She’s outspoken, outrageous, and has an outsized talent. She is Latonia Moore, an African American soprano who makes her Los Angeles Opera debut in the title role of Aida. Onstage at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion for six performances, May 21 – June 12, this production, first seen in 2016 at San Francisco Opera, is directed by Francesca Zambello and conducted by LAO music director’s, James Conlon.
While the Texas-born singer made a virtual debut with LAO in an online Living Room Recital in 2020, seeing her in the flesh promises to be something special, as Moore has probably racked up more performances of Verdi’s grandest opera than anyone, with last count somewhere between 150 and 160 times.
Now owning the role, the 43-year-old downhome diva counts hard work, good teachers, and a little bit of luck as part of her success. Indeed, when Moore stepped in for an ailing Violeta Urmana in 2012 at the Metropolitan Opera to tackle the titular role of the Ethiopian princess, The New York Times’s Anthony Tommasini wrote that “her voice was radiant, plush, and sizable at its best, with gleaming top notes that broke through the chorus and orchestra during the crowd scenes.”
Since then, Moore has sung Aida at major opera houses around the globe, including at the Royal Opera Covent Garden, Teatro Colón, and at Opernhaus Zürich. But Moore’s musical journey began in her home town of Houston, where her grandfather was a preacher and her grandmother played the piano; at age 4 she sang gospel with her sisters, a cousin, and aunt in a group dubbed the Moore Singers.
After high school, Moore attended the University of North Texas, majoring in jazz. But, having found her true calling in opera, she moved east to attend Philadelphia’s Academy of Vocal Arts. In 1999, the musician made her debut at the Palm Beach Opera — albeit offstage, singing the Celestial Voice in Don Carlo — with competitions soon following, including snagging top honors at the Metropolitan Opera’s National Council Auditions in 2000 and scoring first prize in the International Competiziona dell’ Opera in Dresden in 2002.
In a phone conversation, Moore took a deep dive into Aida; how performing at the Met in the new Terence Blanchard opera, Fire Shut Up in My Bones, changed her; and the power of perseverance.
You haven’t done an Aida since before the pandemic. How does it feel to be coming back to the opera, and what are your thoughts on the character of Aida?
It has been a minute, but it snaps right back, just because I sang it so many times. When I jumped in to a new production in Hamburg in 2010, I was asked if I could learn it in a week. I said, “I don’t think I can sing it.” But there’s one thing about me — I basically was teaching myself to sight read. I’m excellent and I have perfect pitch. I learn music extremely quickly, which is why I was able to jump in to Aida in a week.
After that, I did it at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden in 2011. I only did it two or three times, but I had already sung there as Liù in Turandot, in 2009, and it was a hit. Then I was a cover for Aida at the Met. That’s how I got my Met debut and after that, the gigs started pouring in. It was on the radio, too, and I got to 100 very quickly. So many people heard it. I went to Sydney, Tokyo, Dubai, Warsaw.
As far as the character of Aida herself, I can’t say I relate to her in any way. She’s royalty, first of all; I am not. She was held in captivity; I was not. She had to hide who she is — not me. She’s in love with someone she shouldn’t be — maybe that. But I love humanizing a character like Aida. I’m an over-the-top personality and I love getting to play this regal character that has to hide being regal.
The most fascinating part is I get to do all the subtle things [Aidas] don’t always do. Sometimes they’re a bit static. They decided they’re this royal princess, no matter what, when you’re supposed to be hiding. You shouldn’t be going out and showing off. I get it. It’s a bitch to sing. It really is, and people want to put themselves in this higher mode. It makes it easier [because] your presence alone helps prepare you vocally, but that’s not what you’re supposed to be doing. You’re supposed to be humble. My favorite thing is showing the two sides — seeing the transition from when you first see Aida and when you see her for what she really is.
What about the vocal challenges?
As far as singing it, the great challenge is the Nile scene, and they ain’t lyin’ — that’s 100 percent correct. What’s so tough about it from a technical standpoint is how long you have to sing. It’s the passaggio [the transition area between vocal registers]. The higher break in the female voice — from flipping to middle to high — you sit there for so long. When I think of any other Verdi character that I have to perform, it’s the Nile scene that sits in the cracks — for any soprano. It could be a coloratura, it just doesn’t matter.
