Othalie Graham loves to the tell the story of how, as a teen growing up in Brampton, Ontario, an unlikely meeting with legendary soprano Leontyne Price all but cemented her own future path into the international musical arena and the operatic stage.
“Growing up in Canada, I didn’t have much exposure to opera, let alone black performers,” said Graham, in Charlotte performing the title role of Turandot in Opera Carolina’s current production. My father learned of Price performing with the Toronto Symphony and arranged for me and my mother to go.
Graham said she took Price a bouquet of flowers, which the opera star accepted from the stage.
“She then asked me, in front of an entire auditorium of people, if there was a song she could sing for me,” Graham recalled. “Of course I was stunned yet managed to tell her the closing aria from Madama Butterfly. When she agreed and performed this for me, I stood by the stage just bawling, I was so overwhelmed. Price invited me backstage afterwards, signed my program and encouraged me to follow my dreams wherever they took me.”
Where Graham’s dreams took her was the embarkation point of an electric career in the international world of opera. One of only a handful of black dramatic sopranos performing in opera today, Graham’s talent has seen her win both critical acclaim and prestigious competitions, such as the Liederkranz Society, where she took top prize in the Wagner Division.
Graham has performed all worldwide, including at Washington, D.C.’s Kennedy Center; Sicily Italy’s Teatro Greco; Philadelphia’s Mann Center; as well as in Mexico with the Orquesta Sinfonica de Xalapa and in Istanbul, Turkey for their International Opera Festival.
Special affection for Charlotte
Her appearance in Charlotte as Turandot marks her fourth visit to the Queen City. Graham took center stage in the title role of Aida in Opera Carolina’s 2013-14 season and appeared in each of its past two Arts.Poetry.Music ensemble events.
“I absolutely love coming to Charlotte,” she said. “Maestro Meena and I teamed in 2011 for Turandot in Phoenix, and the experience was wonderful. Sharing the stage with a huge star like Marcello Giordani is also an incredible opportunity. I could not be more excited.”
Giordani is one of the most recognizable tenors in opera today, and landing him to a smaller, regional production is a credit to Opera Carolina general director and principal conductor, James Meena. Meena said that he and Giordani so strongly believe in Graham’s potential to be a breakout star that they want to support her career, working jointly to make this pairing happen.
“We began looking at Marcello’s calendar more than 18 months ago,” said Meena. “He agreed to come here after a break in his schedule at The Metropolitan Opera in New York. We both think very highly of Othalie. She has a spectacular voice, which is quite large and dramatic, yet lyrical.”
Meena said he believed there are more black performers in opera today than at any point in memory. When asked about the disparity between the number of black performers in classical music as compared to Pop, R&B and other more contemporary genre’s, Meena offered a historical context.
“Popular musical forms such as the blues, soul and gospel have deep roots in traditional African culture, where there have been hundreds of years of history and exposure,” he said. “The same hasn’t always been true in opera, though that has been changing and more opportunities are presenting themselves and more companies are being colorblind in their selection process.”
Graham acknowledged the shift and said she has seen opportunities extended beyond black performers to Asians, Hispanics and others.
“Have I lost on roles because I’m black? Maybe, but I wouldn’t know it,” she said. They might say it was my voice or acting. I think companies today are looking more at a total package (of voice, acting and stage presence). There are more opportunities beyond traditional “black” roles such as Bess (Porgy and Bess) and Aida.”
Being her best
Asked if she felt a special responsibility as one of the few black dramatic sopranos, Graham said her focus was on simply being the best she could be.
“As the daughter of a Jamaican immigrant who strived to give me great opportunities in education and beyond, I feel a tremendous responsibility to honor that by always doing my best,” she said. “As an opera singer, my responsibility is to the composer who worked countless hours to orchestrate these works – I feel obligated to honor that by performing at the highest level I can.”
Charlotte audiences can experience the chemistry between Graham’s Turandot and Giordani’s Calaf when they take the stage later this month.
Giacomo Puccini’s final opera follows Calaf’s pursuit of the icy, loveless Princess Turandot. Her captivating beauty compels him to seek her hand despite consequences of her refusal. Shielding herself from fear of love’s uncertainty, Turandot puts forth seemingly unsolvable riddles to her suitor, only to find he conquers the mysteries and wins her heart in the process.
By Michael Solender