From ‘Aida’ to gospel: Angela Brown wants to dispel myths about opera
Soprano Angela Brown’s first opera role was as an Ethiopian slave in Giuseppe Verdi’s “Aida.” “I remember standing up there not wanting to learn those words because they were too hard,” she said of the Italian libretto. That initial opera experience was “way back in the day, before I even started to study,” Brown said in a phone interview.
Brown studied, and after her 2004 Metropolitan Opera debut in which she sang the title role of “Aida,” a New York Times Reviewer wrote, “At last, an Aida.” Today, Brown will perform the role in North Carolina Opera’s production of “Aida” in UNC’s Memorial Hall.
Brown also has performed spirituals and gospel as well as opera. Her first love musically was neither opera, nor gospel. “I grew up on R&B, because that’s what my mother was into,” Brown said. Her mother at one time wanted to sing professionally, and music was always around the house. Her mom encouraged her to perform in musical theater in her high school and community theater groups in Indianapolis. That theatrical background helped her in opera, “because it encompassed everything I had done, adding the classical technique,” Brown said.
She has also performed roles in Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess,” Puccini’s “Tosca” and Strauss’ “Aridane auf Naxos.” On the album “Mosaic,” she arranged and sang spirituals with piano and guitar. She plans to record another album of gospel, which she said will “probably be more in the traditional vein, with a couple of twists.”
Brown is determined that opera not intimidate people, and to bring opera to new audiences, she created the program “Opera … from a Sistah’s Point of View.” When she tours and is in a place for some time, she will perform a concert in which she discusses different roles, condenses the plot of operas, and sings music from them. She takes a shorter version of the program into schools, which also includes a question-and-answer session with students.
She was inspired to start “Opera ... from a Sistah’s Point of View” when she looked out in the audience and saw “few people out there looked like me,” she said. “At first, I thought it was a black thing, but it’s a taste thing. A lot of the audiences are older,” and “Sistah” is an attempt to get a younger audience to give opera a chance.
“It’s a show that demystifies opera for audiences who wouldn’t ordinarily go,” she said. Opera “is not rocket science, it’s entertainment,” and she wants to dispel the notion that it is only for the elite.
“Aida” offers many entry points for those not familiar with it or any opera, Brown said. “When you break down the plot synopsis of ‘Aida,’ it’s a love triangle set in the background of two warring nations,” she said. “You have everything that makes up a good story. … That’s a full plate.”
Set in ancient Egypt, “Aida,” first performed in 1872, is about the love triangle of Aida, an Ethiopian princess and slave in Egypt, Rhadames (sung by Issachah Savage), and Amneris (sung by Leann Sandel-Pantaleo). Rhadames secretly loves Aida, but Amneris, the princess of Egypt, also has designs for him. When the king (sung by Donald Hartmann) says that Ethiopia will invade Egypt, he chooses Rhadames to lead his troops against the invaders. When Rhadames delivers the victory, the king gives him Amneris’ hand in marriage.
Aida’s father Amonasro (sung by Todd Thomas), leader of the Ethiopians, is captured, but the king sets him and Aida free. Amonasro sets out to use his daughter’s love for Rhadames to learn the Egyptians’ secret battle plans. Rhadames is charged with treason, and ends up finally with his true love.
Traditional productions of “Aida” include soldiers and elephants, who appear in the Grand March when Rhadames is triumphant. The audience at N.C. Opera’s production will hear the complete opera, with some staging, but the triumphal march will not have elephants, and the ballet is dispensed with, Brown said.
The aria “O Patria Mia” has “the hardest [high] C in opera,” but, having performed Aida many times, the role and that note have become second nature to her, Brown said. “I’m trying to make her real without trying to make her a caricature of what we think opera singers are. … She’s still a challenge to me.”
Go and Do
WHAT: North Carolina Opera Company’s semi-staged performance of “Aida” by Giuseppe Verdi
WHEN: May 3, 8 p.m.
WHERE: Memorial Hall, UNC Chapel Hill
ADMISSION: For tickets, visit ncopera.com or Ticketmaster.com
ALSO: The company also will perform “Aida” at 3 p.m. Sunday, May 5 in the Duke Energy Center, Raleigh.