During the 1950s, I was a Catholic grade-school kid growing up in a blue-collar neighborhood in Fort Wayne, Indiana. There wasn’t much emphasis on the arts in my school, so my exposure came primarily through television. The only time I saw opera was when a singer guest starred on The Ed Sullivan Show, which my parents watched religiously, except for whenever an opera singer performed. No sooner would the singer open his or her mouth, my dad, who preferred country music or Mexican rancheras, would immediately switch the channel to a Western or a detective program because he considered opera too high-brow for his taste and certainly not very entertaining.
It wasn’t until college when I majored in theatre that I saw my first full-length opera, but my love affair with the art form did not really take hold until I was in my late 30s when I began reviewing music, theatre and dance productions. Since then, I have seen many operas in the repertoire, starring some of its biggest names, including Kathleen Battle, Andrea Bocelli, Plácido Domingo, Renée Fleming, Luciano Pavarotti and many more. Though I have a passion for all the performing arts, opera has always affected me emotionally in ways the others don’t. It often fills me with rapture.
Given that I came late to the appreciation of opera, I always felt regret that I hadn’t really discovered it earlier. Recently, I had the pleasure of sitting next to soprano Angela Brown, Indy’s own opera star, at dinner at the recent Indianapolis Opera Ball. At the time, she told me she was presenting her signature educational program, Opera…From a Sistah’s Point of View, the following week at an IPS elementary school. I eagerly asked if I could attend and she happily obliged. Considering my introduction to opera came so late, I was intrigued by how Brown would be received and what the students’ overall response would be. I wondered if Brown, who is commanding both on and off stage, would be able to transfer that same charisma to a room full of kids and have the same appeal she has had with audiences all over the world over the course of her stellar career.
And what a career it has been. A multi-genre one, it has been heralded on the front page of The New York Times, CNN, CBS, and in Oprah Magazine and Reader’s Digest. With classical and pops engagements spanning six continents, Brown, a graduate of Crispus Attucks High School, has performed on the leading opera and symphonic stages of the world. Her vocal artistry is featured on the two-time Grammy Award®-winning recording “Ask Your Mama,” an interpretation of Langston Hughes’s epic poem by composer Laura Karpman that also features The Roots.
According to a news release about her program, Brown said while traveling the world as an international opera star she noticed something about audiences. “I would see very few people who looked like me,” she said, adding, “On the surface, it looked like a racial divide, but when I performed at schools and universities across the country, I realized the gap was bigger than race. This compelled me to create Opera…From a Sistah’s Point of View that dispels the myths surrounding the sometimes-intimidating art form called opera.” The interactive school visit was made possible by a grant awarded by Create Indy to Angela’s new nonprofit Morning Brown, Inc. Indianapolis Opera has also partnered with Morning Brown, Inc., to build awareness and community alliances for opera throughout Indiana.
The live and live-streamed event was held Friday at 10:00 a.m. at George S. Buck School #94, located on the city’s far Eastside, in front of an audience of 200 predominantly African-American students, grades three through six, along with teachers and staff. During the 45-minute program, which included a Q&A session, Brown engaged the kids with her vivacious personality and easy sense of humor by using simple language to describe what opera is and then demonstrating it with famous arias that she sang in her spectacular voice. They included “Dich, teure Halle” from “Tannhäuser” by Richard Wagner, “O mio babbino caro” from “Gianni Schicchi” by Giacomo Puccini, “Vissi d’arte” from “Tosca” also by Puccini and “Summertime” from “Porgy and Bess” by George Gershwin. She also sang “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” arranged by Margaret Bonds. Brown was accompanied on piano by Kelleen Strutz. Along the way, she also explained terms such as “aria,” “bravo” and “bravissimo” and told the students there are operas from all over the world, including Africa and they are sung in languages such as English, Italian and German.
During the Q&A, students asked Brown such questions as “Why did you decide to sing opera?” “Where did you go to school?” “Do you like to travel?” Some were interested in her fashion asking, “Where did you buy your glasses?” and “Where did you get that cape?”
As I watched from a side bleacher high above the auditorium/gym, my eyes were drawn to the students as they watched and listened to Brown. Though there was some fidgeting, which was to be expected, most of the students were in rapt attention throughout the program. There were also several who seemed to be thoroughly transfixed. I wondered who among them might one day make their Metropolitan Opera debut like Brown did in 2004 when she wowed audiences in “Aida.” Conveyed by the larger-than-life Brown with affection, sincerity and pure love, I believe her program may well have a life-changing, inspirational impact on these students who might one day seek to reach the heights she has. Recalling how impressionable I was at that age, I would definitely not be surprised. That’s how effective and powerful it was.