A Story to Tell

Angel Blue was only 4 years old when she saw a concert production of Turndot. It was not even a fully staged production, but Blue knew she wanted to sing. Music seemed to be in the family, because according to her website, “her father was an accomplished gospel singer and her mother played piano and violin.” And as she grew older Blue funded her important musical training while at UCLA by participating in beauty pageants, collecting the Miss Hollywood crown and becoming the first African-American to hold the title of Miss Apple Valley, as well as being named runner-up Miss California and Miss Nevada amongst other titles.

More recently, Blue has co-headed the Metropolitan Opera’s season-operating Porgy and Bess and the production was so successful that additional performances were added to the season, which is unprecedented in the history of the Met.

This past summer Blue will be singing in the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Tanglewood season production of Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915. In the fall, Blue is scheduled to perform as Lenora in II Trovatore in the LA opera season. And as Mimi in three different productions of La Bohème. In this interview Blue talks about her many roles she has performed in opera and her hopes for the future.

G.M. Burns: You have sang in many demanding roles, such as Violetta (La Traviata), and Liu (Turandot), to Dido (Dido and Aeneas), and Donna Elvira (Don Giovanni), and in each of these roles they all seem to need different singing abilities for the given character. Which role was hardest for you to reach for and achieve in singing?
Angel Blue: Oh wow. I think possibly Mimi In La Bohème - that was probably the hardest for me to achieve because I started to sing that I stated to sing the arias when I was about 22. The music is beautiful and everything, but to sing it well in the style that it is written which is a very beautiful nessum kind of style was difficult for me. I finally achieved singing Mimi in 2014. So for the last six years Mimi has been my bread and butter and I am very thankful for that -- it was very difficult to sing in my career.

Talk about your signature portrayal of Mimì, in three different productions of La Bohème with San Diego Opera, Metropolitan Opera, and at the Washington National Opera. And what makes this role so rich for you to perform?
I think the most exciting thing for me as far as the opera is concerned is the story. A lot of times we think of music as the first thing that comes, but once the music comes because of what is already written - the text comes before the music.

And one thing I relate to is Mimi’s character - I like her as a person, I like her as another woman, I appreciate how she handles herself, and how she handles the adversity that she faces with being sick, and how she handles her relationship with Rodolfo. I appreciate her and respect her and how she gets on with that, and I suppose why I keep singing this role is because she has become one of my good friends. Actually, if she were a real person - she and I would be really close as people.

n the New York Times, it’s mentioned that you are working on two new Verdi roles in your home in New Jersey -- Lenora in Il Trovatore and the title character in Aida. Do you enjoy performing a certain character on stage?
Not particularly. I like to be challenged. I do like to be challenged and I think probably the most vocally challenging is Lenora in Il Trovatore She does not say much in the first half of the opera, but in Act IV, basically her whole scene is Act IV. And to me, I have never had a role, I mean she does sing, but it’s nothing as dramatic as when she gets to Act IV.
And so for me I like the idea of being present and being on stage, and being dramatic in those moments of course, but I like acting - so it’s fun to be on stage when I am not singing but to be on stage and present and in the scene is great. And then in Act IV to be able to come forward and showcase the actual talent that we are there for which is singing - that is very exciting for me.

Aida is someone I stayed away from just I mean because her character, she is black and I’ve had people ask me to sing Aida I don’t even know since I was 18 when I got my first offer. I was actually offered the role -- the entire role when I was 26, and I thought that was just ludicrous, so I didn’t do it.
But now when I look at Aida – I actually find that her and I have things in common as far as how we think. So in studying these roles, right now during this horrific and very uncertain time has actually been really a blessing to me to really take my time to really learn not just the character but also the music.

Which three operatic performances have you attended that moved you for the musical ability and story? What was it about the performances that still stays with you?
1. My very first opera was Turndot and it wasn’t actually a fully staged production, it was a concert version. But I remember so vivid in my memory. I was four years old and when I saw it I just remember how loud it was. It was so loud I was over come – I can’t remember what order my emotions were, but I just remember it was so alive. And I felt everything that was coming from the stage. And of course four years old from California and I didn’t speak any Italian at the time, but what was happening on stage was so magnetic and so visceral that it made me feel something at four years old. And that is the reason I sing opera today because of that performance. I just remember I had all of these range of emotions and that’s what was interesting, because of the three moments I can think of the most if I am talking about opera - every single time I’ve been really moved by the stage and what is happening on stage has all been from the opera Turndot.
So the first time was when I was around four years old.

2. The second time happened actually in 2018, when I was in the opera Turndot, and I was singing my very first Liu. Len dies in Act III, and after her death I went around the backstage area and I went to the very front of the curtain area – if the stage manager will let me I usually hang out there to watch the rest of the opera if I am not in it. So I was watching the rest of the opera and Act III was sung by Carl Tanner who was playing Calaf, and then I think Anita wostrum was Turndot. And so I was watching them sing – there third act duet was just so stunningly beautiful on some many levels – the lighting, the customs, and how emotional engaged each of them were not just in each other but also in the music, because they come to together as a couple in the end. And that final chorus that sort of reprise of nessum dorma [aria] just made my whole musical experience.
It took me to another level. I don’t know why it did specifically, but it was the spirit of that scene that captured my spirit and took me to another worldly place.

