Some people seem destined for a career in music. There isn’t necessarily a plan, but a series of events flow together, and it just happens, almost seamlessly. Mezzo-soprano Taylor Raven is someone whose life’s journey led her onto the opera stage.
Born and raised in Fayetteville, North Carolina, Raven grew up in a family that was always singing in different styles, including R&B and gospel. Originally interested in studying the sciences, she eventually changed her mind and switched to music while attending the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill, and she went on to get her Master of Music at the University of Colorado Boulder. From there, she joined San Francisco’s Merola Opera Program in 2016, followed by several years in Los Angeles Opera’s Domingo-Colburn-Stein Young Artist Program. In 2018, she won first prize in the prestigious Loren L. Zachary National Vocal Competition and had her debut with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl as a soloist in Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy.
Now 32 and with many operatic roles (including several with San Francisco Opera) under her belt, Raven is returning to perform in SF Opera’s production of Omar, which runs Nov. 5–21. This 2023 Pulitzer Prize-winning opera features music by Rhiannon Giddens and Michael Abels and a libretto by Giddens. The work is based on a true story — the autobiography of an African Muslim man who was captured and brought to this country as a slave.
Raven and her husband Ryan, a jazz musician and trumpet teacher, recently bought a house in Fayetteville, where they live with their 15-month-old daughter; they often accompany her to performances. SF Classical Voice chatted with Raven recently about her career so far and what the future might bring for this very talented singer.
You were originally interested in studying the sciences and then switched to music. How did that come about?
I had a big interest in math specifically and went to college wanting to major in it and do something with it, either teaching or some type of research. I did it for a year, and I just felt like something was missing — the creative part of my brain — and in my gut, I felt like this was only one piece of the puzzle. So I did some seeking.
I have always loved to sing and loved music, but I hadn’t had any formal training in it, so I reached out to my advisor, and I said, “Is this possible?” And she said, “I will put you in touch with someone who can help you figure out if it is.” I sang for them, and they let me in the program at my school. I literally sang “Blackbird” by the Beatles. I had no clue what I was doing. They accepted me, and I worked with this wonderful woman, Louise Toppin, who taught me so much about art song and Black music specifically. I got a really lovely education there [at UNC], and I just kept wanting to go for it.
How and why did you get into opera?
I always struggle with this when I go back and try to think about it because it really feels like it found me.
I didn’t go in thinking I wanted to be an opera singer, but I knew I wanted to use my voice in some way, and this was the style they were teaching, and it resonated with me almost immediately. I was listening to singers, and I saw my first opera — I think it was The Magic Flute, and I was just in awe. It really romanced me right away. I just knew I was supposed to be a part of it.
Do you listen to other types of music besides classical and opera?
I love jazz. My husband is a jazz musician, so I get to hear it in the background a lot. I remember discovering and loving Sarah Vaughan in college and kind of getting obsessed with her and her voice and her artistry. I love pop music, too, but I mostly listen to music for work now.
Tell me about your role in Omar.
I’m playing Fatima, the mother of Omar. She has a really strong presence throughout the show, but she’s killed in the first scene. And then she appears as a spiritual figure for him, and she helps him and leads him in the right direction. So you see her throughout the show, but she is only there in spirit after Act 1. It’s a beautiful role and beautiful music.
What are your thoughts about the opera itself? How does it feel working on an opera about the history of Black people and slavery in America?
It’s always a beautiful thing to tell your story and your history, even if it isn’t always a pleasant thing. And a really interesting aspect of this show is that a lot of it is set in Fayetteville, which is where I’m from. My cousin is a historian, and he did a lot of research on my family, and he discovered quite a bit, and it’s a very similar trajectory to Omar’s path to Fayetteville. It’s kind of weird.
So it’s really interesting to actually sing the words “in Fayetteville” in this piece. And it’s such a full-circle moment with my family, knowing that [my ancestors and Omar] were enslaved 30 minutes apart from each other in a very similar story. But it made me feel like I’m supposed to be here, and I’m supposed to sing this role. It’s really wild. And it’s sad that I went to school and grew up there, and I never knew about Omar until I learned this opera.
Is it difficult having a family and a career?
It’s definitely difficult. I find that it’s harder for me on gigs where they’re not with me. I often leave and don’t take them with me, especially when I do concert work — it’s not long enough for them to have to [tag along] with me. But I find that it’s hard to not have your support system with you. I think that the hard thing about [being a performer] in general, whether you have kids or not, is that you spend a lot of time alone. And it’s difficult when you have a little kid at home who’s learning a new word every day and you’re not there. But I think my daughter and my husband have made me a better singer. They make me a better artist, and they give me these experiences in life that I can take to the stage and are meaningful for me.
Do you have any particular goals or aspirations for your career right now?
I think my ultimate goal is to make good art and to be true to myself. I would love to sing all over — leave no stone unturned — but the way I think about life and about my career is that if I am true to myself and if I do the work and I keep my head in the right place, then there’s no limit. So it’s hard to say any one concrete thing, but so far I am so grateful for everything that I’ve gotten to do and all the places I’ve gotten to sing and for all the opportunities that I have had.