Know the Why

Melony Matthews.

Her name conjures up the word m-e-l-o-d-y. There is music in it. Maybe it’s the spelling. Or maybe it’s because I first heard Melony. Then I saw her.

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Long dress swaying as she stood alone on the paved street, her arms were outstretched, hair in a tight bun, chin up. Her operatic soprano voice was rising gently into the early morning air of the Hollywood Farmers’ Market, and the expression on her face was angelic.

Today, this is her stage. And her home away from home. Where new doors may open.

The road she took to get here is a winding one. An artistic, creative, bold, beautiful one.

When she is performing, her name is spelled Meloni Mathius. “I changed the spelling, but not the sound. I wanted it to have a pretty look when people write it down,” she smiles.

There are many instruments of music in Melony… musical instruments, vocal instruments, physical instruments…she plays, she sings, she dances, she acts, she writes, she makes short films. She performs.

“My first exposure to music was my babysitter, Vivian.” Melony’s eyes light up as she tells me she and her little brother loved Vivian. “She had a piano and she would never let us touch it. At the time, pianos were a status symbol. You were cultured if you had a piano in the living room. Vivian played it, but we couldn’t touch it.

“We lived in the projects in Anderson, South Carolina. At the time, that was the only place that you could move if you were from out of town. Both my parents were from out of town. They got jobs in Anderson at the school district, and so they went there and the only place to stay was the projects. So, you had a plethora of people living there — doctors, lawyers who just moved there, teachers, all kinds of families.

“When I was 6, 7, 8 something like that, my mom said, ‘I can get you one birthday present. And it can be a big present. And it can be the present for the rest of your life. And I will never get you another birthday present. Or, I can give you lots of little presents throughout your birthdays.’

She made this offer to me and my brother.

“Now I was smart. I said, ‘that presents-throughout-the-years is going to fizzle out. So I better take my chances and get one big present this time. My brother was younger than me so, of course, he chose lots of little presents.

I said, ‘I want one big present’.

She said, ‘What do you want?’

I said, ‘I want a piano.’

“And she got me the piano. And I was on that piano. I would practice until my fingers were raw. She gave me lessons. I would practice so much that I would fall asleep on the piano.”

Melony’s father, now 80 years old, was a band teacher in South Carolina for 35 years and also played saxophone in the National Guard Army band. He started Melony on the flute as early as she can remember. Melony’s mother’s musical gift was singing.

“My family would sing all the time. We would be in the living room harmonizing. My mom or my aunt would always designate what we would sing, what pitch. She’d say, Melony, you do high harmony. That was my designation.

I’m not the singer in the family. I can’t hoot and holler. I’ve got that soft voice.

“When I was growing up, at church, when they needed quiet meditation time, they would ask me to sing. And I would sing. My song was….”

For the next 22 seconds, Melony sang the song Sweet Hour of Prayer, lending the coffee shop where we met to do this interview an ethereal soundtrack. Just as she finished, a man appeared right next to our table looking in awe at Melony. Eyes wide, he said, “I had to tell you, you have a lovely singing voice.”

“Oh! Thank you!” Melony beamed.

When he left she turned back to me, “So, that was my song. When they wanted quiet meditation at church, they’d say, ‘Oh, Mrs. Matthews, get Melony to sing that quiet song, and that was the only time I was requested.” She breaks into laughter.

Piano. Flute. Singing. Ballet lessons at the local recreation center in Anderson, SC,  too. Eventually, Melony graduated high school, then earned a degree in Drama from Spelman  College in Atlanta, Georgia. There, a teacher observed Melony’s dance talents and encouraged her to audition for the famed Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in New York City. Melony took her first airplane ride, heading for the big apple.

“When I got there, there were so many people who were at such professional levels. There were splits all kinds of ways, and I’m like, ‘What the hell am I doing here? I don’t have this kind of training.  I’m just a little country girl from South Carolina.’ I spent junior high school years with Miss Brenda at Anderson Recreation Center in a little ballet school at the rec. That was it.

“Let me tell you what I did. I said, ‘Melony, you can’t compete with these people. They’re all bony skinny and you’re country thick. What do you have to offer?’

“I told myself, I don’t care what you’re doing, you’re going to keep your smile on like it’s painted on there. Glue it there! And when my time came up my strategy was just keep smiling — and that’s what I did!”

Her dance skills and her spirit were enough to earn her a certificate from Alvin Ailey.

“I was in the New York area for about 10 years.”  Melony was with a dance company and she also sang in a choir. One day, the Dance Theatre of Harlem had an open house.

“I went to the open house, and I sang. That was my first performance as an opera singer. It was probably horrible, but I hit that high note and they were applauding and they stood up ‘diva! diva!’ and I said, ‘Yeah, this is what I’m doing. I like this.’

“That’s when I decided to continue to be a professional opera singer. My life has been miserable ever since!” she laughs.

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“Just because you decide to do something that you’re supposed to do doesn’t mean it’s going to be easier to do it.  Just because it’s something that you’re purposed to do, doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy to do.

“You still have to face a challenge. So you might as well do what you like, because it’s going to be a challenge anyway.

“Have you ever crossed a creek? How do you cross a creek? You look for the stones. You look for the stone that you can step on that will support you. And you hop on that stone. Everything is hopping on a stone to get across the river to the other side. I celebrate each stone. Each stone motivates me.

“Each stone you step on is an accomplishment and you have to take it.

“You will get across the river if you remember what you’re doing it for. You’ve gotta really love it. You’ve gotta know the why.  The why has to be: you love it!

“Opera is not a solo act. You’re combining the words, the feelings, the technique, the sound, the emotions, working with the music. And trying to find a sense of accomplishment in small increments. Each song I sing now is trying to accomplish that. Sometimes I don’t. We are human.

“But when you hit it, it’s so fulfilling. It’s life fulfilling. And that’s why people are in the arts. Because it is life fulfilling.”

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