Voice Professor Sings in India for Human Trafficking Victims

From the June 2017 Desktop News | Over winter break, Dr. Susan Williams, assistant professor of voice and classically trained soprano, didn’t travel to visit family members for the holidays or remain in Tuscaloosa awaiting the spring term. Instead, she hopped on a plane to India to perform in a series of concerts with Kolkata Classics.

Dr. Susan Williams singing at a concert in Kolkata.
Dr. Susan Williams singing at a concert in Kolkata.

Kolkata Classics is a concert series created by pianist Jennifer Heemstra, who also performs in each concert, intending to expose the people of Kolkata (Calcutta) to high quality Western classical music. Williams became acquainted with Heemstra while she was getting her doctorate and Heemstra was completing her master’s degree at the Cleveland Institute of Music in Cleveland, Ohio.

Through sponsorships, Heemstra was able to form a trust and a committee to assist with the concert series and provide airfare and housing for visiting musicians. In addition, the series includes a concert alongside a health fair for women and children who are victims of human trafficking to receive free medical care that they otherwise would not receive.

The second season of the series concluded in March, and during the month of December, Williams performed seven times for a variety of audiences.

“For me, to be able to perform for such a diverse cross section of people abroad, doing what I was trained to do, was such a joy,” Williams said. “Our audiences ranged from patrons of the arts and the British Consul General to very underserved people who had probably never heard Western classical music live. This was an opportunity to use what I do for the greater good, which was really rewarding.”

Dr. Susan Williams
Dr. Susan Williams

Williams was also the first performer to give concerts with the series, visiting Kolkata in December 2014 and performing 13 times in the three weeks she visited the country. She said Heemstra works hard to make sure each concert is unique, so Williams has performed everything from “Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music and Christmas carols, to more standard selections from the Western operatic and song tradition, to pieces by avant-garde American composer George Crumb. Of the 62 total concerts within two seasons, Williams has performed in 20 of them.

Williams said audiences are incredibly enthusiastic to be attending the concerts, especially when time is taken to explain aspects of the music.

“We’ve given educational concerts where we would perform at a school and have students from many other schools come in,” Williams said. “We were able to treat these as an educational experience where we got the students to stand and march with the beat, sway with the rhythm, and really teach them about the fundamentals of making music.”

If given the opportunity to return for the third season of the Kolkata Classics, Williams said she would jump at it.

“My experiences in India will undoubtedly remain a highlight of my professional career for years to come,” Williams said.