Ollie Watts Davis, Institute Founder

“...rich, crystalline vocals,” “bubbling stream of a voice,” “a singer of the first order.” Ollie Watts Davis earns superlatives wherever she sings.  Since making her New York debut at Carnegie Hall in 1990, soprano Ollie Watts Davis has appeared with many leading orchestras, including San Francisco, Pittsburgh, Minnesota, Houston, Dallas and Milwaukee symphony orchestras. Her international activities include a tour of Mozart’s C Minor Mass with Orquesta Sinfonica Simon Bolivar of Caracas, Venezuela; performances at the celebration of the founding of the Pakistani American Cultural Center in Karachi; concerts in the Canary Islands with the Chicago Sinfonietta; recitals on the University Artists Concert Series in San Jose, Costa Rica; and performances of Handel’s Messiah with the Orquesta Sinfonica del Principado de Asturias in Oviedo, Spain.

Ms. Davis’ extensive concert credits include the Mozart Requiem with the Dallas, San Jose’, West Virginia and Charlotte symphony orchestras, and the role of Salud in de Falla’s La Vida Breve with the Pittsburgh, Dallas, and San Francisco symphony orchestras; Bach’s B Minor Mass with the San Francisco Symphony orchestra, and St. Matthew Passion with the Buffalo Symphony orchestra; Handel’s Messiah with Minnesota, Houston, Northwest Indiana, South Bend, and San Francisco Symphony orchestras, and Judas Maccabeus with West Virginia Symphony; Mahler’s Symphony, No. 2 with the Champaign-Urbana Symphony and Chautauqua Symphony orchestras; Symphony, No. 4 with Evanston and Baton Rouge Symphony orchestras; Gorecki’s Symphony, No. 3 with Traverse City and Elgin Symphony orchestras; Honegger’s Le Roi David with Elgin and Champaign-Urbana Symphony orchestras; Strauss’ Vier lezte Lieder with Elgin Symphony; Orff’s Carmina Burana with the Springfield and Traverse City Symphony orchestras and ; Poulenc’s Gloria with Traverse Symphony Orchestra; Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess with Green Bay, Champaign-Urbana, Chicago Sinfonietta and Chautauqua Symphony orchestras; Dvorak’s Te Deum with the Dayton Philharmonic; John Carter’s Cantata with the Prairie Ensemble; and Beethoven’s Symphony, No. 9 with Buffalo Symphony. Ms. Davis has also appeared in recital at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the American Church in Paris, France. Ms. Davis was selected to perform on the West Virginia Arts and Letters Series at the Governor’s Mansion; and as the guest artist for the Governor’s Inaugural Ceremony.

A warm and endearing actress, Ms. Davis performed the roles of Donna Elvira and Contessa Almaviva with San Luis Obispo Mozart Festival and in roles with the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, Des Moines Metro Opera, Opera Theatre of Springfield, and Illinois Opera Theatre. Of her Countess in IOT’s production of The Marriage of Figaro, John Frayne of WILL-FM said, “Ollie Watts Davis is a singer who provokes comparisons with the finest interpreters of the role of the Countess on professional stages...her performance is not to be missed.”

A native of West Virginia, Dr. Davis received the Bachelor of Science degree in Music Education from West Virginia Institute of Technology (magna cum laude), where she was named the 1993 Alumna of the Year; the Master of Arts degree in Secondary Education from West Virginia University; and the Master of Music and Doctor of Musical Arts degrees from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she is currently a Professor of Music and Chair of the Voice Division.

Dr. Davis’ numerous honors and awards include membership in the Phi Kappa Phi Honorary Society; honorary membership in Sigma Alpha Iota and the National Arts and Letters Society; the Krannert Center Debut Recital Award; the Dorothy Clark Gunsalus Memorial Award for Singers; the Gertrude Fogelson Vocal Award; the Lois G. Wright Memorial Concert Series Award; three-time winner of the Metropolitan Opera National Council District Auditions and twice a Regional Finalist.

In 1993, Dr. Davis received a Faculty Excellence Award from the University of Illinois College of Fine and Applied Arts, and in 1994 was awarded the Bronze Medallion of Honor by the University of Illinois Women’s Association. Dr. Davis was recognized as a woman who “through example and service...has used her talents to enrich the lives of others.” In 1998, Dr. Davis received the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Campus Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching. In 1999, she received the Gospel Music Excellence Award at the National Black Gospel College Choir Workshop. She has written two books for elementary and secondary age girls—Talks My Mother Never Had With Me (Helping the Young Female transition to Womanhood), and its sequel: A Loving Mother’s Perspective for Young Women—both part of the TALKS Mentoring Leadership curriculum published by KJAC Publishing. She has released two CDs:  one conducting the UI Black Chorus, and a solo recording of arrangements of Negro Spirituals for solo voice and piano.

Jamie Hillman, tenor
“expressive…sensitive…inspiring…” are just a few of the adjectives used to describe tenor Jamie Hillman’s vocal artistry. A multi-faceted musician, Mr. Hillman has won  numerous awards and honors for his work as a singer, pianist, composer, and conductor.

A native of Canada, Mr. Hillman holds an Associate Diploma in piano performance from the Royal Conservatory of Music and the Bachelor of Music degree with honors in Music Education from the University of Western Ontario. He is completing the Master of Music degree at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign where he studies choral conducting with Dr. Fred Stoltzfus and voice with Dr. Ollie Watts Davis, in addition to serving as the assistant conductor for both the University of Illinois Concert Choir and the nationally renowned University of Illinois Black Chorus.