3. The third one is also in the same opera. And it just happened recently in October of 2019. I hosted the Met Live in HD of the opera Turndot. And because I was hosting it I wanted to see it. I have seen Turndot many times in my life – I don’t know how many times I have seen it, but I haven’t seen this particular production which is by Zarzuela - it’s an iconic production - I have seen it - bits and pieces on YouTube, but I’ve never actually seen in the theater. And this is the first time I saw it in the opera house.

And I went to the Met with a college friend of mine and we were sitting in the box seats - the very first two seats, because we had the best view of the stage, and going from Act II, going from the scene of Ping, Pang, and Pong into the palace scene was truly the most grandiose opera experience I have ever had in my entire life.

And the scene and magnitude of the production and seeing how it was a very minimalist setting into this grand opera and I have never seen that before. So to see that was just wild for me and I started crying. And I started sharing and I started crying and every single emotion I could have at that moment of joy came out. It was probably insane for the people sitting in the box behind me, but it was a really beautiful moment in opera.
I actually hope the Met keeps the production a little bit longer so more people can see it – it’s really beautiful.

What is one key element that people of the world should know about black contributions to the world of opera and classical music?
First of all thank you for the question. I think many people now a days, which is really great, we’re in such a different place. My Dad was a classical sphere. My Dad mad his living being a pastor – that’s how he made his livelihood, but he was a trained singer. And when my dad was singing my mom used to say to my dad, I remember her saying, “Sylvester, you were born before your time.” It’s just my dad was born in a time that was just so much popular or accepted for a black man to be considered an opera singer or a classical singer. And of course there was a Brian Epstein, Paul Robinson and also William Warfield, who had lovely premiers.

One thing is often we spend so much time talking about the African or African-American person in opera that we forget how far we come.
So the contributions that black people have made to the opera world, and I’m going to speak specifically to the opera world because that’s really were I am and I know in classical music there are violists and pianist, but I am going to stay in my field which is opera because that’s what I know.

In that respect, it’s nothing to go to the opera house and see like at the Met, because that was where I had my last job at the Metropolitan Opera, if you go to the Metropolitan Opera you will see diversity. You will see a black Mimi. I played Mimi in 2017. You will see a black Juliet. You will see a black Lugia. You’ll see a black heroic tenor. And I think Eric Owens has made a stunning career at the Metropolitan Opera and all over the world. He’s a great bass player who so many people have seen on stage.

There are many black people who contribute to the world of opera today, that we did not see twenty years ago or thirty or forty years ago. And so today the contributions that are being made it’s just a different story. I think are told not because of the artists that we see on stage, but because of how people view that, if that makes sense.

You can be presented for example Porgy and Bess, you can be presented with an all black cast on Catfish Row, presenting Porgy and Bess, but ultimately it is the viewers’ perceptions of what they see on stage. They are the ones who really truly create the story for themselves. Because the contribution is not just having black singers, but a friend of mine is Mexican American – Aliyn Perez, Letice Lopeza is Cuban American, seeing, I would say non-white singers on stage portray these characters who have been portrayed over the last 200 years as only white – this brings a different prospective to the story. But what I love about it is the story it self is still the same and that it really shows the human condition. And that is we all experience the same thing – no matter no matter what your color, no matter what your religion, no matter what your sexual preference, we all still experience the same thing as people. And I think that is probably the biggest contribution to seeing a minority person in a position of a leading role at the opera.

Talk about what you are you reading now? And are you reading any other authors currently?
Actually it’s so funny you said that I just picked up a book, it’s a read. I just started it today, a book called the Reset Plan and it’s by Janet Ferrigno. It’s a weight loss book and a book about sort of revamping your life. And I read it two years ago about keeping one’s mindset and body healthy. And a [different] book that I just finished in the last, you mean any literature, it doesn’t have to be opera.


Ok great, there is a great book by John Meacham and I just finished it on March 14th, but I brought it a year ago, and it’s called The Soul of America: the Battle for our Better Angels. The Pulitzer Prize, John Meacham.
I brought the book because I had a long flight and was in the airport, and I thought to myself how am I suppose to get through this flight? So I brought it to read, so I started to read it and after the first chapter I fell a sleep. So it took me a while to get through it, but it’s a great book. And before that I read the Power of Positive Thinking by Dr. Norman Vincent Peel.

What are your hopes for the future of Angel Blue?
I have a couple. To be honest I hope this Covid-19 goes away. I hope there is a cure or a vaccine. You know everyone is talking “Are we going to go back to normal? Are we not going back to normal?”

I sang with the Philadelphia Orchestra in the beginning of March and there were two people in the audience with masks on, and it terrified me to look out into the audience and just see them with the masks. And I hope we don’t have to be in that way and able to go back to singing and having public performances like that and being able to see the audiences face.
Because that is such a huge part of what I do to see the audience to how they are reacting to what we are doing on stage. I hope this is over soon and I am able to go back to sing.

By the way, I just started a talk show on my Facebook page, my YouTube page called “Thankful Fridays” – I would like to see that flourish. I would like to interview more people. And become more relaxed in interviewing people and have people come onto the show – all kinds of people – not just singing. But my biggest hope is to make the best kind of life I can for myself and for those around me, and hopefully impact in a positive way those I people who I come into contact and just by myself, and encourage them in what ever there journey is as well. I want to see other people happy and if I can be apart of that happiness for them then I hope to do that.

by G.M. Burns