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Virginia E. Hayes Williams Opera Prize

The Virginia E. Hayes Williams Opera Prize, funded by the Eugene B. Casey Foundation, is named for Virginia Elizabeth Hayes Williams, a professional singer turned postal worker who later sang her way across the District as the city’s “first mother.” It is one of the most prestigious awards given to Duke Ellington students. The WOP Opera Prize competition is directed by Erica Wright, with support from Dr. Monique Spells and Dr. Patrick Lundy, Vocal Music Chair.

The competition is typically held in the spring with the benefits of the prize beginning the following fall. The judges are a rotating panel of 5 typically led by prestigious performing artists in the field. In the past, we've been fortunate to have artists such as Denyce Graves, George Shirley and Kenneth Kellog. In addition to receiving the burning flame award, each student is gifted a library of repertoire books to aid their musical journey. Each winner is also featured yearly in our opera workshop production along with a bundle of other opportunities, tools and gifts to aid in their artistic journey. Read on to hear about our winners!



2025 Layla Rochelle Bunch

2024 Jayla Norwood

2023 Kirsten Holmes

2022 Alyssa Richardson

2021 Johanna Engman

2020 Maya McGuire

2019 Jayna Brown

2018 Kyree Allen

2017 Tristan Hines

2016 Asia Haynie

2015 Samira Plummer

Layla Rochelle Bunch 2025 

Layla is a member of DESA’s Concert Choir and its Show Choir Voices in Motion. She is young but has an extensive biography already! She has appeared in The Little Mermaid (Mersister), The Addams Family (Grandma) and in Annie (Grace) at Children's Theatre of Annapolis. Layla appeared on "Orange Is The New Black" as Farah. Furt her, she performed with the Kelsey Collie Children's Theater and ILead Institute in The Lion King: Preserving the Pridelands (Rafiki); Annie, Jr. (Annie); Into the Woods, Jr. (Baker's Wife, Witch); Addie (Baby); Corduroy (Toy) and Black Images, Black Reflections ( Ensemble.)

Layla studied piano and vocal training from Andre Leonard, vocal lesson from Opera singers Joyce Lundy and Detra Battle and from Gospel recording artist C. Anthony Bryant. Layla sang with Children of the Gospel and with Urban Nation where she has performed at Discovery Theatre and at Elizabeth Dole's Hidden Heroes Gala. Additionally, she announces on all social media platforms for Maple Springs Baptist Church. Layla has trained with Anthony Burrell from Dance Institute of Washington, Jones and Haywood Dance School and studied acting with Studio Theatre, Actor's Studio7, The Theatre Lab and Arena Stage. Layla recently performed with Virginia Union's Jazz Band, and Columbia  University and for " On the Roads to Arivaca", a Spanish Opera.


Jayla Norwood, Mezzo-Soprano 2024

As a result of being selected as WOP winner, Jayla the following opportunities:

  • Performed as paid soloist ($150) at an event sponsored by The Coalition of African Americans in the Performing Arts “CAAPA on the Potomac” (7/8/23)

  • Featured on the Vocal Music department Honors Recital for receiving an A average of her vocal music jury (10/24/24)

  • Presidents Lifetime Achievement Awards Ceremony-Soloist where she performed “Don’t Be Weary Traveler” (1/20/24)

  • Awarded the President’s Silver Volunteer Service Award (1/20/24)

  • Was a soloist with the Washington Douglass Chorale at National Presbyterian Church (4/14/24)

  • Featured on the Vocal Music Department Senior Honors Recital (4/29/24)

  • Was Featured Principal in Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Gondoliers (Opera Workshop Production) (5/3/24)

  • Received a Coaching session with Alison Crocket to work on her contemporary choice piece in for her senior recital

  • Received Coaching Sessions in preparation for her senior recital from Adriano Spampanato of the Washington National Opera

  • Received a coaching with world renowned coach Arlene Shrut

  • Received performance attire and a prize package of materials to support her goals as a young emerging artist 

  • Visited the MET in New York City to see her first production of Carmen

Kirsten Holmes, Soprano 2023

Kirsten was a member of the Sophisticated Ladies and the Concert Choir at DESA. She was selected to sing with U2’s Bono at an NPR Tiny Desk Concert and had the opportunity to sing for Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Jackson, the First Lady of France, and George Shirley, among others. She is currently attending Kirsten Holmes attending The University of Maryland. As a result of receiving the WOP award she had the following opportunities:

  • Featured on the Vocal Music department Honors Recital for receiving an A average of her vocal music jury (October 2022)

  • Travel provided to Boston Massachusetts for a college tour of Berklee (1/20/23)

  • Featured on the Vocal Music Department Senior Honors Recital (4/30/23)

  • Featured Soloist in the Opera Workshop Production “An Opera and Musical Theater Showcase” (5/31/23)

  • Summer Italian language Lessons (July 2024)

  • Featured soloist in Vocal Department Winter Concert

  • Participated in Opera Workshop Master Class with Cara Schaefer

  • Assistance with college application fees as a vocal performance major

  • Received summer lessons with Elizabeth Daniels to prepare for her transition to college 

  • Received Coaching Sessions in preparation for her senior recital from Barbara Wilkerson of the Washington National Opera

  • Received performance attire

  • Received a prize package of materials to support her goals as a young emerging artist

  • Attended the Lion King at the Kennedy Center


Alyssa Richardson, Soprano 2022

At DESA, Alyssa was a vocal music student and member of The Sophisticated Ladies ensemble when she won her Williams Opera Prize. She sang at the White Easter Egg Roll and was a member for the Kennedy Center Youth Advisory Council.

