LIVING LEGENDS: Alexandria Kathleen Baker

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by Nina Tisara

Kathleen Baker, performing artist and educator, is a star in Alexandria’s cultural constellation and a 2015 Living Legend of Alexandria.

Baker at the gate of Carlyle House Historic Park, 2015. “She has the capacity to create a place and time for her audiences. Her energy, verbal dexterity and humor inspire enlightenment and laughter,” writes Nina Tisara. Photo by Steven Halperson
Baker at the gate of Carlyle House Historic Park, 2015. “She has the capacity to create a place and time for her audiences. Her energy, verbal dexterity and humor inspire enlightenment and laughter,” writes Nina Tisara. Photo by Steven Halperson

By what luck did such talent come to Alexandria?  Baker, originally from York, Pa., attended the University of Pittsburgh on academic scholarships majoring in French and German with a minor in Art History. She had planned to work in France as an English teacher through the York and Arles Sister City program. Her plans were derailed by the recession of 1974 and she moved to Washington, D.C. instead.

In her early years in the D.C. area, Baker worked for the American Association of University Women, the National Endowment for the Humanities, The Alliance for Volunteerism and the George Washington University.

Baker was a founder of Philomela, a women’s chamber consort, in 1974. Through the recommendation of John Douglas Hall, brother of a Philomela colleague, she began interpretation work as “Mistress Kathleen, Humble Servant” at Gadsby’s Tavern.

Baker initiated research into the lives of early American women and musical life and was invited to “reside” as volunteer at Alexandria historic sites.  In 1986, with encouragement from Monta Lee Dakin, Gadsby’s Tavern museum director, she created “Publick Table” a one-woman show and “The Opera Project,” a professional nonprofit, whose debut production was The Poor Solider, a favorite ballad opera of George Washington.

Entertaining children with an Appalachian dulcimer at Gadsby’s Tavern Museum, 1981. Photo by Nina Tisara.
Entertaining children with an Appalachian dulcimer at Gadsby’s Tavern Museum, 1981. Photo by Nina Tisara.

Encouraged by critical acclaim and successful collaborations with fellow arts organizations in cutting-edge works, the company evolved its repertoire and name to “Opera Americana.”  Opera Americana produced ten full productions—soloists, chorus, orchestra, sets, lights and costumes–at the George Washington Masonic Memorial, the Ernest Theatre at Northern Virginia Community College and at the Lyceum, Alexandria’s history museum, with run-outs to Annapolis and Pittsburgh, and education projects including  students of Deborah Madsen at Triangle Elementary in Triangle, Virginia.

With arts organizations’ heightened struggles for funding and the search for a permanent home unfulfilled, Opera America drew down its productions. Its final project in 1996 was a collaboration with District Curators to advance Anne LeBaron’s jazz opera based on the Orpheus myth with an excerpt performed at Carter Barron Amphitheatre.

The contributions of Opera America to the field of American opera are unique — a professional company in the nation’s capital, employing regional artists and presenting repertoire from the Federal era in historic sites, as well as cutting-edge and world premiere productions by American composers.

Illustrating the “Every Day Life in America” exhibition at the Smithsonian Museum, 1987. Photo by Nina Tisara.
Illustrating the “Every Day Life in America” exhibition at the Smithsonian Museum, 1987. Photo by Nina Tisara.

Baker also directed operas for the Shenandoah Conservatory at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theatre, for Adas Israel Congregation at the George Washington University Lisner Auditorium and the Washington Symphony Orchestra at DAR Constitution Hall, the latter with the notable Victor Borge conducting Mozart’s The Magic Flute.

Kathleen Baker’s work as a solo performing artist and educator is distinguished by her celebration of the common person’s perspective, her use of primary and specific local sources for her programs and the quality of vocal performance. She has the capacity to create a place and time for the audience. Her energy, verbal dexterity and humor inspire enlightenment and laughter.

