Dallas — For Angel Blue, the acclaimed soprano, singing at the Dallas Opera’s Titus Art Song Recital Series is a homecoming of sorts. “My Dad was a pastor and he preached all over the South,” she explained over the phone from New York, where she is headlining a new Metropolitan Opera production of Porgy and Bess. “We actually lived in Dallas when I was younger, but never as a singer.”
After training at UCLA and exploding on the opera world with starring roles in great works like Tosca, La traviata and La bohème, she will finally return to one of her hometowns to show off the full range of her skills. Her recital at 2 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 26 at the Moody Performance Hall will feature familiar works of the art song repertoire with a few personal surprises as well. In this interview, she speaks about the differences between recital and opera singing, about inhabiting a character on stage and about the complexity of playing several roles within the same work.
TheaterJones: In reference to the Titus Art Song Series, I always like to start by asking “What is an Art Song?”
Angel Blue: I guess the simplest definition is a song that is meant to be performed in a recital setting. For the most part, it is written with just a piano accompanying, although there have been some that have been set for orchestra. I think of it as poetry that has been set to music.
You have programmed a wide range of musical styles for Sunday’s rectal. Is there a common theme among them?
I picked songs that I love and that I think say something about me as a person. I have around 30 to 50 sings that I have worked in and out of recitals, but I’ve been trying to pick a few that I perform most frequently that reflect how I am feeling right now. I start with Mozart’s “Allelulia” as a celebration of where my life is now. Then I have a long section of German pieces, which is very personal. The Strauss especially reminds of my life. One of his songs, “The Fright,” is about the passing away of one’s significant other and the message that they leave to the one left behind. I lost my Dad recently, and he left me and my sisters with my mother. And in the Strauss, there is a part that says, “I’ve left our children with you. I’ve left my joy with you.” That feels so important to me.
Next, I will sing a block of Russian songs. My voice teacher is Russian, and he has been my biggest supporter since my father passed. These songs are a tribute to him and are songs that I love to sing.
I’ve included some songs from Spanish zarzuela, which I love and which I won prize for. I was mentored by Plácido Domingo, and if you don’t take advantage of learning Spanish music from the maestro then you are missing an opportunity. I think I had an advantage with the Spanish music since I learned a lot of Spanish in school and I lived in Spain for over a year.
The Spirituals that I programmed are strictly family. I’m singing “Deep River” and “Ride On, King Jesus.” Both of those were songs that I always heard my grandmother sing. Her name was My Dear, but my dad and everyone always called her “Madea.” The funny thing is I never knew the words to “Deep River” because she would hum the verses while she was cleaning or cooking. So, the spirituals come from Madea and my Dad and the records of Mahalia Jackson and Marian Anderson that he left me.
Looking at your remarkable career you have performed in so many of the classic operas. But I notice that on several occasions you played different roles in different productions of the same opera.
It’s fun. I always hear singers say they have performed a part over 400 times or something like that. But there has to be more than just money that brings you back to sing a part. There has to be something about the role. I love that I have the opportunity to sing both roles in an opera [like Musetta and Mimi in La bohème] because it means you really know the opera. But it is a challenge. You have to concentrate to remember which role you are playing. I just posted a video where I was playing Mimi and I totally spaced out. My cue comes and I’m looking at the person who is performing Musetta like she’s supposed to be singing. I enjoy it but it can be confusing.
There’s no question that playing more than one role enhances your understanding of each part. So much of opera is being able to see not only what the character is singing but how she fits into the drama. Playing another part and watching [another character that you also sing] lets you see more about that character.
Are there certain types of roles that you feel the most affinity for?
I think the part my personality is best suited to is Tosca. I played her for the first time this summer in France. When I was reviewing the role with my voice coach I ran through the notes and the music, but it wasn’t until I worked with the director that Tosca really came alive to me. She is a person who acts on her impulses, and I’ve done that so many times in my life. We have so much in common — our temperaments, our naivete. We’ve both had these expectations of how things are going to work out and been disappointed. If there’s a difference, Tosca becomes kind of a mess when things fall apart. I’ve learned to step back and accept things better.
I think as I’ve grown up, I see roles like Bess as reflecting my personality a little more. I have learned what I want to be dealing with. As I’ve been playing her, I’ve had a lot of discussions about why she makes the decisions that she has made. I understand her, although they’re not things I would do.
One of the great things about opera is that there are so many strong women characters. Most of them are headstrong and determined. They’re real people so you see the good, the bad, the ugly in all these roles. When I’m singing a role, I’ve learned not to judge the character, to be friendly to her. I try to portray each woman with the respect that the role deserves. That’s how you get the theatrical aspect of an opera. When that’s missed, the opera feels flat.
But in a recital and in Art Song you are not really playing a role. Is there a special challenge to just singing as yourself?
Singing a recital actually frees me of the challenge of pretending. I’m finally just myself up there singing.
Going back to my college days (I’m actually wearing my UCLA sweatshirt as we are speaking) I remember how recitals were so serious. You had to reach these different criteria and you had to be so rigid. Now, I am just singing to show who I am and having some fun with my favorite songs. In this recital, I start out with the serious music, but then after the break, it’s just me. It’s music that I like. And there will be some surprises, at the suggestion of my eight-year-old stepson and my husband, which I haven’t shared with people yet.
Some people expect a recital to be a presentation by a serious person, but I’m not a serious person. I’m 90 percent not serious. If people come to the recital expecting to see someone just standing and singing, with no applause or movement or anything, they might be disappointed. When you come to this recital, you’re going to just see me having fun.