Twelve years after Angela Brown’s legendary debut as Aida at the Metropolitan Opera in New York catapulted her career into the stratosphere, the Indianapolis native returns to the Palladium this month to sing a mix of spirituals, pop songs, and arias. Don’t believe opera is your thing? Ms. Brown begs to differ.
She got her start like Aretha—singing in the church choir. Brown always assumed she would have a career in gospel or musical theater. She sang at her church, had musical roles on stage at Crispus Attucks High School, and majored in music at Oakwood University in Alabama.
An all-time great gave her a wake-up call. As a grad student at the IU Jacobs School of Music, she got a “kick in the butt” from famed soprano Virginia Zeani. Zeani recognized a remarkable gift in her star student, but Brown didn’t have the same confidence in her own operatic skills. Zeani challenged her to put fear aside and get to work being the next great Verdi soprano.
The Gray Lady made her famous. A storied performance as Aida at the Metropolitan Opera led to a glowing, page-one profile in The New York Times. “My mom told me to keep a diary of that experience, and I should’ve listened to her. Now I know what people mean when they talk about dizzying, heady times,” she says. “Yes, things definitely changed after that.”
There’s more to being an exceptional Aida than hitting the high notes. The role of Aida is notoriously difficult, because it requires a range very few opera singers, even the great ones, possess. “You have to have high, shimmering pianissimos [high notes hit softly], a velvety middle voice, and that gutsy lower register,” says Brown. “Not everybody’s built to do it, but the Lord blessed me to be able to.”
What happens when a novice tries it? “It’s like having a Jheri curl that’s just not curled around tightly. It’s got some ends sticking out,” she says, with a laugh. “So, yes, you can do it. But should ya?”
Also, should ya make Maya Angelou cry? Brown traveled to Angelou’s North Carolina home in 2006 for a private performance of “A Woman’s Life,” a song cycle marrying the poet’s words to music by composer Richard Danielpour, created specifically for Brown’s voice. Both composer and singer were anxious to get Angelou’s verdict before the show opened. When Brown finished, Angelou shed happy tears, saying, “You have gotten butter from a duck, because I never show emotion in public.”
But can she get the next generation to love opera, too? Brown designed a program she calls Opera … from a Sistah’s Point of View, which she takes to schools and areas with little or no access to the operatic arts. In a presentation that’s equal parts gab session and history lesson, Brown uses humor and 21st-century lingo to break down opera themes and stories. “I’m trying to change people’s perceptions that opera is this stiff, stuffy thing that only the elite or very rich can enjoy,” she says.
She’s performed all over the world, but her favorite venue is close to home. “I know I’m biased, but Hilbert Circle Theatre is one of my favorites,” says Brown. “It feels intimate on that stage. You’re close enough to the audience to feel them, but it’s vast enough for everybody to enjoy. I like venues that aren’t so massive you feel like a speck on the world.”