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‘Powerhouse baritone’ Western professor heads to Seattle stage

Richard L. Hodges will perform in ‘X: The Life & Times of Malcolm X’ at the Seattle Opera

Western Washington University professor Richard L. Hodges plays piano in a rehearsal room on Feb. 13 at the Seattle Opera. Hodges will be performing in “X: The Life & Times of Malcolm X" Feb. 24–25 and March 1, 3, 6 and 9 at the Seattle Opera. (Cocoa Laney/Cascadia Daily News)
By Cocoa Laney Lifestyle Editor

To Western Washington University students, Richard L. Hodges might be best known as the Director of Voice Studies — but to the rest of the U.S., he’s a versatile opera performer, writer, director and composer.

Described as a “powerhouse baritone” by the Wall Street Journal, Hodges’ career has taken him to cities including Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Detroit and, most recently, the Metropolitan Opera in New York City.

Now Hodges is gearing up to perform in the ensemble of “X: The Life & Times of Malcolm X,” the same show he performed at the Met in November 2023. A reboot of the 1986 opera by Anthony, Thulani and Christopher Davis, the production “imagines Malcolm as an Everyman whose story transcends time and space” according to the Met’s website.

Bellingham residents can catch Hodges in “X” Feb. 24–25 and March 1, 3, 6 and 9 at the Seattle Opera — but throughout his commitment to this production, Hodges has continued teaching at Western. For him, education and performing are “two sides of the same coin.”

“You can’t always give; you have to take sometimes,”  he said. “And in performing, that’s me giving to an audience. But the type of ‘give’ I give to my students is a different type of ‘give,’ which nurtures both. It keeps it really, really fresh and it reminds me why I’m here.”

Hodges leads a group of students in song at Western Washington University. (Photo courtesy of Luke Hollister/Western Washington University)

A career in opera and education

Hodges earned a master’s in vocal performance from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, and a Doctor of Musical Arts degree from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He’s gone on to play leading roles in shows including “Hamlet,” “Porgy and Bess” and “Il Tabarro.” Additionally, he’s been featured in a variety of orchestral and chamber concerts, was a finalist in the American Institute of Musical Studies’ Meistersinger Competition and was even nominated for Best Lead in a Musical in the 2019 Las Vegas Valley Awards for his role in “Gianni Schicchi.”

Students hold sheet music at Western Washington University. (Luke Hollister/Western Washington University)

But Hodges’ journey started at age 14 in his hometown of Greensboro, when his choir teacher referred him to an opera camp. Though Hodges was eager to go, his mother didn’t have the means to cover tuition. Luckily Elvira Green, the program’s director (and Hodges’ mentor and collaborator to this day), agreed to let him attend for just one day — and it didn’t take long to recognize his talent.

“I went for my first day at opera camp, and by the end of the day, they called my mother and were like, ‘Oh, he has a full scholarship to go,’” Hodges recounted. “I fell in love with opera that day, really, and from that day on, because it combined all the things that I already was doing.”

Hodges eventually earned a bachelor’s in music from North Carolina Central University. After graduation, however, he “gave up on music” and worked in restaurants — but after a year away, Hodges asked himself, “‘Why am I here?’ I have a full degree, I should just go teach.’”

Hodges took a job as a choir director at Walter Hines Page High School in Greensboro, where he discovered an additional passion: education. Hodges built a robust choir program at Page, until a familiar question from a student caused him to reconsider his path once again.

“A student of mine had come to see a performance I did with a professional ensemble in town because, you know, you give up music and then you find new ways back to it,” he said. “Education kind of brought me back to music because I was in it all the time … And one of my students looked at me and was just like, ‘We love you here. But what are you doing here?’”

Richard Hodges
Hodges conducts the Western Washington University concert choir as they sing “Poor Man Lazarus” during the Martin Luther King Jr. event on Jan. 16, 2023. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)

This comment prompted Hodges to begin a master’s program at age 30. He now boasts an impressively long CV — but the highlight of his career didn’t arrive until November 2023, when he was asked to perform as Friend/Ensemble “X” at the Metropolitan Opera.

