Conversations with the black diva
by Carol Middleton
(first published in Honda:The Magazine Spring 1999)
American soprano Leona Mitchell is back in Sydney with Opera Australia, playing Turandot from September to November in Graeme Murphy’s production of Puccini’s final opera. It’s something of a homecoming for Leona, who first sang the title role with Opera Australia in Murphy’s 1995 production. Carol Middleton spoke to her as she prepared to head our way again.
Diva is a much nicer word than prima donna. To most of us, it is the difference between a goddess and a spoilt brat. If the stereotyped breed of prima donna still exists in the world of opera, Leona Mitchell is certainly not one of them.
Her trans-Pacific phone conversation with me was full of politeness, deference and mellifluous “uh-has”. Leona, born in Oklahoma and living in Texas, is a slow talker, with a soft voice that is highlighted by the occasional rising cadences of the southern US.
Visits to Australia have become regular events in her life over the past 20 years, since Artistic Director Moffatt Oxenbould first invited her to debut in Madama Butterfly with the Australian Opera in 1977.
Now at the height of her career, Leona is known and loved around the world for her portrayals of the great operatic roles. She has taken on many of those self-sacrificing female characters that dominate the world of opera: Aida, Cio-Cio-San in Madama Butterfly and Liu in Turandot. These are the sweet-natured 'victims', laughs Leona, the love-sick and love-lorn slaves and geishas who characterise most of the leading female roles available to operatic singers.
Her audiences still identify her with these roles. “People tend to see me more as Aida,” she admits. With Princess Turandot, however, the mirror reveals a very different side of her character. Here Leona has to conjure up all the mean-spiritedness she can muster to play the cruel Eastern princess who kills those suitors who do not meet her challenge, who fail to answer the three riddles she sets them.
Puccini died of cancer in 1924 while struggling to complete his last opera, convinced that everything he had written previously was inferior. The divine score includes the tenor aria 'Nessun Dorma', one of the world's most popular operatic pieces.
Leona is having fun “putting on these new shoes”, bringing out the darker side of her character and the darker side of her voice. Her new foray into that heavier repertoire is proving “exciting and wonderful”. She refused to play Turandot when she was still in her twenties, only taking on those roles that were within her vocal range. 'You can burn the voice out, it can become ragged, if you do the big roles too young', she says. Recently she decided she had the maturity, both vocally and dramatically, to take on this challenging and demanding role, which calls for what Leona refers to as the 'Stentorian' or hugely powerful sound needed to sing the part of Turandot.
Before she crossed the stage to play Turandot, she was well-known as the other female character in the opera, Liu, the devoted slave whose life is sacrificed in the course of the drama. It was a great leap across the divide to switch to Turandot, and Leona still has to stop herself launching into Liu's arias automatically!
She still remembers the early days when she first portrayed Liu in San Francisco. Although the dead Liu was usually carried off stage, in this production she was left 'dead' on the stage throughout the final scenes of the opera. She has a vivid recollection of lying there night after night, listening to the great sounds above her and dreaming of one day being in Turandot's shoes.
One of fifteen children born into a musical family in Oklahoma, Leona grew up surrounded by music. Her father was a Pentecostal minister and Leona was a soloist in his church while she was still at school. He still demands that she sing in his church and Leona has adapted the aria 'How Great Thou Art' for these occasions, as pure gospel is out of bounds for her operatically trained voice.
As a young girl, she never thought of singing as a career, just as part of life, until she was encouraged to study for a Bachelor of Music and suddenly found herself intrigued, excited and stimulated by the world that was opening up for her. She first came to international attention as Bess in the first complete stereo recording of Gershwin's Porgy and Bess in 1975. The reviews described her voice as 'gorgeous' and praised her vivid characterisation. In the same year she made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera as Micaela in Carmen.
Leona's first mentor was Leontyne Price, who was the first female black singer to cross the colour barrier in the 1960s to sing “the Toscas and the Aidas” at the Metropolitan Opera in New York and open the door for other black singers. The two women have both been described as having a rich, warm, luscious voice and great personal beauty.
The other singers who have inspired Leona are Maria Callas, for her dramatic interpretations, and Joan Sutherland, for her exciting coloratura performances. Leona was favourably compared to Callas as early as 1988 when she made her debut as Tosca in Australia, demonstrating her ability to act with the voice.
Her debut as Turandot in Australia was judged the best we have ever seen. The Bulletin talked of “her sensitive dramatic interpretation, which reveals the woman behind the monster”. Leona believes she has even more to bring to the part this time round. She has grown into the role, finding it more comfortable to sing those sustained notes and “digging deeper into the meanness of Turandot”.
For her, coming to Australia is a bit like coming home. She has a special spot in her heart for this country and for Moffat Oxenbould and Opera Australia, who have been willing to help her “grow and learn new repertoire”. When she hears an Australian accent in the States, she feels a tug at her heart for her 'family' over here. Leona has found a unique place in the hearts of opera enthusiasts here, who have come to look on her as part of Opera Australia, not just as a visiting American diva.
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