Mitchell, Leona 1949–
Leona Mitchell 1949–
Lyrico-spinto soprano Leona Mitchell has become one of the best-known and most renowned singers working in opera today. Since her debut with the San Francisco opera in 1972, she “has appeared throughout the world in operas, concerts, and recitals,” explained a contributor to Notable Black American Women. “She has also distinguished herself on recordings and in television, and she made her film debut in the early 1980s, starring in Yes Giorgio with the famous tenor Luciano Pavarotti.” “She has sung at all of the major opera houses of the world,” the Notable Black American Women contributor continued. “Critics continuously extol her outstanding vocal capabilities and musical instincts.”
Leona Pearl Mitchell was born on October 13, 1949, in Enid, Oklahoma. Her singing career began early at her father’s church. Hulon Mitchell, a Church of God in Christ minister, had fifteen children with his wife, Pearl, and all fifteen of them sang in the church’s choir. The family formed a gospel choir and toured Oklahoma during the 1950s and 1960s, singing in concerts and for broadcasts. Mitchell herself was first introduced to opera in high school, when a teacher invited her to listen to a recording. After she entered college at Oklahoma City University as a voice major, Mitchell became more involved in operatic performance. By the time she graduated from Oklahoma City in 1971, she had ten different roles in her portfolio, had studied ballet and other forms of dance, and had a good grasp of the major languages the operatic repertoire requires.
That year Mitchell entered the San Francisco Opera (SFO) auditions—one of the premier competitions in the operatic world. One of the judges that year was the renowned conductor Kurt Adler, then general director of the SFO. Adler heard Mitchell perform her selection (“Ernani, involami” from Giuseppi Verdi’s early opera Ernani) and was one of the panel that awarded her the prestigious James H. Schwabacher Prize. As part of the award Mitchell got the opportunity to work for ten weeks under Adler’s supervision and received an apprenticeship in Santa Fe through the Merola Opera Program. In 1973 Adler hired Mitchell to perform the role of Micaela—Don Jose’s long-neglected fiancée, whom he rejects in favor of the exotic Carmen—in the SFO’s production of Georges Bizet’s Carmen. In 1979, the two celebrated their long collaboration by releasing a recording of opera favorites.
Born on October 13, 1949, in Enid, OK; daughter of Hulon (a minister) and Pearl Olive (a nurse and piano teacher) Mitchell; married, 1971 (widowed, 1973); married Elmer Bush (a teacher and manager), 1980; children: Elmer Bush IV. Education: Oklahoma City University, MBA, 1971.
Career: Professional soprano, 1972-; San Francisco Opera, member, 1973-74, 1977; European debut, Barcelona, Spain, 1974; Metropolitan Opera debut, 1974; Edinburgh (Scotland) Festival, performer, 1977; Sacria Umbria Festival, Australia, performer, 1978.
Awards: James H. Schwabacher Award, San Francisco Opera Auditions, 1971; named Ambassadress of Enid, Oklahoma, 1978; honorary doctorate, Oklahoma City University, 1979; named to Oklahoma Hall of Fame, 1983; performed for President Ford, 1976, President Carter, 1978, 1979, and President Clinton, 1998.
Addresses: Home —Houston, TX. Agent —c/o Kevin S. Hassler, Columbia Artists Management, 165 West 57th Street, New York, NY 10019.
The role of Micaela opened doors for Mitchell. She reappeared with the SFO the following fall and in 1975 she debuted at the Metropolitan Opera in New York—again in the role of Micaela. Since then, according to her website, “she has performed for eighteen consecutive seasons,” and over two-thirds of the roles “she has sung there since her sensational debut as Micaela in Carmen have been in operas by Puccini or Verdi.” That same year she attracted an international following when she sang the role of Bess in the Cleveland Orchestra’s recording for London Records of George Gershwin’s all-black opera Porgy and Bess. The recording helped bring Mitchell work in venues ranging from Germany to Japan, and from Buenos Aires to Sydney, Australia. In addition, Adler’s teaching—and Mitchell’s own native talent—allowed her to break with operatic tradition, which decreed that any successful opera singer must study and perform in small houses in Europe before seeking roles in the United States.
In 1988 Mitchell opened a new production of Verdi’s Aida at the Met. The title role of the Nubian princess, tragically caught between love and duty to country, has become Mitchell’s signature role, and, according to her website, “she has sung nearly two hundred performances of this beloved opera throughout North America, Europe, Asia and Australia.” Her live performance of the role for the opening of the Orange Festival, sung under Maestro George Prete, was released on video in 1996. From 1997 through 2001, she performed the role in Switzerland, Chile, Madrid, Spain, and in Cairo, Egypt—the venue for which the opera was originally written in 1867.
Mitchell has also won acclaim singing the roles of Liu, the faithful slave girl in Giacomo Puccini’s final opera Turandot, and Amelia in Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera. When she appeared in the San Francisco Opera’s production of Turandot in 1977, with Spanish soprano Montserrat Caballe in the title role and Luciano Pavarotti singing Timur, Liu’s master, Bill Zakariasen declared in Opera News, “Leona Mitchell sings a seamless Liu.” John Cargher, also writing in Opera News, called Mitchell’s voice in the Melbourne, Australia production of Un Ballo in Maschera “huge” and “gorgeous.”
But even off the opera stage Mitchell commands a huge following. She has appeared in recitals at important national venues, including the Lincoln Center in New York, and the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., as well as at the Met’s one hundredth anniversary celebration. She has also performed at the Baths of Caracalla in Rome, Avery Fisher Hall in New York, and UCLA’s Ambassador Auditorium, and in a command performance of the Verdi Requiem at the royal palace of Monaco and another performance of the same piece at Carnegie Hall under Maestro John Nelson. Her television appearances have included “Live from the Met” and “Live from Lincoln Center,” as well as the Statue of Liberty concert, a broadcast of a Puccini gala with Zubin Mehta and the Israeli Philharmonic, and, in 1998, singing Christmas songs for President and Mrs. Clinton at the White House for the annual lighting of the White House Christmas Tree.
Leona Mitchell has a very full life as a performer and teacher. In 2001 she returned to Enid, Oklahoma, to perform a benefit concert to aid students from her home town. She has also scheduled numerous concerts, recordings of hymns and Christmas pieces, and a CD of recital pieces, “If I ever retire,” she told Stephen Wadsworth in a 1979 Opera News article, “I don’t think I’ll keep coming back, because I find such fulfillment in relationships, real relationships with people, and in life itself.”
Notable Black American Women, Book 2, Gale, 1996.
Who’s Who Among African Americans, 16th ed., Gale, 2003.
Opera News, February 10, 1979, pp. 11-13; October 1993, p. 52; October 1996, p. 56; August 1997, p. 48; December 6, 1997, p. 61; January 17, 1998, p. 50.
National Review, December 9, 1983, p. 1565.
Leona Mitchell Official Website, www.leonamitchell.com (August 23, 2003).
—Kenneth R. Shepherd