A Celebration of Black Artists in Opera and Song at HGO

Nicole Heaston
Nicole Heaston Photo by Lynn Lane

This Friday, Houston Grand Opera will present a special digital concert: Giving Voice 2021: A Celebration of Black Artists in Opera and Song whose co-hosts are the acclaimed tenor Lawrence Brownlee and Houston- favorite, soprano Nicole Heaston.

The idea's was Brownlee's, Heaston said, and the international star rounded up herself and other African American singers who will be performing a range of songs in concert from opera to Broadway to gospel. It follows a sold-out, in-person concert Brownlee put together in January 2020 (pre-COVID) along the same lines that attracted a diverse audience.

"A lot of the time people don't feel like opera is for everyone. They feel like it is for a certain, select few. Especially in the Black community  a lot of them don't even recognize that there are a lot of African Americans that sing classical music," said Heaston.

"Last year we did very good outreach in getting the African American community to come in and they thoroughly enjoyed it. Houston Grand Opera did a great job of after the performance everyone could stay and they got a chance to meet the artists. And there were students in the audience. There were older younger, black, white Asia, everyone was there."

"We wanted to recreate that again," Heaston said. "It's a concert for everyone."

The difference, of course, is that rather than performing before a live audience, the singers involved were recorded while singing on the Cullum stage of the Wortham Center, divided into separate zones to keep the chance of spread down and contact tracing easier if someone did eventually test positive.

After being involved in now her third recorded online performance for Houston Grand Opera, Heaston said she has gotten accustomed to it, although it took a little bit of a learning curve.

"As a singer you feel that audience there with you and you can see them. And you feel that energy that comes off of them and it pumps you up to give more. So you actually have to tap into that on your own now when you are doing it for a recording. You also don't get that instant gratification of understanding that people enjoyed what you just performed. But I actually like the aesthetic. I really want to get back into being in the theater and singing among colleagues and having an orchestra around me and a conductor and people. I miss it very very much.

"I really feel that once COVID is gone and we're able to go back into the theater with an audience, I still think tat this will be a viable way to actually branch out classical music to the masses digitally."

"This year I'll be doing "Un bel di, vedremo" From Puccini's Madame Butterfly," Heason said. She'll also sing Donizatti's "Caro elisir! sei mio!" from L'elisir d'amore with Brownlee, the song "Breathe" (built out of the movement of Black Lives Matter after the death of George Floyd) and joining the full ensemble at the end for "This Little Light of Mine."

Other performers include baritone Donnie Ray Albert, tenor Frederick Ballentine, baritone Blake Denson, bass Cory McGee, soprano Raven McMillon, bass-baritone Nicholas Newton, mezzo-soprano Zoie Reams, soprano Karen Slack and pianist Kevin J. Miller.

The Giving Voice program is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Friday, January 22 and is available on demand thorugh February 21 on Marquee TV.
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