Hearing Baker’s performance in French for a 1988 visiting delegation from Caen, France, then Mayor Jim Moran asked her to work with French teacher Shirley Greenwood to develop a Sister City relationship with the Normandy regional capital. Appointed to the new Alexandria-Caen Exchange Committee by Council, she chaired the group from 1990 to 1994 and accompanied Mayor Patsy Ticer to France for the signing of the twin city accords. She performed and travelled on behalf of Alexandria and Virginia tourism locally and on missions to Japan, England, France and Germany. Her work was entirely self-funded throughout her intercultural service.

Baker created one-woman performances for both historic sites and private sector clients on the East Coast. She wrote a workbook for and trained docents in historic interpretation in the Washington region, including Mount Vernon Estate and the Maryland Hall of Records.  She represented Alexandria and the Commonwealth on tourism development missions to Japan and Europe.

From 1997 to 2008, Baker brought her love of music, history and children to the Alexandria City Public Schools and until 2010 to Arlington County Schools. As a General/Vocal Music teacher she brought her relationship with Washington National Opera to George Mason Elementary School to inspire students to create original operas. Fourth grade students, with added resources from Alexandria Archaeology and the City Poet Laureate, created operas to demonstrate their understanding of the American Revolution, the Civil War, and Reconstruction. The children studied the Gladwin record, visited the excavations and conversed with archaeologists at Freedmen’s Cemetery site. First grade students created fantastical operas about “Books We Love.” Kindergarten students studied the life cycle of the butterfly and made “The Butterfly Opera” one year, and the next year, a water cycle opera, “Each Little Drop is Here to Stay.” Stories, text and music were the compositions of the children themselves.

Baker revived the All-City Chorus, which she conducted. At George Mason Elementary School she founded the DragonTones chorus, the Heritage Night annual family intercultural festival, co-managed the PTA After-School Foreign Language Program and coordinated a robust PTA Reflections Program. She also created and advised the Student Council at George Mason.

From a National Endowment for the Humanities fellowship to study Mozart and The Enlightenment in Vienna, Austria in 2006, Baker adapted The Magic Flute for children’s voices and contemporized the text for the DragonTones.

Baker is a National Board Certified Teacher in Early and Middle Childhood Music and is professionally licensed in Virginia in French, German and Vocal Music. She was the first music teacher in Alexandria City Public Schools to achieve NBCT status. She has been honored with Washington Post Grants and in 2009 with a National Endowment for the Humanities grant to study the Mississippi Delta, “The Most Southern Place on Earth.” She is the recipient of the Alexandria Chamber of Commerce ALEX Award for Cultural Contributions (1998), the Alexandria Commission for Women’s  Award in Culture (1997), and the “Excellence in Education” Award (2007) sponsored by the Alexandria Education Partnership, a nonprofit working for the academic success of children by bringing together the Alexandria City Public Schools (ACPS) and the Alexandria community. Although Baker concluded her fulltime classroom teaching in 2010, she continued her efforts to integrate the arts and core subjects in schools and arts spaces.

She is a founder of the Alexandria Arts Forum, a coalition of area artists, arts administrators, advocates and patrons to advance the arts, and has served on the boards of the Alexandria Symphony, First Night Alexandria and KSMET (King Street Metro Enterprise Team), the latter as president in 1994.

Baker married Daniel DeBoissiere in 2003 and became proud stepmother to Andrew, Jeffrey and Gabrielle. Though she retired in 2014, she remains active as a community volunteer recently facilitating collaboration between Living Legends of Alexandria and the ACPS Parent and Teachers Association Reflections program. She currently chairs their Family Legend committee.

Baker feels blessed to see her faith in and support for young musicians and scholars rewarded with student creativity, enthusiasm and accomplishment.

Living Legends: The 2015 Project

Living Legends of Alexandria is an ongoing 501(c)(3) photo-documentary project to identify, honor and chronicle the people making current history in Alexandria. The project was conceived in 2006 to create an enduring artistic record of the people whose vision and dedication make a positive, tangible difference to the quality of life in Alexandria.

This is one of a series of profiles that will appear this year. To nominate a 2016 Legend, visit https://www.alexandrialegends.org/nominate-legend. The deadline is October 15.