FGO’s concert by Angela Brown and friends opens opera to new audiences

By Lawrence Budmen

Soprano Angela Brown (foreground) hosted a Florida Grand Opera concert Sunday afternoon at Historic Hampton House in Miami. Photo: N. Svorinich/FGO

Outreach and educational initiatives in the classical music world can be half-hearted, heavy-handed or frivolous. But “Opera…from a Sistah’s Point of View,” a program devised and hosted by soprano Angela Brown, proved both a winning primer for operatic newbies and an entertaining divertissement for veteran opera buffs. 

Presented by Florida Grand Opera Sunday afternoon at Historic Hampton House in the Brownsville section of Miami, the 75-minute concert offered an inviting sampling of excerpts from operatic classics, art songs by African-American composers and spirituals.  

Brown has been touring versions of this program for several seasons. Recent iterations have included younger artists, bringing musical variety to the proceedings. Three singers, including two from FGO’s artist studio program, joined Brown for the performance which was repeated on Sunday evening. Brown acted as a friendly guide through the world of classical song with commentary that was funny and engaging.

Attired in colorful garb, Brown opened the proceedings with a stirring traversal of “Dich, teure halle” from Wagner’s Tannhäuser. With high notes that rang like steel, a rich and burnished timbre and subtly varied dynamics, she turned Elizabeth’s welcome to the Hall of Song into a tour de force. (In a recent interview, Brown suggested that she would like to sing the title role of Puccini’s Turandot. Her thrilling high range suggested that she would be more than equal to that challenge.)

The trio “Soave sia il vento” from Mozart’s Così fan tutte introduced her three colleagues. Countertenor Key’mon Murrah sang Dorabella’s part (usually done by a mezzo) with soprano Amanda Sheriff as Fiordiligi and baritone Angel Refusé as Don Alfonso. Nicely balanced and appropriately serene, the threesome benefited from the supple underpinning of Jared Peroune’s electric keyboard. 

In recent FGO productions of Jake Heggie’s Three Decembers and Daron Hagen’s New York Stories, Sheriff has emerged as a standout. Playing the role of Susanna in two excerpts from Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, she confirmed that exceptional talent. With Brown as Countess Almaviva, “Sull’aria..che soave zeffiretto”(the Letter Duet) was an adroit blending of vocal colors, the women’s comedic interplay great fun. Sheriff’s “Deh vieni non tardar” enchanted with noble phrasing and multi-hued vocalism.

Countertenor Murrah’s stylish ornamentation, sweetness of timbre and plethora of emotion shone powerfully in “Che faro senza Euridice” from Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, a pitch-perfect musico-dramatic projection of Orfeo’s grief. Refusé seemed more bass-baritone than baritone in “Avant de quitter ces lieux” from Gounod’s Faust. Although he had the low and high extremes for the aria, Valentin’s plea wanted greater dynamic variety. Refusé tended to overemphasize force and volume.

Noting that several operatic roles have been created for her, Brown offered a well-gauged mix of operatic control and the pop inflected vernacular in “My Boy” from Charlie Parker’s Yardbird by Daniel Schnyder. Playing the role of the jazz great’s mother, which she created, Brown vividly generated the excitement of hearing him on the radio for the first time.

Turning to concert songs, Sheriff gave a strikingly dramatic rendition of “Love Let the Wind Cry…How I Adore Thee” by Undine Smith Moore. Set to the words of James Weldon Johnson, Leslie Adams’ “Since You Went Away” was a fine showcase for Murrah’s ability to spin the softest pianissimo. The declamatory tone of “I too” (to a text by Langston Hughes) from Dream Variations by Margaret Bonds was well suited to Refusé’s fervent manner.

Sheriff’s exquisite top register and elegant projection in “Come Down Angels” recalled Kathleeen Battle’s distinctive way with a spiritual. Refusé came into his own with a riveting “Lit’l Boy” (in an arrangement by Roland Hayes, the first major African-American concert singer). Murrah received cheers for his idiomatic “My Soul’s Been Anchored in the Lord.” In his introduction, Murrah noted that he first heard the song sung by Leontyne Price (who had dedicated it to Marian Anderson) on a PBS special from the White House. Calling the three singers “nothing short of phenomenal,” Brown joined them for a joyous version “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hand.”

Peroune was an outstanding accompanist, bringing stylistic insight and solidity to the diverse repertoire while offering strong support to the vocalists. A large audience awarded the artists a standing ovation. Hopefully some of the newcomers will go online and check out the huge, centuries-spanning universe that is opera and classical music.

Florida Grand Opera presents Leonard Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti and Thomas Psatieri’s Signor Deluso  8 p.m. March 20 and 3 p.m. March 21 at the Miami Theater Center in Miami Shores.  fgo.org

Posted in Performances

One Response to “FGO’s concert by Angela Brown and friends opens opera to new audiences”

  1. Posted Mar 02, 2021 at 8:50 am by Deborah Paris

    Outstanding program and performers. Angela was visibly proud of her protégés. The acoustics at the Historic Hampton House were surprisingly excellent and allowed us to fully enjoy the concert. Looking forward to the next program.

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Mon Mar 1, 2021
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