The Soprano: Angela Brown’s Rise to Stardom
Editor’s Note: This article appeared in the October 2004 issue.
For an American singer, taking a principal role at New York’s Metropolitan Opera is like landing a lead on Broadway, getting called up to the Majors, or being appointed to a Cabinet-level government post. For sopranos, who sing opera’s highest vocal parts and typically win the most adulation, it means certifiable diva-hood. And with her scheduled Met debut this month in the title role of the Giuseppe Verdi opera Aida, Angela Brown, the soprano from Indianapolis, stands on the threshold of operatic stardom.
Since leaving Indiana University in 1997, Brown has risen through the ranks of professional opera, winning competitions and starring in regional houses around the country. She’s covered roles behind international celebrities and is currently studying a part that will be premiered by the legendary Jessye Norman. “Angela has everything it takes to be a world-famous soprano,” says Ewa Podles, a renowned contralto and former costar. And Brown agrees. She’s poised to be the next great Aida, to go before a Met audience—one of the world’s most demanding—and command the spotlight. As far as she’s concerned, getting here was just a matter of time. “A career of the magnitude mine is going to be can snowball and make you crazy,” she says. “But I’ve had what they call a slow burn.”
For Brown, being a star won’t take much getting used to because she has, in a sense, always been one. She is striking, flamboyant, larger-than-life. Chunky gold earrings dangle against her satiny complexion, and when she pulls off her designer sunglasses, her eyes dazzle—wide-set, the broad black pupils and uncannily pale irises framed by dramatic eyeshadow and high, sharp eyebrows. She describes herself as “a healthy girl, a voluptuous lady, a chubby chick,” and adds, “I’ve always been cute, child. I’ve always been cute.” She carries herself with the verve of those who are gorgeous and know it. When she was a girl, her mother, Freddie Mae, who ran a beauty parlor in the basement of their inner-city Indianapolis home, insisted Brown comport herself properly. “Honey, you’ll always have a little weight on you,” Brown’s mother told her. “But you will have grace when you walk into a room.”
Today, Brown is in Detroit to workshop a new opera, Margaret Garner, with the Michigan Opera Theatre, and as she walks to rehearsal she explains how, before she left New York, “fine brother” from her church approached her for a date. She told him he’d have to wait because she was going on the road. “This life,” she says with a sigh, “is a lonely life.” As she walks, another man crosses her path, craning his neck to keep his eyes fixed on Brown as he passes. “Hi,” he says. “Hello,” she replies in a voice that sounds like song even when she’s not singing.
It’s the voice that has always brought Brown the most attention. She started singing at age 5 in the Baptist churches where her grandfather preached, and her rich, precocious voice made her a natural gospel singer, full of soul and Holy Spirit. People’s reaction was, Goodness, she’s going to be big, she says. When she got to Crispus Attucks High School in the late 1970s, she enrolled in choir and sang in musicals, and soon she was the toast of the school. “She was the top star,” says retired choir director Robert Fleck. When they needed a soloist, they wanted Angela.
But Brown’s father, Walter Clyde Brown, a practical man who worked at the Chrysler foundry, encouraged her to learn a fallback trade, so after high school she worked as a dietary assistant at Methodist Hospital. During her stint there, her younger brother, Aaron, contracted bacterial meningitis, was admitted to the hospital, and died. Brown, realizing she could never separate the job from the memories of her brother’s last days, subsequently left.
She found that the Baptist faith of her upbringing didn’t fill the void left by her brother’s death. Eventually, she ended up in a Seventh-Day Adventist study group, and before long had found a new church. She also discovered Oakwood College in Alabama, a Seventh-Day Adventist school with a strong voice program—which, she assumed, would help turn her into the gospel star she knew she could be.
At Oakwood, Brown studied under Ginger Beazley, a proper Southern lady and firm, if subtle, motivator. “It was clear that this was a major instrument,” Beazley says of Brown’s voice. “But when you hear a voice like that, you wonder what that individual is going to do. Because a great instrument doesn’t make a career. It’s what a person decides to do with it.” Brown quickly stood out among her classmates, not only for her big voice, but for her outsized personality. Beazley, she says, taught her to let out her inner diva and always dress to the nines, even in rehearsals. “Miss Beazley could dress her behind off,” says Brown. “And that hair—honey, her hair was always teased.”
Beazley also taught her pupil that serious voice-training meant building a foundation in classical music—studying its history, mechanics, and languages. Brown plowed through the classical study, though her heart still lay with gospel. By her sophomore year, however, it was clear that not only could she sing opera—she had a rare gift. Her upper register was high and melodic, and she commanded it with equal lightness or fullness. Her lower register was deep and mellow. “I told her it was really a classical voice,” says Beazley. “That was a struggle for her, because if she’d stayed with gospel, immediate fame would have awaited her.”
