With a single downstroke of his hand, conductor Néviton Barros unleashed the choirs at Colby. Song flooded the chapel nave like a flock of doves set free.
From there, Barros’s debut Colby concert soared, touching down in Italy, Israel, France, and South Africa for songs at once bright and bold, expansive and intimate.
“Singing in a choir is the most powerful way of communicating,” said Barros, Colby’s new director of choirs. “When we sing we have words, so the message is clear.” Foremost for the Brazilian native is a message of community. “When we breathe together and sing together, we are one. We lose our identities and become one big collective.”
The same held true for those of us in Lorimer Chapel simply listening, bathed in the all-encompassing sound. In the care of Barros’s skillful hand, we were all one.
An accomplished vocalist, educator, and conductor, Barros, delayed by visa issues, arrived at Colby a week into the fall semester. He went right to work with Colby’s three choirs: Collegium, a small, audition-based ensemble; Chorale, a large, all-inclusive mixed chorus; and the Kennebec Choral Society, a non-auditioning choir open to the greater Waterville community.
By mid-November, he had them performing together for the first time since 2019. Titled “New Beginnings,” the concert allowed their multigenerational voices to unify in songs from the Renaissance to the present, including John Leavitt’s Missa Festiva.
The pandemic was particularly difficult for Colby’s choral program, said Yuri “Lily” Funahashi, associate professor and co-chair of the Music Department. “But under new leadership with Néviton at the helm, we look forward to rebuilding our choirs, welcoming singers of all stripes to sing together. ‘New Beginnings’ was a brilliant start to this new era.”
An innate desire to perform
Barros’s musical beginnings trace to a church choir in Brasilia, Brazil. As an adolescent, he loved singing but was encouraged to quit because his changing voice was deemed “awful.” He opted instead for voice lessons and a conservatory, earning a place in the school’s professional choir. In 2002 he earned a bachelor’s in music with a specialty in conducting from the Universidade de Brasília.
Barros earned a master’s from Hunter College in New York and a doctorate in choral studies with a minor in vocal pedagogy from Louisiana State University. In New York City, he worked as a musical director for the International Brazilian Opera Company and as an artistic director for the vocal group AdHoc. His solo performances include many masterworks and opera roles. He taught previously at Muhlenberg College and the Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College.
His personal story exemplifies what has become his professional belief, that each of us can sing and dance. It is our self-consciousness, he said, that interferes with the expression of an innate desire to perform. Not only does he invite anyone, everyone, to join one of Colby’s choirs, but he works individually with students to express themselves through their voices.
Of particular interest is working with transgender and non-binary students, many of whom have voice dysphoria, or anxiety about their voice. Voice is a strong gender identity, said Barros. When we hear a voice, we assume it’s a man or a woman. For transgender and non-binary people, that doesn’t hold true, he said. Barros teaches these people to speak and sing in a way “that they feel at peace with their voices,” a process he calls “magical.”
It’s one of the many ways Barros believes vocal work and choirs are important in settings such as Colby.
“The beauty of the liberal arts college,” he said, “is the opportunity we give students to be whatever they want to be and do whatever they want to do.” Using one’s voice together with others fosters students’ process of self-discovery.
For soprano Ava Shapiro ’26, choral singing grows her confidence and sharpens her focus. Coming from a small high school choir in New York City, she’s been challenged in Colby’s Chorale and Collegium choirs. She appreciates Barros’s high expectations—and his support to reach them, she said.
Shapiro finds that singing with community members, some 50 years her senior, lends seriousness to her experience. Everyone comes to rehearsal prepared with an eye toward performance. “Néviton expects us to be like a professional choir,” she said. “He’s giving us the tools, and we’re learning how to teach ourselves. It’s really cool to think I could be in a professional choir someday or that this could be a lifelong thing for me.”
Nothing would make Barros happier.
He’s set lofty goals for the choirs at Colby. They include expanding Chorale and the Kennebec Choral Society to 100 singers collectively. For Collegium, it’s 24, including a quartet of singers from the community to expose students to mature voices. It’s part of preparing students for the niche market of professional singing. “If they decide to go that path in their lives,” Barros said, “they will be ready.”
The gift that is choir
For the final song of the “New Beginnings” concert, Barros selected “Ukuthula,” a Zulu prayer for peace. For this number, members of the choir filled the chapel’s outer aisles in what Barros envisioned as an embrace.
Nestled within the choir’s rich, deep harmony, “Ukuthula” returned us to the earth and grounded us in community. The moment was a powerful manifestation of Barros’s generosity of spirit.
“He sometimes reads us these blessings in the middle of our rehearsals,” said Shapiro. “It’s something that I really like. It reminds me of how much of a gift choir is, to be all together and be able to produce this music.”
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