to and from Ann Arbor, MI, and should plan to arrive by June 9, 2024, and depart on June 15, 2024, for the in-person program 

Registration Requirements

Registration forms must be received by the registration deadline of March 1, 2024. Participants may be accepted after the deadline if openings remain.

To register to the 2024 Singing Down the Barriers Program, you must complete the online Acceptd ® application and pay the $50 non-refundable application fee.  The following items will be required for your 2024 Singing Down the Barriers Registration to be considered complete:

    Required for ALL Participants

    All participants, regardless of chosen track, must complete the following items to apply for the 2024 program:

    • Complete the Online Acceptd ® Application
    • Pay the non-refundable $50 application fee
    • A one-page introduction of the participant, including why they are interested in participating in this program

      Required for Participants Interested in Performing

      Those wishing to perform during next summer’s in-person program must submit the additional materials with their registration.

      • Upload a video of the participant singing a work by an African American composer via the online Acceptd ® application. 
      • Upload a repertoire list of works by African American or African Diaspora composers that the participant has already performed AND a list of some works the participant would like to perform via the online Acceptd ® application.  This should be done in one document.

      Contact Us

      Office of Engagement & Outreach-Youth & Adult Programs
      University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance
      Stearns Building │ 2005 Baits Drive │ Ann Arbor, MI 48109
      Phone: (734) 936-2660

      Emails and phone lines are monitored at the following times
      Monday – Friday, 9:30 A.M. – 4:00 P.M. EST