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A Season to be Thankful: In Conversation With Soprano Angel Blue

December 21, 2020

Years from now we will all try to remember what life was like before the pandemic started. In early March 2020, soprano Angel Blue was coming off a string of megawatt successes. Violetta in La traviata in London and Milan, a first Tosca in Aix-en-Provence, Mimì in La bohéme in New York, Dresden, Toronto, and Hamburg, and a stellar turn as Bess in the Metropolitan Opera’s season opener of Porgy and Bess, which was later nominated for a Grammy award.

Next up she was supposed to go to the country of Oman. Driving home to New Jersey after a gig in Philadelphia she was talking to her husband on the phone. “‘I don’t know if I’m going to go to Oman,’” I told him,” the singer recounted in a recent phone interview. “‘I might cancel. There’s this thing, it’s called the coronavirus.’ And he said, ‘Honey come home, you’re not going.’ And that’s what I did.”

The fast lane is great, but it can be harder to get over to an exit ramp. Blue described her busy pre-pandemic life in a recent New York Times lifestyle piece as similar to that of a Tasmanian devil, whereas now she describes her days as beginning with some meditation and time on the treadmill, easing into a relatively relaxed work-from-home schedule with healthy doses of social media and the occasional socially distanced outdoor party.

“I wanted to spend more time with my husband, my stepson, and my dogs, and the house,” she said. “We just moved to New Jersey a year ago. I wanted to have time with them but I didn’t know how to stop it. I think sometimes if we don’t know how to do something, it’ll be done for us. Hopefully after we come out of this, I’ll be more cognizant of the fact that I need to take breaks and that I need to be more present, that it’s OK to be still and not be running around.”

If it sounds as if Blue sees life through a spiritual lens, she does, and she comes by her spiritual bent honestly. Her father was the late gospel singer and pastor Sylvester Blue, and as children she and her four siblings often left their home in Apple Valley, California, and traveled with their parents to churches around the country where music played a leading role. Blue senior was a classically trained singer and his encouragement of his daughter’s gift continues even 14 years after his passing in 2006.

“I listen to my Dad sing a lot,” she said. “I have a lot of his recordings. He was such a beautiful man. He studied at Cleveland Conservatory — it was the Cleveland Institute when he was there — and then when he and my mother moved to California, he started taking voice lessons at USC. He always kept his voice classically trained. He could sing country, gospel, jazz, but he would always keep his classical training as his foundation and because of that he was able to move across different genres of music. He was a wonderful singer and truly ahead of his time. He passed away Dec. 31, 2006.”

Blue’s mother Sylvia is a longtime educator, and she and her daughter have teamed up to help teens from underserved communities continue their educations after high school with scholarships through the foundation Sylviaskids.org. This continues a family devotion to education begun with “Grandpa John,” Sylvia’s great-grandfather. John was a slave in Mississippi who is said to have taught reading and writing to other slaves in secret, after the day’s work was done.

Blue’s own education included attendance at the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts and studying piano at the University of Redlands, gaining financial support and performance experience by participating in beauty pageants, ultimately winning runner-up to Miss California. “What I learned from pageants,” Blue says, “is don’t compare yourself to other people.

“In pageantry there are all different kinds of women competing,” she explains. “Some tall, some short, some blond, some brunette, all of us from different walks of life all of us bringing our own unique experience in life. I don’t think I’ve learned even right now all of the time. I’m still learning how to apply it, but I do know that in pageantry I learned quickly not to look at other people and compare myself to them and contrast to them, but I learned to start to really be happy with me.”

Perhaps it is time to coin a new word, “Zoomagenic.” Whatever you call it, Blue is good on the small screen. Early on in the pandemic she began an online chat show, Faithful Fridays, which went through the spring, took a break, and started up again in September. Her enthusiastic conversations with artists and fellow singers are engaging, thoughtful, and well-produced with the help of her husband, who works in computers.

