It’s safe to say that the world of classical music would not be the same without the countless contributions made by talented Black individuals—and there’s no better time to recognize them then during Black History Month. Last year, we highlighted some of the artists who were (and still are) dominating the opera world. This year, we wanted to speak with them about what—or who—made them fall in love with opera.
"One of the great influences of my love and passion for classical music is Ms. Jessye Norman. I know that mentioning Ms. Norman as an inspiration at this point, sounds a bit cliché as she has inspired so many. But I will never forget my first encounter with that voice. I first heard Ms. Norman when I was about 16, a recording of her singing "Dido’s Lament," When I am Laid in Earth. Up until that point, I had never cried over a piece of music I didn’t know or even understand. It felt to me like I was hearing a well-crafted sermon of reconciliation or repentance. There was something about that sound, so round, regal and honest."
Janai Brugger as Servilia in "The Clemency of Titus" (2019). Photo: Cory Weaver
This Young Artist alum has appeared in our productions of: The Magic Flute as Pamina, La Bohème as Musetta, and Servilia in The Clemency of Titus
She'll be on our stage next season as: Zerlina in Don Giovanni
"Marion Anderson, Shirley Verrett, George Shirley, Kathleen Battle, Jessye Norman, Moses Hogan, and Leontyne Price. Those are just to name a few but each of them have paved the way for many African American artists in the classical world from their fierce dedication to their craft and artistry and standing up for what was right even when faced with adversity. I’m grateful to them and truly inspired by them for what they accomplished in the classical world."
"When I first started singing classical music, it was in The Fort Bend Boys' Choir of Texas, in the second grade. Eventually, I matriculated through the different levels and graduated to the Tour Choir. It was the choir that sings everywhere—all over the world. Whenever the Houston Symphony would have performances of sacred works or large works like The Damnation of Faust, they would have our choir come to sing with them. In 1997, I was the boy soloist for The Damnation of Faust and Denyce Graves was singing the role of Marguerite. So, I remember, in that instance, thinking to myself that I had never seen an opera singer, nor had I heard one, and I thought ‘I want to do what she’s doing. I want to be like that,’ so Denyce Graves was my very first influence in opera and is actually the reason why I sing opera. I first spoke with her on the telephone, after having met another legendary icon, Harolyn Blackwell, who connected me with Denyce. Subsequently, I met her, during her run as Maria in Porgy and Bess at the Metropolitan Opera. There's also a countertenor who I think is the countertenor of all countertenors—Derek Lee Ragin. He, for me, has been such an inspiration. What's really beautiful about it is that many of the things he has sung, I sing. So, I look to him for guidance. To know that I am walking and following in his footsteps is mind boggling. I am so thankful, without ceasing, that he has walked the walk before me so that I can walk behind him, and I hope that I continue to do justice to each of the roles we both have done, and I hope to continue opening doors for other African-American countertenors. I love Leontyne Price—I absolutely adore her. Her countenance and demeanor, the eloquence with which she spoke, she was just so smart and well put together. Her voice is pure gold. And of course, we harken back to Marian Anderson, who paved the way for all of us—who are in this art form right now. I'm happy and proud to say I'm friends with most of the people I looked up to and they are all continuing to pave the way."
So whether these influences are decades old or as contemporary as today, there’s certainly no shortage of African American artists who left their mark on our art form-- and on those who follow in their footsteps.