Hi! Guest mod Shira here. Since opera is the closest thing I have to a fandom these days, I wanted to make some posts spotlighting some of my favorite Black opera singers. It is my hope that reading about these exceptionally talented artists and watching these short video clips will help expand white people’s idea of what kinds of professions and interests you can give your Black characters.
Post #1 will focus on Sir Willard White and Jessye Norman, and I hope to do at least one more post in the future.
Sir Willard White was born in Jamaica and now lives in Britain. He’s a bass-baritone, which means his voice is deep and low. He’s played traditionally Black roles like Porgy from Porgy and Bess but also plenty of other important characters, like the Norse god Odin, the evil sorcerer Klingsor, the Little Mermaid’s father in the Czech opera Rusalka, and King Mark of Cornwall.
He brings intense drama to his roles, in addition to his outstanding voice.
Here he is playing Odin (or “Wotan”, since the opera’s in German) at the end of Die Walküre, bidding farewell to his favorite daughter since as punishment she is about to be made mortal and sent into an enchanted sleep, protected by Loki’s fire and woken to the kiss of whatever man is brave enough to cross it. (Please excuse the “glass eye” instead of Odin’s eyepatch. I prefer a more traditional costuming but sometimes people get creative.)
And now, switching gears, the magnificent Jessye Norman!
She’s a soprano, which means her voice is in the higher range, and she’s been one of my favorite singers since I was a little girl. She’s from Augusta, Georgia and is close to her roots – recently, she helped create a free afterschool performing arts program for poor kids back home.
The role of hers I keep going back to and watching is Sieglinde, one of the tragic twins from Die Walküre (see video above for some incredible love duets), but she’s played dozens of heavy, dramatic roles up and down the opera charts including the Greek mythological figure Ariadne, the cursed immortal Kundry, and the fiercely independent Rroma smuggler Carmen.
What really impresses me about her, besides the intensity and precision of her voice, is how she can change the mood of her singing on a dime. I have a recording of her singing Schubert’s art-song “The Erl-King”, in which the singer has to portray the narrator, a distraught father, his dying child, and the erl-king (coaxing the child to come with him into the beyond.) With her one voice she manages to portray all four characters so well that even though my German is pathetic I can always understand who’s supposed to be speaking.
….and, look, I found video of her singing it! Check this out. TW for death of a child, if you speak German.