She is now a Biochemistry student at the Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia where she is a Presidential Scholar and in the honors program. She plans to become a physician. She generously returned to DESA for the 2022 Williams Opera Workshop to share her talents with the next generation of DESA vocalists!


Johanna Engman, Soprano 2021

Johanna is attending Bemidji State University where she recently performed “Sul fil d’un soffio etesio” from Verdi’s “Falstaff in the Department of Music Performers 2nd Annual Opera Night Gala (pictured above). She generously returned to DESA for the 2022 Williams Opera Workshop to share her talents with the next generation of DESA vocalists!

At DESA, in addition to her Williams Opera Prize, Johanna also won the Maria WiIlmeth Award from the Italian Cultural Society in 2020.

As a result of receiving the WOP award, she received the following benefits:

  • June 2022 Opera Workshop feature-1 aria, 1 duet

  • August 2022 Participation in the WNO Summer Opera Institute

  • Repertoire Books

  • Performance Attire


Maya McGuire, Soprano 2020

In 2024, Maya received her Bachelor’s of Music, Vocal Performance the University of Cincinnati College – Conservatory of Music. She now describes herself as a “thrifting yogi opera singer!” She is shown on the left with international mezzo soprano, Denyce Graves. You can watch Maya singing at

Maya benefitted from the following as the 2019 WOP winner:

  • Performance Attire

  • Italian Lessons

  • Casio Priva Digital Piano

  • Character Shoes for practice and performance

  • Washington Concert Opera tickets to Hamlet

  • Washington National Opera tickets to Othello

  • A trip to New York to view Porgy and Bess at the MET

Jayna Elise, an America’s Got Talent semi-finalist at age 14, is now a finalist on American Idol for the second year in a row at age 22. Her full performance from April 1, 2024 is available here where Lionel Ritchie tells her she is now a lead singer. She made it to the top 12 this year!

At DESA, she was a featured soloist in the 2019 Opera Workshop program as Semele singing “Endless Pleasure” from Semele. During this program she was also featured as Dolly in Hello Dolly.

Kyree Allen, Tenor 2018

At DESA, Kyree was named a High School Preliminary winner of the George Shirley vocal competition in Washington DC and sang at the Opera in the Outfield Performance fall of 2017. He was a featured performer in the 2018 graduation ceremony and performed in a costume provided by the Washington National Opera. He also participated in the Redwoods Opera Workshop program during the summer of 2018.

He received the following benefits from winning the WOP:

  • He was provided travel and lodging to participate in Masterclasses and the George Shirley competition in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

  • He received additional coaching from Michael Crabill to prepare for his summer artistic development program.

  • He was featured as singing “Total Eclipse” by Handel in the Opera Workshop Production.

Here he is singing at the DC Capital Star auditions in 2017:

Kyree attended Lawrence University as a theater and voice major and sang in the Viking Chorale. In 2022 and 2019, he sang at Lawrence’s Cultural Expressions showcase during the people of Color Empowerment Week and took first place men’s first-year college classical division. In 2020, he sang “Lift Every Voice and Sing” during a packed MLK celebration.

Tristan Hines, Baritone 2017

Tristin benefited greatly as a winner of the WOP. Samuel Bonds provided additional voice lessons in preparation for college auditions and the Opera Workshop performance. In the Opera Workshop Production, Tristan was featured as Rodolfo singing “Se vuol ballare” by Mozart. He received continued voice lessons during the summer of 2017 with Patricia Miller, Professor of vocal studies at George Mason University and participated in the Amalfi Coast International Music and Arts Festival in Maiori, Italy in July of 2017.

Tristan went on to earn a Bachelor’s degree in Music Business Management from Berklee on full scholarship and a Bachelor’s degree in Music Production from McNally Smith College of Music. He is now a freelance producer in Los Angeles, California and a member of the metal band Near An Open Flame.

Samira Plummer 2015 and Asia Haynie 2016

Samira attended University of Michigan and is an award-winning graduate student in Music at George Mason University. Asia is working as a musician after studying music and opera at Morgan State University. They received the following benefits as a result of being selected as a WOP winner.

  • Purchase of 2 Outfits for recitals and auditions

  • Performance at Millennium Stage

  • Featured soloists in the Opera Workshop Production

  • National Association of Teachers of Singing

    • Samira-1st place in high school female division of Virginia Regionals

    • Asia-Received Honors

    • Samira-Received honors at the mid-Atlantic regionals qualifying her for the finals.

  • Samira-DCCAP 3rd Place Winner

  • Master Classes with Louise Toppin and George Shirley

  • Williams Opera Prize Recital

 George Shirley Operatic Aria and Art Song Competition - Both Samira Plummer (2nd row, right, red dress in photo below) and Asia Haynie (3rd row, left, red and black dress) participated in the regional George Shirley Operatic Aria and Art Song Competition, held in March 2016 at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C. Participants in the Competition were featured in the concert Emancipation: A Vocal Concert of African American Composers and Poets held on April 14, 2016 at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts.

Opera Workshop Flyers


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