Spotlight Iowa City: Above all, the music


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All one needs to do is utter the word “opera” in front of UI music student Chaz’men Williams-Ali for his passion to become immediately visible.

Williams-Ali spent most of his life in St. Louis with his mother and in California with his father. From a young age, he said, he knew he wanted to be a professional musician.

The performing arts seem to run in Williams-Ali’s blood. His mother owned a dance company, and his father is a drummer, his stepfather plays bass, and his grandmother is a strong vocalist.

The 20-year-old said that in his family, one is either a musician or an athlete (his brother is Cleveland Brown fullback Charles Ali). He couldn’t play sports, so he settled into the music world.

“I ate, drank, slept, and breathed music all the time,” he said about his childhood. “I didn’t think it’d take a turn to opera, but music was definitely a goal.”

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Williams-Ali’s father, Kevin Williams, said his son has worked through many musical genres, including an obsession with all things country, but he believes that opera will be where Williams-Ali will spend his career.

“He has informed me [he will stay with opera] on more than one occasion,” Williams said. “I’ve asked him because he’s been so widely exposed to different styles and genres of music. I’ve asked him many times ‘Is opera for you?’ and he said, ‘Absolutely, Dad.’ ”

When it came time for the vocalist to choose schools, Williams-Ali said, he really didn’t want to attend the UI, though his music teacher in St. Louis was impressed with the program. What really swayed Williams-Ali was when he saw The Barber of Seville in his hometown. The person who played Figaro had attended Iowa, and Williams-Ali was impressed with him. He traveled to Iowa City, met with music Professor Stephen Swanson, and began his operatic journey at the UI.

“I didn’t really know anything about opera until I got here, and that’s when I started really falling in love,” he said. “I liked it before — I had seen a few that were great. I thought they were killer, but the love didn’t come until I got here.”

Swanson described Williams-Ali as an incredibly hard worker with a natural music instinct who has the ability to open his mouth and make music.

“He gets a hold of a text, and he does things with it,” Swanson said. “He doesn’t just repeat it — he takes what’s on the page and adds a major chunk of his own soul to it. This is quite unusual, especially for someone as young as Chaz.”

When looking at Williams-Ali’s face when he discusses his favorite operas, it’s easy to believe when he sings his soul shines through. His face lights up as he thinks about how to pinpoint a few standout shows when his heart is attached to so many. (He did, however, settle on Verdi’s La Traviata and Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci.)

Williams-Ali said Pagliacci is one that he can relate to. The story centers on a clown who has what the singer described as “the worst day ever,” but the clown needs to put away his sorrow and entertain an audience.

That is a good lesson for performers, Williams-Ali said — learning how to put away feelings and just give the audience a great show.

“All these different stories come together in opera, [they] combine with the music and the beautiful singing, and it’s just magical,” he said.

One of his favorite shows to work on was Orpheus in the Underworld, in which he played the character Pluto. One of the musicians for the show, Nicolas Coffman, praised Williams-Ali’s performance, saying Williams-Ali was the main reason he enjoyed the show.

Although music is where Williams-Ali’s heart and mind usually lies, he’s like any other college student — he sometimes just needs to relax. For that, he turns to bowling and video games.

“It’s a good way to just get away,” he said. “I’m a strong believer that everybody needs some sort of medium for release. In video games, that’s where I find it.”

In 10 years, Williams-Ali’s main desire is to perform. If he isn’t going to be at a major opera house, he just wants to be somewhere singing.

“Opera is bigger than life, and I have a pretty big personality,” Williams-Ali said. “People say all the time ‘Everything Chaz does, he does big.’ Opera is the same way — it’s just bigger than life. Either it’s two to three hours of the greatest day ever or the worst day ever. And the music. Above all, it’s the music.”

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