Brown, Angela M.
Angela M. Brown
Shimmering, mesmerizing, soaring—these are just a few of the adjectives lavished on the voice of Angela M. Brown. An operatic sensation who has commanded standing ovations from the world's most famous stages, Brown came to opera almost as an afterthought. "I never wanted to be what I would have described as a screechy soprano," she told the New York Times. Fortunately for opera fans worldwide, she changed her mind, becoming one of the most acclaimed Verdi sopranos to grace the world of opera.
Pursued Spiritual Path through Song
Angela M. Brown was born in Indianapolis, Indiana on December 1, in 1964(?). Her mother, Freddie Mae Brown, was a painter; her father, Walter Clyde Brown, worked in an auto factory. Along with brothers George and Aaron, Brown was raised in a deeply spiritual Baptist household. Her singing voice first drew notice at the Baptist church where her grandfather was minister. As early as the age of five she was stirring the congregation with renditions of gospel classics such as "You Can't Beat God's Giving." She sang throughout her childhood at church functions, local competitions, and Broadway-style shows. "I did some jazz. I did some R&B. I was the front singer in a band when I was too young to be in the bars," she told the New York Times.
Following high school, Brown pursued secretarial training at vocational school rather than a musical career. It was her father's idea. "He said, 'You need something to fall back on,'" Brown recalled to the New York Times. She took up an aide position at a local hospital and sang on the side. At the age of 20, however, tragedy struck. Her younger brother Aaron came down with a viral infection and died suddenly. The loss made Brown reconsider both her faith and her life. She soon converted to Seventh Day Adventism and decided to pursue a degree in music.
Brown moved to Huntsville, Alabama, and enrolled in the music program at Oakwood College, a Seventh Day Adventist school. "I wanted to be a singing evangelist," Brown told Contemporary Black Biography (CBB). Her singing coach, Ginger Beazley, had other ideas. "[She said], 'You know, you sing gospel music beautifully, but when you sing classical music, you are head and shoulders above everybody else,'" Brown recalled in a CBS television interview quoted by IU Music Magazine. Beazley, who had studied under world-famous soprano and coach Virginia Zeani at Indiana University, led Brown to her former mentor. Brown recalled to the New York Times that Zeani told her, "The blood of Verdi courses through your veins."
Groomed to be a Verdi Soprano
The works of Giuseppe Verdi are standards at opera houses worldwide—Aida, Falstaff, La Traviata, Requiem Mass, and Rigoletto, among them. They are operas that make heavy demands on singers, particularly sopranos—singers whose range falls in the highest notes. Verdi operas are fast-paced and emotionally extreme. In an opera like Aida, a soprano may move from an ethereally high note down to a low, chest-thrusting tone in the length of one song. Very few sopranos have gone down in opera history as worthy of the title "Verdi soprano." Zeani felt Brown could be one of those singers. Zeani told her, "If you want to be the next Aretha Franklin, go," Brown recalled to the New York Times. "You need no more lessons. But if you want to be the best Verdian soprano the world has ever seen, you have to work."
Brown did just that. After graduating with a bachelor's degree in music in 1991 from Oakwood, Brown moved to Indiana University. She began to study Italian, German, and French—the languages of classical opera—and started the extensive training it would take to become a world-class soprano. She also became an active part of IU's music program. "Angela was just a presence," an arts director at the university said in an IU press release on the school's Web site. "She sang in choir, was the vocal coach of the Soul Revue and worked on costumes, all of this while playing mother figure for many of our students."
In 1994 Brown tried out for the National Council Auditions of New York's Metropolitan Opera (the famed Met), one of the world's most prestigious competitions for young opera singers. She made it as far as the regional finals. Disheartened but dedicated, she tried out two more years in a row, only to twice more be stopped at the regional level. Time was running out. The cut-off age for the competition was 33, and Brown was 32. She tried for one more shot. "I had nothing to lose," she told the New York Times. Instead, she won everything, not only the regionals, but also the semi-finals and then the finals. The win bought her entry into the world of professional opera.
Began Slow Climb to Soprano Fame
Brown left Indiana University in 1997 and relocated to New York. The following year she traveled to Italy where she won the Verdi Vocal Competition. Back in New York, despite a steady stream of roles in small operas and concerts, she found herself strapped for cash and decided to audition for a stipend from the Met's education fund. Instead, she was invited to a coaching session with the opera house's director of music administration. Unsure if she was to receive the stipend or not, she temporarily lost her cool. "I don't know why I lost my mind like this," she told the New York Times. "I put my arm around him and said, 'If you hire me, I'll make you proud.' And he looked at me and said, 'You know, I think you might.'" A few days later Brown was hired as a Met understudy for the 2000-2001 season.