Blue, who has been a presenter for the BBC Proms and the Cardiff Singer of the World competitions, is at ease on screen. Asked if she has ambitions in broadcasting, she doesn’t rule it out. “I’ve said that I would love to be an anchor. At one point I thought about it. My minor in college, for the last two years before I got my bachelor’s degree, was journalism and I enjoyed it because I liked talking to people and hearing about their experiences, and my speech and communications courses were just wonderful. Actually, the man whom I studied with ended up marrying my husband and I, so that’s how close we are. I have a good relationship with him and he’s always encouraging me to try to move forward in that way. If the opportunity presented itself, I wouldn’t say no. I like to try things, and if it didn’t work out, I’d say well, at least I tried.”

For now, like most of us in general and singers in particular, Blue is at home with her husband, 9-year-old stepson, and their two rescue chihuahuas Ella and Cindy. “I have a lot of colleagues who are traveling and singing right now and my hat is off to them,” she said. “I appreciate what they’re doing. I’ve had jobs that have been canceled and I’ve had jobs that I’ve canceled just because I didn’t feel so comfortable traveling. What I understand about this is that I’m OK, and by ‘OK’ I mean in terms of my mental and emotional place, I’m OK. I recognize this time as a gift.”

Though not on the road per se, Blue has had performance opportunities during this time. She’s part of the lineup for the Met Opera’s big New Year’s Eve Gala, streaming live on Dec. 31, a New York tradition that, this year, is available to audiences everywhere. Performances earlier in 2020 included a concert from the Japanese Embassy in Washington, D.C., and singing Verdi for the Philadelphia Orchestra’s opening night. As Susan Graham discussed recently regarding Heggie’s Three Decembers, Blue is getting used to singing within Plexiglas:

I had a hard time listening to the orchestra. I rely very heavily on my ears, and I love conductors. I think their job is so wonderful and without them we wouldn’t have the form of the music. I couldn’t see the maestro when I was singing and that really stressed me out. It was horrible. At certain points I turned my body as if I was acting in that direction but I was really trying to see Maestro Yannick [Nézet Séguin.] I get so much from the conductor. I rely on them not just for the tempo or to be with the orchestra, I also get what they’re feeling from the music and that helps me. That was lost. Darn. Because I was in front of him.

But the whole feeling of the music was together and that surprised me, and that was a testament to all of us being professional musicians. But I wanted to see the oboe player, I wanted to hear the flute player because I’m doubled with the flute in that aria. Not being able to see the flute player, not being able to really hear the flute player, the best word I can think of is daunting.”

An alum of the LA Opera’s Young Artist Program, Blue is at an interesting phase vocally. Now in her mid-thirties, Violetta and Mimì have been important roles, and with a Tosca under her belt, her voice, which has been called “radiant,” “alluring,” “honeyed,” and like “plush velvet,” is maturing and developing. An Aida with Santa Fe was to have been her first, but has been canceled due to COVID, but another Egyptian Princess will take its place as her role debut in 2023, “God willing we all make it there,” she says, “at a very prominent opera house.” [Yet to be announced.]

Performing the heroically challenging D’amor sull’ali rosee from Il trovatore in Philadelphia solidified the singer’s sense that more Verdi is in store. She said, “I learned the role because I was supposed to be singing it at LA Opera. I always say something is right for me when it feels good, and it felt good. That aria and “Tacea la notte,” those two give me hope of singing more Verdi. The only Verdi I’ve sung is the Verdi Requiem and La traviata, and the hope I have is to continue in this Lirico spinto way of singing, and continue with things like Il trovatore, and Ernani. “Ernani involami” is another aria that makes me realize that this is my voice type.

“There are other things that are a little different, but that scare me a bit,” she adds. I like Mozart, but I find Mozart to be the most refined singing. I want to sing Mozart when I’m ready. I was singing “Dove sono” the other day and it’s fine and it sits very well in my voice, but even though I can sing it, there’s something about it and something about Le nozze di figaro (The marriage of Figaro) ... it’s not that it doesn’t feel good, but there’s something about it that requires a lot of refinement. For now, it’s more Verdi.”

Blue relies on her own judgment for what to sing when. She says there were some who advised her to wait on [the role of] Tosca, but she knew the time was right. And she is not above learning from her own mistakes. She said, “I like to listen to the beginning stages of rehearsals because of all the mistakes. For one, they make me laugh, if I’m having a rough day. The other day I listened to one of my first coachings of Tosca and I was just making mistake after mistake after mistake but it was funny to me. I put so much work into learning that role, I only had three coachings, I had one coaching per act and that was the only coaching I had on that role until we got into the rehearsal. It’s a good reminder that things don’t always go the way we want them to but the way they turn out is how they are supposed to and they’re supposed to teach us something.”