Mr. Hillman has recently been appointed Assistant Professor of Voice and Choirs at Prairie Bible College in Alberta, Canada.

Teresa Kang, piano
Since her arrival in the United States ten years ago, Korean pianist Teresa Kang has been widely sought after for her sensitive, supportive accompanying. She worked at the Chicago College of Performing Arts at Roosevelt University in Chicago for four years as an accompanist for the University Choir, opera rehearsals, and student recitals, and served as an accompanist for the Skokie Concert Choir for five years.

A frequent collaborator for degree recitals at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign,Ms. Kang has also worked with the Illinois Opera Theatre. Her credits as a coach-accompanist in opera and musical theatre include The Love for Three Oranges, The Marriage of Figaro, La Traviata, The Magic Flute, Suor Angelica, Gianni Schicchi, L'Heure Espagnole, La Vida Breve, Mahagonny, Little Shop of Horrors and You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown.

Ms. Kang holds the Master's degree in piano performance from Sung-Shin Women’s University in Seoul, Korea. She is currently working toward a Doctor of Musical Arts degree in Vocal Coaching and Accompanying at the University of Illinois.

 Casey Jo Ahn Robards, piano
A native of Highland, Illinois, Casey began playing the piano at the age of four and accompanying by the age of eleven. A sensitive pianist, Ms. Robards maintains an active passion for musical collaboration in art song, opera, chamber music, gospel music, and popular song.  She collaborates frequently with soprano, Ollie Watts Davis and has recorded a CD of spirituals with Ms. Davis.  Casey has also performed recitals with Laurien Laufman (cello), Elliot Chasanov (trombone), and Nancy Clauter (oboe) and has been the rehearsal pianist/accompanist for the University of Illinois Black Chorus, Y.O.P.E. (Youth Opera Performance Education), Illinois Opera Theatre, UI Chamber Singers, U of I Varsity Men’s Glee Club, Women’s Glee, and Oratorio Society. 

Ms. Robards has spent summers working at the Bay View Music Festival, Bay View, Michigan, (rehearsal pianist/vocal coach for Don Giovanni, Cosi fan tutti), the Plymouth Music Festival, Plymouth, Massachusetts, (performing chamber music with Laurien Laufman, cello, and Joanna Kurkowicz, violin), and the Weathersfield Music Festival, Castleton, Vermont (accompanying the violin studio of Almita and Roland Vamos).  In 2004 and 2005, Casey was a Vocal Piano Fellow at the Tanglewood Music Festival where she was rehearsal pianist for projects conducted by Kurt Masur, Robert Spano, and James Levine.

Ms. Robards has accompanied for masterclasses with the Bach Aria group, William Bolcom and Joan Morris, Phyllis Curtin, Denyce Graves, Dennis Helmrich, James Levine, Malcom Martineau, Paul Merkelo,  Sherrill Milnes, Marni Nixon, George Shirley, Lucy Shelton, Alan Smith, Craig Smith, Dawn Upshaw, Allen Vizzuti, Brian Zeger, and Eugenia Zukerman Ms. Robards completed the Bachelor of Music and the Master of Music degrees at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign where she studied keyboard with Kenneth Drake, Joel Shapiro, William Heiles, Gustavo Romero, and accompanying with Eric Dalheim and Dennis Helmrich.  Her awards include the Thomas J. Smith Scholarship, Fern and John Armstrong Award, Nancy Wustman Memorial Accompanying Award, and National Society of Arts and Letters Regional Winner.  She is currently the worship pastor at New Covenant Fellowship in Champaign, Illinois.

Leann Brouillette Sechrest, soprano
Leann Brouillette Sechrest, a “sparkling” soprano (The News-Gazette), is a singer of exceptional artistry. Her recent performances include the roles of Annina in Verdi’a La Traviata, and  Drusilla in Monteverdi’s L’Incoranazione di Poppea with the Illinois Opera Theatre, and as soprano soloist in Mozart’s Requiem with  Sinfonia da Camera. Ms. Sechrest is the recipient of numerous awards and honors, including the 2006 Grace Elizabeth Wilson Award for Excellence in Singing, the 2006 University of Illinois School of Music Concerto Competition Winner, and the 2005 Golden Lyre Award. She is also a 2006 Semi-finalist and Bravo Award recipient of the Bel Canto Foundation of Chicago’s annual competition.

Ms. Sechrest holds a BA in Environmental Studies from the University of Chicago (2004), where she sang with the University’s distinguished Motet Choir, won the University’s Concerto Competition in 2004, and appeared as the soprano soloist in Richard Einhorn’s Voices of Light, a joint production between Rockefeller Memorial Chapel and the Chicago Film Society.  Opera credits at the University of Chicago include Monica (The Medium), Sandmann (Hansel und Gretel), Gianetta (The Gondoliers), and Yum-Yum (The Mikado). Ms. Sechrest will receive the M.M. in Vocal Performance and Literature from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in May 2006.

A dedicated teacher as well as performer, Ms. Sechrest is a licensed Kindermusik educator, and has taught voice and piano to non-music majors at the University of Illinois, through the Unit One living/learning program.