The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Metropolitan Opera diva Angela Brown talks about holiday music, her career, repackaging opera and working with John DeMain

November 29, 2010
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

Music is always an integral part of the holidays, and some of it has already taken place. The Christmas Lights concerts by the Oakwood Chamber Players and the Holiday Pops Concerts in Middleton by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (which will also offer Handel’s “Messiah” later in the month) are chief among them.

But no doubt the single biggest event in Madison comes this weekend, when the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Madison Symphony Chorus (both below) will be joined by Metropolitan Opera soprano Angela Brown, making her Madison debut, for the annual Christmas Spectacular.

The concert, under the baton of unabashed Christmas fan John DeMain (below top), will include other local performers, specifically the Madison Youth Chorus and the Mt. Zion Gospel Choir (below bottom, in a photo by Bob Rashid).

Caroling in the lobby before the concert will also take place.

Classical composers such as J.S. Bach, Handel and Vaughan Williams will be featured, as will the world premiere of Madison composer Taras Nahirniak’s “Gloria in Excelsis” and popular Christmas songs and carols plus an audience sing-along.

Here is a link to find out more: Program Notes

Performances are in Overture Hall on Friday at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday at 8 p.m.; and Sunday at 2:30 p.m.

Tickets are $15-$75. Call the Overture Center box office at (608) 258-4141.

You can see Angela Brown in this CNN interview at the MSO website:

http://www.madisonsymphony.org/christmas

http://www.cnn.com/video/#/video/living/2009/12/04/wm.opera.brown.cnn

And at her home website:

http://www.angelambrown.com/

Recently, Angela Brown (below) returned from Europe and offered The Ear an upfront candid and humorous e-mail interview:

For you, what is the relationship between listening to and making music and celebrating the holidays?

Holiday music is such special music because it brings back memories – memories of family, childhood, school functions and also preparing for cantatas and holiday musical performances.  I love and enjoy singing the music of Christmas because it keeps me connected to family, friends, faith and special holiday traditions.

What is your favorite music for the holidays now? When you were young?

In my family, we always had the tradition of playing Lena Horne’s “Merry.”  And it is still being played in my home today at Christmas time.  We also loved the Vince Guaraldi “Charlie Brown” Christmas music, Christmas R and B music from The Temptations, and my newest favorite is “Christmas Fantasy” by Anita Baker.

My favorite Christmas pieces to perform are “O Holy Night” (see and listen below) and “Sweet Little Jesus Boy,” and two of my favorite Christmas standards are “Let It Snow” and “Winter Wonderland.”

You have a blossoming career. What are some of the operatic roles, Aida and others, and other projects (TV, radio) or concerts and opera appearances you will be doing in the future?

Well, I just finished a brand new, live recording of my show called “Opera … from a Sistah’s Point of View” (below). It will be available for download starting Wednesday at http://www.theweatherchannelmusic.com/.  In that show I try to demystify opera by singing some favorite arias from my repertoire and breaking down the plot and characters for my audience in a very real way.

I try to help them relate to the characters as real people because opera is about real people.  Yes, some of the plots are like Swiss cheese — you can see right through them — but the characters are everyday people from all walks of life and cultures.

I have upcoming performances with the Cincinnati Symphony, the Detroit Symphony and the Pittsburgh Symphony; Verdi Requiems with the Kalamazoo Symphony and the Buffalo Philharmonic. My next opera role is Aida (below) with Hamburg Opera. And I have been asked to sing for the televised production of “The Trumpet Awards.”

Have you worked with conductor John DeMain (below) before? Do you have anything to say about him, Madison or the Madison Symphony Orchestra?

Yes, I have worked with Maestro DeMain.  The first time I worked with him I was very intimidated because it was my first “Porgy and Bess” in the role of Serena, and he is the master of “Porgy and Bess” in my world.  I remember being very nervous and wanting to be correct.

During the rehearsal time of my first Serena, I became very emotionally involved in singing the aria “My man’s gone now.”  I looked down in the pit and saw Maestro DeMain rolling his eyes and he said to the orchestra, “Oh, Lord, she’s crying!” He was very patient and kind with me and he has shown me the ropes as far as singing that role.

Since then, I have worked with him in California and seen him on several occasions socially. We have always had a pleasant exchange. I no longer fear him, but I definitely respect his baton.  This is my debut with the Madison Symphony Orchestra and I hope to return many more times!

How do you think more young listeners, and especially non-white ethnic minorities, can be attracted to Western classical music and opera?

First of all, we should stop thinking of potential audiences as non-white or white or minorities or whatever and just think of them as people. Opera is about ALL peoples of the world — Asian, Spanish, American, African, Italian, etc. Be regular. Be real. Be engaging.

My show “Opera … from a Sistah’s Point of View” is my way of doing just that.  It demystifies opera for audiences that normally wouldn’t go — and that’s not just minority audiences.  There are a lot white folks that don’t like opera.  You have to make it so they can see themselves there.

Opera is what it is — originally a European art form — but the problem lies in how it is presented.  It can be made palatable to an audience that is not European and you can make it something more people will want to use their expendable dollars on.  It’s entertainment.  It’s not that deep. When people are intrigued by something, they will go.  It’s all in the marketing.

For example, the title of my show is intriguing – “Opera … from a Sistah’s Point of View” and gets you in the door. I just happen to be African-American and am exposed to something that usually has a monochromatic audience.  But then I tell the plots in a way that is palatable, tongue-in-cheek fun, but is STILL opera.  The subject matter and music are not watered down but I present it in the vernacular so that people can relate to it and want to attend.

Opera needs to be changed — and I’m not talking about changing music or plot — by changing its delivery to make it more appealing to the masses.

Was there a turning point in your youth or career – a specific piece or performer or teacher or recording – when you knew you wanted to be a professional opera singer?

It was after I was already studying opera and had won the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions.  When I finally made it to the finals — after the third try – I walked onto the stage floorboards, touched the curtain and I knew I wanted to be an opera singer.  I started taking it seriously because everyone else was taking me seriously.

What advice would you give young musicians who want to make music a career?

Never let anyone determine success for you.  Your success is not going to look like everyone else’s success.  Have a passion for your work regardless if you get paid.  Reality is that we want to be paid.  But, would you do this for free and work another job?  Above all else, believe in yourself.

Is there something else you would like to say?

Allow me to paraphrase something from the Bible: “Be happy and prosper. But above all, be happy.” No matter how well you sing, or can turn a phrase or a trill, if you are not happy, it doesn’t mean anything. While you’re trying to have a career, make sure you’re having a life. Be happy, be blessed. Happy Holidays!


Posted in Classical music

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