“No doubt I could’ve made it big as a gospel singer,” says Brown. “But I decided that God gave me this gift for a purpose.”
After Oakwood, Brown went to IU, where Beazley introduced her to her own former instructor, Virginia Zeani, who had been an internationally acclaimed soprano and a classically exotic diva, with raven-haired Elizabeth Taylor beauty. When she learned of Brown’s reservations about opera, she threw down the gauntlet. “Darling, if you want to be the next Aretha Franklin, go ahead—you need no more lessons,” she told Brown in her thick European accent. “But if you want to be the greatest Verdian voice this world has ever heard, you must work!” Which is what Brown did, fully aware that a woman with her voice type—variously called a spinto or Verdi soprano because its texture and emotive qualities suit it to that composer’s dramatic operas—usually can’t expect her voice to mature until she is in her mid-to-late 30s.
Of course, a voice like Brown’s, even when not mature, will be noticed, and in 1997 she got a break, winning the Met’s National Council Auditions, which increased her exposure and put her in position to make the Met’s roster of up-and-coming understudies. In 2001, she returned home to the Indianapolis Opera to make her debut in the role of roles for a Verdi soprano: Aida, the enslaved Ethiopian princess who falls for an Egyptian warrior. The part features one of the most famous arias in opera, “O Patria Mia.” It’s sometimes said that in opera, people pay to hear the high notes, and “O Patria Mia” has a doozy, a high C feared by sopranos the world over. “It’s a very soft approach, which is a killer,” Beazley says. “Then it crescendos. That’s everything that can be hard about a note. Lots of people can hit a high C in full voice. But to do it softly at the end of an aria, when you’re ready for a mental and physical break—that separates the girls from the women.”
When Brown sang “O Patria Mia” in her Indianapolis debut, she brought the house down. Men in the audience stood and wildly shouted Brava!. The director, Michael Sylvester, who holds the distinction of playing Radames, one of the principals in Aida, at the Met more than any other tenor of the 1990s, says Brown’s was one of the top two or three Aida performances he’s ever seen. “A lot of people around New York had their ears to the floor to hear how it went for her,” says Sylvester. “She had an awful lot riding on it, and she stood up and sang a beautiful performance.”
For Brown, Aida is a fitting role on which to build a career. In the 1950s and early ’60s, when de facto segregation still kept many blacks out of opera, white audiences were comfortable seeing black women playing the part of an African princess. Leontyne Price, a pioneering African-American singer who would become one of the greatest sopranos of the 20th century, and whom Brown acknowledges as her most important role model, achieved her highest fame in the part. It’s not uncommon now to hear Brown’s name mentioned in the same breath. “Angela has a voice like hers—generous, beautiful, colorful,” says Zeani. “For a long time, there wasn’t a more perfect Aida than Leontyne Price. Now, I think Angela is the one who can substitute her.”
But for all Brown’s near-flawless performances, she’ll have to deliver many more of them to attain the heights that Price did. And at the Met, a mere handful of bad outings can send you back to obscurity. But perhaps the biggest challenge will be for Brown to remain gracious in stardom. Diehard opera fans, the ones who post Web sites dedicated to their favorite sopranos and cry when they sing, ask more of their divas than a divine voice. They expect pizzazz, attitude, ego. But although they may tolerate occasional willfulness—and even mythologize it in diva legend—they frown upon excess. “A diva can he a person with incredibly beautiful qualities, who exposes them with simplicity and joy,” says Zeani. “But a diva can also be something extremely negative, a person with great success but horrible character, who has to show everybody how important she is.” Navigating a course between those extremes is a balancing act that Brown is working to master even as her voice matures.
“You’ve got to believe you’re good,” says Sylvester. “But too much ego can create ill will among colleagues. My own teacher told me that sometimes stage directors and conductors want you to do things you don’t agree with. In that case, you just nod your head and say, ‘Yes, maestro’—then do what you want. That’s sort of what Angie did with me in the Indianapolis Aida. She has a good strong ego, which will serve her well in some respects. In other respects, it’s something she’s going to have to conquer.”
There is another side to Brown, though. When she learns that I am a vegetarian like she is, she pulls me back to her hotel room, where she reveals several Tupperware containers filled with veggie food she brought from home. She warms up a plateful in the microwave, and after noticing it is quickly scraped clean, asks, “Did you get enough to eat, honey?”
“She has a core of humanity that she has not allowed to be touched,” says Beazley. And Brown, her immense talent notwithstanding, is betting that being herself will put her over the top. “There’s nothing put on about me but my hair, eyelashes, makeup, and nails,” she says. “All that stuff can go, but I’m still Angela.” After the spotlights and flowers, the bravas! and rave reviews, it maybe this Angela, the one who sing
s in church and microwaves leftovers for strangers, who earns her audiences’ undying love. And the only thing that will surprise her about the success is that it will come from opera. “It’s a dream come true,” she says. “Just not a dream I knew I had.”