Plunged in the deep waters of a serious opera career, Angela Brown is ready for the challenge. "It happened when it needed to...it's God's time; any earlier I wouldn't be prepared." After her pivotal substitution as Aida for the Metropolitan this fall, more companies and directors are taking notice. She now takes on the role of Cilla in Richard Danielpour's Margaret Garner, premiering at the Michigan Opera Theater this May. Brown admits the increase in attention has been an adjustment, but her full schedule is old hat. "I have always been a very busy singer," says Brown, "I've been concentrating on covering [roles] a lot, but now I get to really do it!"
Brown began singing in her grandfather's Baptist church, moving onto musical theater and winning local awards with her only aria, Handel's "He shall feed his flock". When she first started Oakwood College, she had dreams of becoming a gospel singer or a singing evangelist. She became torn when, at the age of 21, she began learning the basics of music, becoming interested in classical singing. She found a hero in Leontyne Price, both women coming out of the church and focusing on the dramatic soprano roles of Verdi. Brown focused much of her work at Oakwood, and later at Indiana University, on studying Price, writing papers and poems on the soprano, even singing a concert modeled on Price's career.
But what has sustained Brown from her days at Oakwood and IU to her Metropolitan debut? "Passion!" she says, "I have never thought of doing anything else... if I can make a living off music, I'm going to keep doing it!" Brown has had an entrepreneurial sense with her singing since college, performing for prospective students in a recruitment group called "Positive Images." At IU the Dean of Music, Charles Webb, discovered her at a cattle call audition singing, "Vissi d'arte". She was invited to perform on a series of concerts and recitals with other members of the IU faculty, traveling throughout Indiana, California, and Africa. "The concerts were fun and free. I felt comfortable... I was able to throw in a new aria just to get a chance to perform it." Once out of school, she made opportunities for herself, starting by coaching the IU Soul Review. "I'm a business!" says Brown, "I love giving people joy from singing... it's a labor of love."
Brown now takes her "business" to the major houses of the United States, performing the big Verdi soprano roles as well as Tosca, Ariadne, and Morgana. Her current work on Margaret Garner, however, has been a considerably unique experience. The libretto, written by Toni Morrison, explores the story of Margaret Garner, a slave on a Kentucky plantation, who flees to Cincinnati for freedom. At the brink of her recapture, Garner kills her young daughter rather than see her child return to slavery.
Brown joins Denyce Graves and frequent colleague, Gregg Baker, in the role of Cilla, the mother of Margaret Garner. "This is one role I have worked with the conductor, composer and librettist," says Brown. "It's an opportunity to get it right the first time." Brown finds an affinity with the core requirements of the role. "[Cilla] is a strong black woman, spiritual, with a love of family and the Lord."
Yet Brown is insistent that the characters are portrayed in a non-stereotypical way. "It is more than slavery; it is about family, about the human right to have and raise a family, about love." She also trusts all mammyisms are gone from her portrayal of Cilla. "I want to be natural, to draw the audience into [the character], not just look at her... there must be purity and integrity because this is a true story."
Ms. Brown performs in the world premiere of Margaret Garner at the Michigan Opera Theatre Saturday, May 7 at 8:00 PM. Cincinnati Opera and the Opera Company of Philadelphia will also be hosting regional premieres of Margaret Garner. For a full listing of dates or to purchase tickets click here.