“It kind of was a whirlwind,” he said. “We were able to change the modality of my classes, so that I could actually be in New York while still teaching full-time and still doing administration for the department [at Western]. It just kind of worked out.”

Stories told through song

“X” made its world premiere in 1986 at the New York City Opera and was rebooted in 2022 by the Detroit Opera. Hodges was cast as the Friend/Ensemble and also covered the role of Reginald in Detroit; however, when asked to rejoin the show in Omaha, he declined. He had just started teaching at Western and didn’t want to miss the first quarter. But when the show moved to the Metropolitan Opera, Hodges was offered the role again — and this time, he said yes.

Hodges, center, rehearses “X: The Life & Times of Malcolm X” at the Seattle Opera. (Photo courtesy of Sunny Martini)

For those unfamiliar with contemporary opera, “X” might seem vastly different from classic shows like “Carmen” or “The Marriage of Figaro.” But Hodges said the reason we still connect to classic productions isn’t dissimilar to why “X” resonates today: Art is meant to portray society, both past and present. 

“The way that [‘X’] is putting it together is with this idea of a future people, a spaceship that crashes into the opera company,” Hodges said. “And here we are seeing vignettes … being told by these extraterrestrial beings that are sharing the story of Malcolm X, versus us reliving the story of Malcolm X.”

Perhaps it’s no surprise that Hodges is also an accomplished writer, composer and director. He’s inspired by telling little-known stories; his show “Black Swan Radio Hour” is about the first Black-owned record company, and by extension the first class of Black recording artists. 

A scene from the Detroit production of “X: The Life & Times of Malcolm X.” (Photo courtesy of Micah Shumake)

Hodges’ other works include “Women of the Black Panthers,” which premiered with Vegas City Opera and features his composition “Be Proud.” He also wrote/rewrote the book for shows about historical figures such as Coretta Scott King, Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman. But although these shows deal with heavier themes, Hodges’ upcoming work strikes a different tone.

“I think I’m moving now toward more stories that incorporate these moments of really interesting laughter and comedy, just because I think it’s time to smile,” he said.

Setting an example for students

Hodges is an enthusiastic proponent of Western’s fine art department, noting that if the community is hungry to support the arts, wonderful things are happening on campus. From opera to orchestra, choir, dance and more, the fine arts department holds performances every quarter.

“When you’re in the arts, it’s easy to say, ‘Am I worthy enough? … Do I have something to offer?’” he said. “But I think for me, the way I’ve been able to balance it is through education.”

Hodges instructs a student at Western Washington University. (Photo courtesy of Luke Hollister/Western Washington University)

Making a living as both an artist and educator requires intentionality. Thus, Hodges hopes to model balance to his students — and not just in regard to his career. He makes a concerted effort to carve out space for himself despite his busy schedule; offstage and off campus, you might spot Hodges trying new restaurants around Bellingham, or bowling in a league at 20th Century Bowl.

By pursuing his own varied projects and passions — professional and otherwise — Hodges hopes to prove to students that they can explore the full breadth of their interests and “don’t have to be boxed in by one thing.” He hopes up-and-coming performers leave his studio with an inherent sense of self-worth, so they can “live in that greatness” regardless of anyone’s opinion. 

“That’s what I want them to take into life. Because if they have that, they’ve beat the majority of the business,” Hodges said. “Because then it’s not going to matter if someone tells them ‘no.’ They won’t look at a ‘no’ as a ‘no,’ but they’ll look at it as an opportunity.”

Music stands in the rehearsal room of the Seattle Opera on Feb. 13. (Cocoa Laney/Cascadia Daily News)

Cocoa Laney is CDN’s lifestyle editor; reach her at; 360-922-3090 ext. 128.

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