In addition to her position at the Met, Brown sang at opera companies throughout the country—some times as understudy, other times as a featured performer. She also performed in gospel shows and contributed her voice to various CDs and charitable events. However, it was a last-minute save that brought Brown her first major critical acclaim. In Spring of 2003 she was an understudy for the Opera Company of Philadelphia's production of Ariadne auf Naxos. When the lead singer could not perform one evening, Brown stepped in and gave a stunning performance. An Opera Now reviewer quoted on Brown's Web site wrote, "[Brown] has a powerhouse of an instrument, shimmering with colour and imaginatively used, and she knows how to take centre-stage."
At a Glance …
Born on December 1, 1964(?), in Indianapolis, IN. Education: Oakwood College, BS, music, 1991; Indiana University, artist diploma, music, 1992-1997.
Opera singer, 1997–. Metropolitan Opera, New York, NY, understudy, 2000-01, performer/understudy, 2004–.
Opera Carolina Competition, winner, 1994; Carnegie Hall, Birgit Nilsson Prize, finalist, 1997; Metropolitan Opera, National Council Auditions, winner, 1997; G.B. Verdi Competition, Italy, winner, 1998; Indiana University African American Arts Institute, Herman C. Hudson Award, 2005.
Agent—J.E.J. Artists, 861 Fair Oaks Drive, Macon, GA, 31204.
In 2004 Brown gave several notable performances. She debuted in the role of Elisabetta in Don Carlo, also at the Opera Company of Philadelphia. Reviews quoted on her Web site included Opera News calling her "a soprano to watch" and the New York Times claiming, "[she] brought dignity and shimmering pianos, and hit a bull's-eye with her final aria." A few months later, her debut at Carnegie Hall in the role of Cassandra in Agamemnon brought similar raves. She was soon receiving invitations to perform solos with opera ensembles across the country. Her career had taken off. Soon it would skyrocket.
Stunned Opera World with
Back in New York, Brown was the understudy for the title role of a Met production of Aida. One night in October, the lead singer fell ill. Without even a dress rehearsal, Brown was called on to fill in. She took the stage and gave a performance that catapulted her into operatic stardom. The Met audience—a crowd none too easily pleased—exploded into ovations at curtain call. Opera press from around the world hailed her as a major star. The New York Times opera critic proclaimed, "At last an Aida." "She combines a potent, dusky lower register with a striking ability to spin out soft high notes of shimmering beauty," wrote a reviewer for the Associated Press.
Brown performed the title role of Aida at the Met again in December of 2004, and the following year in Philadelphia. Her workload with major companies worldwide began to increase—with her role-to-understudy ratio decidedly tipping in favor of the stage. In May of 2005 she was tapped to appear as Cilla in the world premier of Margaret Garner, an opera co-written by author Toni Morrison. In addition, she began giving concerts in support of her CD Mosaic, a collection of African-American spirituals—coincidentally released the same night as her Met debut. In the midst of touring worldwide, Brown also developed Opera… from a Sistah's Point of View, a free program created to share her love of opera with "demographic groups that would not normally attend an opera," she told CBB.
Brown's triumph at the Met and her subsequent rise to operatic stardom also caught the attention of the mainstream press. The Monday after her first Aida performance, the New York Times lavished her with an in-depth front page profile. She was covered in Jet and Ebony. Essence named her one of 35 beautiful faces in its 35th anniversary edition. CBS News featured her in a prime-time story. At the age of 40, the woman who had once shied away from opera had become not only a world-renowned soprano, but also a star. "I feel like I've been doing a lot of practice laps for a lot of years," she told IU Music Magazine, reflecting on her long journey to success. "But now the engines are revved and I'm ready to go."
Mosaic, Albany Records, 2004.
Ariadne auf Naxos, Opera Company of Philadelphia, 2003.
Il Trovatore, Opera Company of Philadelphia, 2004.
Don Carlo, Opera Company of Philadelphia, 2004.
Agamemnon, Carnegie Hall, NY, 2004.
Aida, Metropolitan Opera, NY, 2004.
Aida, Opera Company of Philadelphia, 2005.
Margaret Garner, Michigan Opera Theater, Detroit, 2005.
Margaret Garner, Cincinnati Opera, 2005.
Opera… from a Sistah's Point of View, 2004.
Associated Press, October 31, 2004.
Chicago Defender, March 24, 2003.
Ebony, March 2005.
New York Times, November 1, 2004; November 8, 2004.
Opera News, February 2005.
Recorder (Indianapolis, Indiana), August 21, 1993.
"A Date with Destiny," IU Music Magazine, www.music.indiana.edu/publicity/IUMusic/destiny.shtml (August 2, 2005).
Angela Brown, www.angelabrown.com (August 30, 2005).
"Opera Star Angela Brown to Receive Inaugural Alumni Award from African American Arts Institute," Indiana University, Media Relations,http://newsinfo.iu.edu/news/page/normal/2101.html (August 2, 2005).
Additional information for this profile was obtained through an interview with Angela M. Brown on August 5, 2005.