Houston Grand Opera’s Giving Voice concert last January was a triumphant celebration of Black voices in opera. Now Houstonians can give a standing ovation—albeit from their living rooms—for its sequel, which is available to stream through February 21.
This year’s concert features several of the most renowned African American opera singers in the country, including tenor Larry Brownlee and soprano Nicole Heaston as co-hosts and performers. Joining them are baritone Donnie Ray Albert, tenor Frederick Ballentine, mezzo-soprano and HGO Studio alumna Zoie Reams, and soprano Karen Slack, as well as four current HGO Studio artists: baritone Blake Denson, bass Cory McGee, soprano Raven McMillon, and bass-baritone Nicholas Newton. Kevin J. Miller, assistant conductor with HGO, accompanies them on piano.
We spoke with Heaston about the concert, the growing number of African American opera singers, the ways in which Covid-19 affected the filming of the Giving Voice concert, and Heaston’s own response to the pandemic.
How did you get involved with the Giving Voice project?
Larry Brownlee realized that he and two other African American tenors, who were performing for Houston Grand Opera this year, would be in town at the same time. He came to me and said, “I’m thinking of taking this project to Patrick Summers [HGO’s artistic and music director] and having us all do a concert when we’re all there.” It happened I would be in town too. All of these people are my friends, but very rarely do I get to be on stage with them.
Before Covid took over, I was in The Marriage of Figaro in San Francisco where Michael Sumuel was Figaro, Jeanine De Bique was Susanna, and I was Countess Almaviva. We were all African Americans. There was a big brouhaha about it, like Oh, wow, this happened. It does happen but still rarely. Giving Voice is a chance to perform with my friends which I jumped at.
What are some of the songs that will be performed in the Giving Voice concert?
They run the gamut. Larry and I will be doing a duet from The Elixir of Love. Larry and Frederick Ballentine will do the iconic Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand duet, “Get Happy/Happy Days Are Here Again.”
I”ll also be doing “Un bel dì” from Madame Butterfly—that’s new for me. And I’ll be performing “Breathe” by Adrienne Danrich and Drew Hemenger, a contemporary, solemn response to the George Floyd killing.
That must have been very emotional.
The day that we were recording, we only did one take of it. When I finished, I had tears in my eyes because I was visualizing what I had seen that day [with George Floyd], but I thought, I’m all right. So I went back on stage and the artistic staff came over and said, “Are you okay?” Immediately tears started falling down my face. I said, “I can get myself together and we can do it again if we need to,” but they said, “No, we got it. We’re good.”
I know the whole Black Lives Matter can be a lightning-rod situation, but for me, this song just tells Adrienne’s truth and what she felt about the situation. Just like Bob Dylan wrote songs that came out of the turmoil in our country. There are songs that capture a moment, that really sound the truth of a situation, and this is, for me, one of those songs.
Anything in particular that you think our audience should especially look forward to seeing in the concert?
I think the most special thing is having Donnie Ray Albert there. Of all of the people in the show, he’s the one who has the most history with Houston Grand Opera. I believe it was 1974 or 1975 when he started with them and he did Treemonisha.
I sang in Falstaff with Donnie Ray last year, and I was blown away by his voice. Some people, well, once you get older, the voice slips. No, no. Not with Donnie Ray Albert.
My favorite moment is when Donnie Ray, who was the most iconic Porgy of the last 50, 60 years, sings “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin'” with three of the members of the Opera Studio, transferring his legacy of singing Porgy to them. I watched that while they were filming, and it was really wonderful to see.
It’s something to see someone from that generation alongside the phenomenal young talents of Houston Grand Opera Studio together, it’s so special. I think you get the whole gamut of African American opera talents that are performing right now with this concert.
How did Covid-19 impact the way you rehearsed and then filmed Giving Voice?
We all took Covid tests before we started. We wore masks except for filming. We had plastic partitions between us in rehearsal. Once we got on stage to start filming, we couldn’t go into the audience section of the hall. The artistic staff was in the audience, and there was a limit as to who could come on stage. There were lots of safeguards.
How has Covid-19 impacted you as an individual?
Covid has impacted my career in that all the plans I had disappeared within a heartbeat. Something told me not to be dark about it. I’m blessed to have a husband who’s been able to keep working. So many of my colleagues are saying, where’s my next meal coming from? And I haven’t had that burden.
I’d been working on Thaïs for a year; I was going to do that in Utah. And all the time and money that I spent working on that, gone. I may never get another chance to do Thaïs, because it’s so rarely produced.
But Houston Grand Opera took me into their bosom and gave me work, gave me purpose. I was in Vinkensport a few months ago, which was totally out of my wheelhouse because I’m not a big contemporary person.
Even before that, Covid gave me permission to be just me. I’ve always been just me, but this is me being me completely artistically. I started something called "The Purple Robe Song Series," which turned into this huge thing. I just said, I’m gonna sing a different song every day and I’m just gonna put on my purple bathrobe because I’m too lazy to get dressed because we’re in Covid.
I was just doing it for my own sanity. I ended up doing over 112 songs over the course of the year, and it was recognized by BroadwayWorld for Vocal Recital Streaming, topping out Renée Fleming, Joyce DiDonato.
One of the days was me singing “Lift Every Voice and Sing” with as many Black opera singers as I could find. I called my friends, who called their friends, and within two weeks we made this video that’s been seen half a million times on YouTube.
Some songs were very serious, and some were just silly, but it was just me making lemonade out of all these lemons that Covid gave us. And it was great.
I’m tired of making lemonade now, and I want to go back to real work.
Through February 21. Free. Online. For more information, visit houstongrandopera.org.