By Jessica Deese
Photography by Nathaniel Thompson, Pensacola Opera, and John F. Martin
If Fairhope were a person, Chauncey Packer would pretty much be it. A 2019 New York Times article about Fairhope described it as “a place for artists… and people of outsize character.” It goes on to recount the influence of progressive educator, Marietta Johnson, and share the founding vision that Fairhope would shed “its beneficent light to all the world.”
Chauncey Packer is a living, breathing embodiment of these ideals and influences. A talented tenor whose professional credits include performances on notable stages across the globe, including the Teatro alla Scala in Milan, Paris’ Opera Comique, and most recently the New York Metropolitan Opera (where his most recent production, Porgy and Bess, received a 2021 Grammy for Best Opera Recording), Chauncey’s musical and character development were set right here in our utopian enclave.
“I don’t remember life without music or singing,” he shares from his New York City apartment as we talk over Zoom about his early years growing up surrounded by his extended family just south of town on Packer Lane. With a mom who was a self-taught church pianist and organist, and a dad who taught himself to play drums and guitar, Chauncey’s earliest memories are set in song. Whether it was playfully harmonizing with commercial jingles on TV or singing together in front of the Holiness congregation each week, Chauncey and his family exercised their musical fluency with frequency and ease.
I was a little nervous going into the interview at the prospect of talking with a real live stage star. My anxieties were quickly put at ease by his warm and convivial spirit. As he relived many memories from his formative years, I learned that these gentle qualities were matched with incredible strength and determination.
One story in particular highlighted Chauncey’s grit and gumption. As much as he shined as a self-professed, “nerdy church music” middle schooler on Sundays, he couldn’t help but be allured by the South’s Saturday religion, so he decided to give football a try. One of his uncles was outspoken with his doubt that Chauncey was tough enough for the gridiron. That was all it took. “Show me how to do it, and I will work and practice until I get it.” Chauncey got so good that it sparked the possibility that an athletic path might be an option.
“Even though I came back to my musical calling, the lessons I learned in that season have been valuable in my professional and personal journey. I learned the importance of fraternity and how young men can achieve great things working as a team. I have carried this with me.”
This cooperative spirit and ability to let others shine was present before he joined the football team. His mother shared that “he’s always been a good example to his siblings,” and goes on to fondly recall how once she got him his own drum set and his younger sister insisted on taking it over, but “he let her have her way; he was humble and protective,” understanding that there are more important things than hogging the spotlight.
Relational connection is a core component of his character. “He values friendship and nurtures them. He has friends all over the world,” his high school English teacher, Pam Turner tells me as she hands me postcards, he’s mailed her through the years from the many places his touring has taken him. Turns out, Marietta Johnson isn’t the only important female educator that hails from our town.
Notable Female Educators
A 1993 graduate of Fairhope, Chauncey’s praise for his public-school education is high. “I remember lots of arts exposure in the classroom.” In high school, this exposure expanded beyond the classroom in pivotal ways.
Having been drafted by the administration to start a drama club with another colleague, Mrs. Turner was tasked with finding students to participate in an eventual production. “In my 12th grade English class, I would have the students read poetry out loud. Because of their experiences in church singing and quoting scriptures, the African American students tended to be more comfortable with this exercise and excelled. After hearing Chauncey’s reading, I immediately asked him to join the club. Once on stage, it was so clear that he was in his element. He brought the house down, but somehow retained his sense of humility.”
In addition to recruiting him to perform on stage, Mrs. Turner brought him to a much bigger stage when she organized a field trip to see Big River at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival in Montgomery.
He remembers it vividly. “When I heard the deeply moving song ‘Crossing to the Other Side’, that was the moment I knew I wanted to do this professionally.” It was a crossing over point, both on that stage, and off. Mrs. Turner, “led me to the trough” in other ways as well. “She pushed me to enter a music competition at Faulkner State,” now known as Coastal Alabama Community College.
“I didn’t win but one of the judges, Ann Stewart, remembered me when I later enrolled as a student. She became my first voice teacher and encouraged me to apply for a choral scholarship, which I ended up getting.” He went all in. “Music is in my DNA and the bug bit me too hard to take any other path.”
After finishing at Faulkner, he went on to the University of Mobile. One of his professors, Dianne Murphy, asked him what show he wanted to put on his senior year. That was easy; it had to be that first big show that Mrs. Turner took him to see. Big River it would be.
In a beautiful stroke of serendipity, Mrs. Turner’s educational guidance impacted another important female educator in Chauncey’s life: his mother, Teresa.
“I can’t be anything but a feminist,” Chauncey declared, adding, “I don’t know where I’d be without the strong feminine energy” of his aunts, grandmothers, teachers and most of all, his mother. Borrowing from operatic terminology, Chauncey’s mom is his true diva, or prima donna, the most important female influence in his life story.
In fact, he described her as his Treemonisha, heroine of the 1911 ragtime opera of the same name written by African American composer Scott Joplin that “celebrates African American music and culture while stressing that education is the salvation of African Americans.”
You already know that his mother placed music in the center of their family life. What you don’t know is that she also put herself through school while parenting a house full of young children so she could fulfill her professional calling to teach. Before Chauncey set foot in Mrs. Turner’s English class, his mother did, as a student teacher.
Both his parents emphasized education and there was never any question, “I was going to college,” Chauncey shared.
Tragically, his father fell ill and passed away when he was just 15, and his mother became the sole provider, now as a full time English teacher, traveling over an hour to her job each day while anchoring her family in their time of deep grief.
Both before and after his father’s death, Chauncey shared how his mother was intentional about creating an environment of “security, sanctity and freedom in our home.”
“Mom never prescribed us to do anything. She was just always encouraging and giving us the confidence and room to exercise our talents.”
Shining Light to the World
He’s taken the stage all over the world, and yet both his mother and Mrs. Turner commented on his humility, a word we often equate with a suppression of ambition or talents. But it’s not. It’s understanding that your gifts are just that: gifts. And that they are to be shared, as a blessing. So true humility and healthy pride are the same. This understanding allows us to shine our lights to the world and be, in the words of Saint Irenaeus, “fully alive.”
Or, in the words of Mrs. Turner, “Twenty-eight years ago, I was in awe watching, hearing him in the classroom and on the high school stage in Fairhope; and I was in tears a year and a half ago, sitting in the audience, when he ran out on stage at the Metropolitan Opera. His dream.
God has been in Chauncey’s life and Chauncey knows it. He is humble and joyful and generous. Full of love. His journey ahead will also be blessed and full, and he will share that fullness, too.
Chauncey moves us all forward with him.”
If that’s not a living, breathing Fairhope, I don’t know what is.
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