Opera soprano Leona Mitchell, who has sung for major opera houses around the world, will take to the stage at NSU Museum of Art Fort Lauderdale as part of its Black History Month recognition activities.
On Feb. 20, Mitchell will come out of retirement for a one-night performance at 7:30 p.m. at the museum, One E. Las Olas Blvd. The following day, Friday, Feb. 21, she’s offering a master class at 10 a.m. The class is free for museum members and the Venetian Arts Society and $20 for the general public.
To put her stardom into perspective, she did for opera what Tina Turner did for R&B; she raised the bar, opened doors and won Grammys.
“She is an icon. Period,” said Venetian Arts Society President William Riddle. He first reached out to Mitchell, who has been in retirement for about 20 years. “She performs very rarely now.”
Riddle, a former opera singer himself, said that he’s always loved African American opera singers. “They have these amazing resonating chambers,” he said. “The most gorgeous sounds you can imagine.” Mitchell is among his favorite singers.
Recognized as one of the leading opera singers worldwide, Mitchell has performed for four US Presidents including Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, and international dignitaries such as Prince Charles and Bishop Desmond Tutu. While her career has had many milestones, it is marked with a distinguished 18-year run with the Metropolitan Opera House in New York.
“The reason Leona and the other black opera singers like Leontyne Price were so successful is because they sang roles that were typically sung by Caucasian singers,” Riddle said. He points out Mitchell’s leading roles in Puccini’s Madame Butterfly (1986), where she sang an aria ‘un bel di’ as part of a tribute to the 100th anniversary of the Statue of Liberty with the New York Philharmonic (the performance was televised on ABC Television) and the fact that she was acclaimed as the new “Aida,” a production recognized for its operatic difficultly, as examples of her ability to cross over boundaries placed on people of color. She also earned the role of Micaela in Bizet’s Carmen with the San Francisco Opera (1973) and again in 1975 with the Metropolitan Opera House.
African American singers weren’t highly recognized for singing opera. They were more often aligned with gospel and Negro spirituals than anything else. Opera originated in 16th Century Italy, and then moved throughout Europe into the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. Not only was it rare for blacks to sing opera, it was also difficult for blacks to gain exposure to opera performances since many of the theatres were segregated.
Though Mitchell paved the way for others, she was not the first African American opera singer. Marian Anderson, born in 1897, is celebrated as a leading opera singer of the 20th century. Leontyne Price, born in 1927, had a career similar to Mitchell’s and likewise broke racial barriers.
“Leona was the next generation of African American singers on the forefront of opera,” Riddle said. “She carried the torch.”
Born in Endid, Oka., on Oct. 13, 1949, Mitchell was raised by Rev. Hulon and Pearl Olive Leatherman Mitchell, alongside 14 boy siblings.
Trained as a church choir singer, the first time she attended an opera, she was performing in it. She recalled in a 1979 interview with People Magazine that she was “dragged” into the workshop production of The Story of Ruth.
Soon after, she stopped resisting and was awarded a full scholarship to attend Oklahoma University and she became the youngest person to snag an audition for the San Francisco Opera. Her appeal led her to Ernest St. Jack Metz, a singing coach and mentor who also trained Price.
By the age of 29, the small-town girl from Endid was performing on stages around the world for $4,000 a show.
Another noteworthy Black History Month activity at the museum is an exhibit entitled “The Movement: Bob Adelman: Civil Rights Era Photography,” which commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The exhibit will run through till May 17.