Understanding voice type requires various considerations. “Not all singers will feel this way,” she said, “but the amount of breath we use determines our projection. How I’m able to really support my sound is going to determine whether I’m a dramatic soprano or a lyric or a coloratura.” The conversation on breathing broadens to consider the issue of our collective concern about breathing in the age of COVID-19. “Maybe this is true with COVID as well, we can become so concerned with how to breathe that we forget that we do know how to breathe. You know how to do it, it’s a matter of being still enough to remember that you know how to do it.” 

Asked about what steps are or should be next on the issue of social justice in the opera world, Blue is circumspect. “I have been asked this question so much and I don’t know if I have the perfect or right answer for it. I always answer with the golden rule. I’m just an opera singer, I don’t do administration, I don’t know what it is to hire someone to be the head of marketing, or even with the orchestra. I don’t work in that capacity. I work in the capacity of singing, and what I feel is that if we would apply the golden rule to this whole thing — I’m going to treat this person coming in the way I want to be treated. This person is applying for a job and I remember when I was applying for a job I wanted this treatment so I want to treat them this way.

“In terms of racial justice and diversity, if we look at people the way we want to be looked at — that probably sounds like a Disneyland storybook answer, but it is true. I don’t want to get hired because I’m a Black female, ‘oh we need a to fill this quota, we need a black soprano, let’s hire Angel.’ No. I want someone to hire me because I’m good at what I do, because they saw me sing somewhere else, and they thought, ‘wow, that was a fabulous performance, we want her at my opera house.’ I want to be hired based on my talent, on my work. , I know not everybody feels that way and that’s OK, but I hope the companies will take into consideration the most important thing is that we are treating everybody across the board, regardless of their religious affiliation, their socioeconomic status, their race, their sexual preference, their gender, that they are treated well. The abuse of power within the opera companies, and without, has been coming to the surface and has been exposed, and hopefully that will just show us more and more that we need to be kind to each other, we need to treat other people the way we need to be treated. That would solve a lot of problems.”

In this time of uncertainty, for opera and elsewhere, Blue again finds comfort in family. “My grandmother died this March,” she said. “She was 95. She was full of wisdom and I talked to her quite a bit. Whenever I got upset, I always had older people I could talk to. I had my great-grandma, my grandmother, I had my dad until he passed away. And even now, the things he said to me, he planted a seed, and now the seed has been watered and watered.

“One of the things my grandmother and I talked about was seasons, and understanding that seasons come, they go, but they come to teach us something. Sometimes we stay in the same season for a very long time because we don’t learn what we’re supposed to in that season. And sometimes we think we’re out of the season but we’re not. Or sometimes seasons are very short. Anyway, I think this is a season, COVID-19. I don’t know what it is for everybody else, but for me it’s a season to be thankful.

“I mentioned that I go back and listen to my recordings because I record all of my rehearsals because that’s how I learn, but I’ve been able to listen to my recordings in this season and finally stop long enough to be thankful. I’m thankful for the travel too, but it’s hard to really process what happened going from one job. Last year, I was in Toronto, I was home for one week, then I went to LA, and in that one week I was in LA I sang for Stephen Schwartz’s honor concert, I gave a Sylvia’s Kids award, and I had no real time to stop and process what had happened in Toronto. I had made my debut with the Canadian Opera Company, my third or fourth year with Canadian Actor’s Equity, I didn’t have time to sit and really think.”

Blue is not a Pollyanna, but she says she tries to focus on positive things. “It’s not easy,” she says. “We can be as negative as we want to be, but I try to focus on wow, I’m really blessed, because COVID happened after Porgy and Bess, it happened after all the jobs that I really wanted to happen. Once I went home and realized I was really going to be there, I had to be grateful for the time. Of course, there are many factors I wish had been different, but my overall emotion has been gratitude.”

Lisa Houston is a feature contributor to Classical Singer magazine and San Francisco Classical Voice, and the founder of SingerSpirit.com, a website for singers.