However, once you’ve conquered the fear of sitting there — by this point I have — it’s some of the most ethereal music you’ll ever hear. It’s so good, so gorgeous. Verdi captures this East African sound, this Northeast African sound. I wasn’t sure when it would be right for me and I felt l came into my own in 2016, four years after my Met debut, then my voice finally settled into Aida.
How do you account for the continued popularity of Aida and its relevance today?
How is it relevant today? Russia versus Ukraine. Period. Why it’s still popular is that people love grand opera no matter what and they love opera about war and warriors and heroes. They love it. They also love a star-crossed lovers story — they’re suckers for it. People look at it as a black and white aspect. Audiences eat that shit up.
As an audience member, I eat it up. Tristan and Isolde. Romeo and Juliet. For those reasons — war and conflict — and as far as the music is concerned, there’s also a ballet in the middle of it. But the music is so highly charged, so grand. It’s the reason why people love to hear the Verdi Requiem — the horns and the grandeur of it all. But some people see it for superficial reasons — to be cultured and go to Aida, because it’s the thing to do.
You’re a regular presence at the Met these days. In 2019, you sang Serena in Porgy and Bess, and after the pandemic, in September of last year, you took on the role of Billie, the mother, in Fire Shut Up in My Bones. Composed by Terence Blanchard, the opera is based on a 2014 memoir by New York Times columnist Charles Blow, and this was the first time a work by a Black composer was presented in the Met’s 138-year history. What was that like for you?
One reason I decided to do this opera was because of the story alone. Billie raised five children, just like my mom. She worked in a chicken factory and her husband was always stepping out on her. It was so close to home, and these were actual events [that] I had to be a part of it, not to mention the history of it, the first Black composer.
Since jazz was your first love — and you’re the mother of two young children, a son and a daughter — the opera must have resonated deeply for you.
I came up in jazz in and when I was 15, Terence Blanchard came to our school and met all of the people in my class. The fact that he was an opera composer at all, this was meant to be. This is why I was a jazz singer and now, there’s an opera in jazz. It’s such an honor, such a pleasure. I haven’t ever worked on any piece of music that has affected me so deeply and changed me as a person.
One thing about the mother is that she had a hard time because she didn’t show affection. There are no terms of endearment in Black families. It’s like being a pussy; you shouldn’t be that way. That’s how my mother was. I found myself doing that to my own children. At one point in the opera [Billie’s son] says, “Please, I want you to kiss me, hug me, squeeze me,” and she says, “Get away, go eat child, give me some peace. Leave me alone. I’m tired.”
When I saw that in the score, it started to change me. Since the first day, whenever I come home from work and I’m tired, I’m getting emotional, and my kids want to come over to me and want some affection, I stop everything and give it to them. It’s a privilege to be a mother — a privilege to have people love you unconditionally and you shouldn’t take them for granted.
Given that the power of art truly has no limits, what advice do you have for aspiring young opera singers?
When I made my Met debut, I was homeless; I didn’t have anywhere to live and was sleeping on [tenor] Michael Fabiano’s couch. I didn’t have any work coming in and my only gig was a cover. I had nothing; my bank accounts were drained and I could have easily said ‘that’s the end, I’m going to quit and get a regular job.’ I did not say that. I didn’t care that I was sleeping on somebody’s couch. I didn’t care I only had one gig, because there’s nothing else I’d rather do.
I would tell [students] you need to do this regardless whether you’re famous or homeless. Do everything you can towards being that. If you can’t, at least support it, and that’s what I aim to do.
Some people, because of the uncertainty in this art form, they decide, “I’m going to go to culinary school, I’m going to do engineering.” The problem is this: With anything in life, if you keep your eye on the mark, you’re going to make your mark. Twenty-six years ago, I was at the Grammy awards. I was 17 and was in a Grammy choir. There were 16 students and we did a jazz CD and performed with Santana. I believed that one day I would win and every recording that came out, I hoped it would be nominated. The Ordering of Moses, by [Robert] Nathaniel Dett, Macbeth, there were a few things out there [that I sang on] and I kept thinking it would happen.
Porgy and Bess got nominated and won. I got my Grammy 25 years later. Maybe it took a quarter century, but I always believed that and I would never give up hope. I swear to God, I never gave up. I got my Grammy, it came. If that’s not a testament to perseverance, is there a better example of it? I was waiting for so long for something. Well, maybe I wasn’t waiting, maybe I was just expecting it would come, knowing that the day was going to roll up on me. Believe with unwavering faith and you’ll make your mark.