Soprano Shana Blake Hill is the great granddaughter of Aaron McDuffie Moore, one of the founding fathers of Durham, North Carolina’s Hayti community. Hill has performed with the Los Angeles Opera, Cincinnati Opera, Philadelphia Symphony and North Carolina Symphony. Hill also recorded the title track for the blockbuster film The Sum of All Fears.
Hill feels that the African American community can easily connect to the opera. She said, “For African Americans there is an ease of expressing oneself through song that I believe comes from the church, the blues . . . from being vocal with one another in a fully actualized fully felt physical and emotional way that lends itself beautifully to the operatic art form. The struggle of the black community in this nation and the pressures that are put on black lives even today often causes overwhelming emotions. Opera allows a community to explore big emotions: anger, death, love, passion and complicated relationships. All of these sorts of things are worked out on the operatic stage. There is a reason that soap opera has opera in the title. It is because these things came first.”
Many members of the African American community may have stayed away from the opera because of a lack of sensitivity and diversity in the performances. It was just last month that the Metropolitan Opera, the largest performing arts company in the nation, finally gave in to public pressure and announced that it would no longer use blackface makeup for singers who play characters of African descent.
Still, there are many opera companies that already strive to remain relevant and do not put limits on their casting or programming. The North Carolina Opera features performances with diverse themes and artists. Last year it presented an opera about Muhammad Ali. Its upcoming production of Madama Butterfly will feature African American Soprano Talise Trevigne in the title role. Another significant part will be performed by African American Baritone Michael Sumuel. According to Eric Mitchko, North Carolina Opera’s General Director, “Opera is very much a vibrant living art form and the way to demonstrate that is by doing a broad range of pieces. Of course we try to do it at the highest possible level artistically. Opera is really about singing. What matters most is what someone sounds like and we just try to get the best singers that we can.”
Talise Trevigne has performed with the Opera Parallel in San Francisco, the Almedia Opera in London and the Washington National Opera. Trevigne is thrilled to perform Madama Butterfly and feels that it is a great opportunity to introduce people to the opera. She said, “I think that there is a fear of not understanding opera or it being inaccessible. When you can get someone to let down their guard and just be open to the experience, they often find that not only are they able to understand the plot but they really get into the story. The music is so moving. There is really nothing like live theater and live music. We are bombarded so much with instant social media and everything that we have forgotten the joy of actually being in theater. Madama Butterfly is a wonderful first opera. If you have never gone to the opera before this it would definitely be one that I would break into. It’s just a timeless classic. It’s one gorgeous line after the other. This is definitely a great first.”
Shana Blake Hill also feels that Madama Butterfly is an opera to which everyone can relate. She said, “Who hasn’t been profoundly misunderstood or left by a lover at some point in their lives? Who has not had to stand up for what they believe in despite everyone around them thinking that is a bad idea? Who hasn’t had a cultural clash where ones sensibilities are just not reading with somebody else? There is a reason why singing in church lifts everybody up. You’re affecting one another on a really profound level and so when you look at opera from that stand point when you look at the fact that so many things in our lives are derived from our response to music and in a dramatic way telling a story then you can (appreciate) how it connects to you and your life.”
Opera is an accumulation of several art forms. The elaborate sets and costumes, the powerful singing, the dramatic acting, the beautiful orchestral music and often dancing, all combine to make opera the most glorious of the arts. Today the opera has become even more accessible. Performances sung in foreign languages often have English supertitles. Audiences don’t have to wear floor length gowns or tuxedos. No one has to bring opera glasses. An opera can be inspiring and transformative. So if you haven’t experienced it yet, you definitely should go to the opera.
The North Carolina Opera will present Madama Butterfly on October 30, 2015 and November 1, 2015. For more information about the performance or preview discussions visit www.ncopera.org. If you want to attend Madama Butterfly with a group go to www.africanamericanarts.org.