Harolyn Blackwell: coming full circle

Harolyn Blackwell: coming full circle – Back singer moved from Broadway musicals to opera

Melba Newsome

Fifteen years ago, Harolyn Blackwell made her biggest career decision solely on impulse. The Broadway revival of West Side Story, in which the soprano had performed, had just ended its touring run. Blackwell — then in her mid-20s and no longer ideally suited for the ingenue roles that best matched her crystalline voice — found new work on the stage hard to come by. When asked what she would do next, she heard herself answer, “Opera.” She recalls that she then “looked around, saying, `Where did that come from?’ I had never even thought about opera, because just standing there singing wasn’t my thing. But once I said it, I figured, Why not?”

Who could argue with Blackwell’s inner voice — or her outer one? Lauded by the New York Times as “the voice of the decade,” Blackwell is now celebrated for her vibrant, stirring performances and is in full swing on opera, concert and recital stages around the world. Her 1996 season began with a concert series at Carnegie Hall with Andre Previn and was followed by two months in Amsterdam as Gilda in Verdi’s Rigoletto.

Then she was showcased in her hometown. Washington, D.C., with a center stage opening of the Kennedy Center’s 25th anniversary gala. Complementing the Kennedy Center appearance were recent Memorial Day and Fourth of July concert performances broadcast from the nation’s capital. These three engagements especially pleased Blackwell, who says, “One of the best things is that my work brings me home a lot.”

Despite her high visibility in the world of opera, she remains largely unknown in popular music circles. True, the mainstream press was banging down her door not long ago, after she stepped in on short notice to replace Kathleen Battle for the entire run of La Fille du Regiment at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, but she understood that their real interest lay in getting the scoop on the well-publicized firing of Battle, one of opera’s biggest stars.

Blackwell understood, but she eschews gossip and speculation about her contemporaries. Rather than focus on who is or isn’t a diva or a prima donna, she prefers to focus on the doors that they have helped open for minorities in the fine arts. “It’s because of singers like Battle, Price and Norman,” she says, “that my road is a little easier.”

That road, which has taken Blackwell around the world, has led to ever higher achievements. In addition to her Washington, D.C., performances, she has appeared in a number of national telecasts, including the Metropolitan’s Un Ballo in Maschera and the Grammy Awards; she has been showcased on the Public Broadcasting Service and the Arts & Entertainment channel; she has performed with national and international opera companies; and she has been conducted by such luminaries as Erich Kunzel, James Levine and Kurt Masur.

“It’s funny,” Blackwell says of her many Metropolitan performances. “I’ve sung on some of the most famous stages in the world, but to most Americans, you haven’t arrived until you’ve done the Met.” By those standards, she arrived a long time ago. As a finalist in the Metropolitan Opera’s National Auditions, her operatic debut was on the stage many view as the Holy Grail, the reward that lies at the end of an arduous and committed journey.

That audition followed her West Side Story run and then a year’s absence from stage auditions and cattle call — a year in which she apprenticed and excelled at the Chicago Lyric Opera. “It fit so naturally,” she explains of the then new foray into opera, “it was as if I’d put on a pair of old shoes.”

Opera may be a perfect fit for Blackwell, but classical music receives mixed signals from the black community. Many consider opera an oddity, calling it “white folks’ music.” This is a notion that Blackwell finds particularly absurd. “Music has no race, color or ethnicity,” she insists. “It’s universal. Whatever moves you, moves you.”

And staying real is still an option. “If you do something because it’s hot now,” says Blackwell, “when nobody wants to hear it, what then? That’s why you have to do what you love.”

In her case, “real” can also mean popular music, as is evident on A Simple Song: Blackwell Sings Bernstein (BMG, 1996). On this, her second solo recording, Blackwell bridges the gap between popular and classical music, much as Bernstein @creator of West Side Story as well as of full-fledged orchestral works) himself did.

And “real” can also mean Langston Hughes, as Blackwell proved with her first recording, Strange Hun (RCA/Victor, 1994). This compilation of Hughes’ poems was musically arranged especially for her by a friend, Ricky Ian Gordon. Blackwell was drawn to Gordon’s work after hearing his take on Hughes’ “Genius Child,” whose subject matter — a child’s observations about the life around him — struck a nostalgic chord in Blackwell. “When I first heard it,” the singer says, “I recalled sitting as a child in my bay window on Irving Street, watching people go by. It reminded me so much of myself, I knew I had to perform it.”

Does the ebullient singer, who is booked two years in advance, ever turn down a performance opportunity? Of course — longevity is her biggest concern. “A role is more than just a job to me,” she explains. “I need to learn something from it to grow as an artist. I also need time for me, because I plan on doing this for the next 20 years — at least.”

The performances, the recordings and the recitals are all part of the journey that Blackwell began on her first opening night on Broadway. This spring, she returns to New York as Cunegonde in the Hal Prince revival of Candide. The soprano has come full circle, back to Broadway — the only place other than D.C. that she calls home.

Melba Newsome is a freelance writer in Los Angeles. Her last two articles for American Visions, Linked to the Past — and the Present,” and “Nicholas Payton: Just Stalling to Cook,” appeared in the October/November 1996 issue.

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