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Black History Month: A Celebration of Inspiration

Posted on: February 12, 2020

It’s safe to say that the world of classical music would not be the same without the countless contributions made by talented Black individuals—and there’s no better time to recognize them then during Black History Month. Last year, we highlighted some of the artists who were (and still are) dominating the opera world. This year, we wanted to speak with them about what—or who—made them fall in love with opera. 

Morris Robinson 

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Morris Robinson as Osmin in "The Abduction from the Seraglio" (2017). Photo: Cory Weaver

You might have seen him most recently as: the Grand Inquisitor in Don Carlo and Parsi Rustomji in Satyagraha

He'll be on our stage again as: Ferrando in Il Trovatore and Commendatore in Don Giovanni

"Paul Robeson is definitely an inspiration to me and is probably someone I’m most compared to. He was an all-American athlete, he played football, and had a deep, rich voice much like me. But the main difference between us is, when he was around, he was not allowed to do what I do now. Black people weren’t allowed to sing in opera houses then, although there were many who had the talent to do so.  Mr. Robeson was not deterred however, and used his platform to stand up against injustices while simultaneously never giving up on his passion and drive for performance and the art form. So today, I stand upon his shoulders when I get up and sing on stage. Some more contemporary influences would have to be Donnie Ray Albert, Kevin Short, and Gordon Hawkins. They were veterans in the field just as I was starting out. I look at how they perform and maintain such artistic integrity in their work. I’m fortunate to be able to call them to talk about repertoire or ask questions. I think we have to embrace the next generation of artists the same way that people in the industry embraced me. I have several up-and-coming performers I mentor—they call me 'Big Brother.' It’s important to carry on the legacy of Black excellence by seeking out, advising, nurturing, and uplifting other black performers."   

J’Nai Bridges 

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J'Nai Bridges as Kasturbai in "Satyagraha" (2018). Photo: Cory Weaver

You'll definitely remember her as: Kasturbai in Satyagraha and Queen Nefertiti in Akhnaten

Catch her next season: singing the title role of Carmen at the Metropolitan Opera and at the Canadian Opera Company

“The latest thing that truly inspired me was singing in the Giving Voice concert with some of my closest colleagues, an event produced by tenor Lawrence Brownlee and Houston Grand Opera! We treated the audience with a program ranging from opera classics, to spirituals, gospel and standards. The beauty of this concert was looking out into the audience and seeing the range in colors and ages. It brought the most diverse audience I have ever seen which led to an overall spirit of excitement and great pride. Pride in the music we delivered and pride in who we are what we have brought to the the world as black artists and artists as a whole. It was just so wonderful to see so many receptive people. New and old audiences all feeling enjoying the freedom and liberty of music!” 

Issachah Savage


Issachah Savage as Narraboth in "Salome" (2017). Photo: Ken Howard

You might have seen him on our stage as: Narraboth in Salome

Next season at LAO he makes his role debut as: Tannhäuser in one of Wagner's most popular works. 

"One of the great influences of my love and passion for classical music is Ms. Jessye Norman.  I know that mentioning Ms. Norman as an inspiration at this point, sounds a bit cliché as she has inspired so many.  But I will never forget my first encounter with that voice.   I first heard Ms. Norman when I was about 16, a recording of her singing "Dido’s Lament," When I am Laid in Earth. Up until that point, I had never cried over a piece of music I didn’t know or even understand. It felt to me like I was hearing a well-crafted sermon of reconciliation or repentance.  There was something about that sound, so round, regal and honest."    

Janai Brugger

janai brugger la operaJanai Brugger as Servilia in "The Clemency of Titus" (2019). Photo: Cory Weaver

This Young Artist alum has appeared in our productions of: The Magic Flute as Pamina, La Bohème as Musetta, and Servilia in The Clemency of Titus 

She'll be on our stage next season as: Zerlina in Don Giovanni

"Marion Anderson, Shirley VerrettGeorge Shirley, Kathleen Battle, Jessye Norman, Moses Hogan, and Leontyne Price. Those are just to name a few but each of them have paved the way for many African American artists in the classical world from their fierce dedication to their craft and artistry and standing up for what was right even when faced with adversity. I’m grateful to them and truly inspired by them for what they accomplished in the classical world."

John Holiday

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Photo Credit: Cory Weaver

He's taken the LAO stage as: the Sorceress in Dido and Aeneas and — most recently — Orpheus's Double in Eurydice

Catch him next as: a soloist for a semi-staged production of Going for Baroque with the Dayton, Ohio Ballet

"When I first started singing classical music, it was in The Fort Bend Boys' Choir of Texas, in the second grade. Eventually, I matriculated through the different levels and graduated to the Tour Choir. It was the choir that sings everywhere—all over the world. Whenever the Houston Symphony would have performances of sacred works or large works like The Damnation of Faust, they would have our choir come to sing with them.  In 1997, I was the boy soloist for The Damnation of Faust and Denyce Graves was singing the role of Marguerite. So, I remember, in that instance, thinking to myself that I had never seen an opera singer, nor had I heard one, and I thought  ‘I want to do what she’s doing. I want to be like that,’ so Denyce Graves was my very first influence in opera and is actually the reason why I sing opera. I first spoke with her on the telephone, after having met another legendary icon, Harolyn Blackwell, who connected me with Denyce.  Subsequently, I met her, during her run as Maria in Porgy and Bess at the Metropolitan Opera.  There's also a countertenor who I think is the countertenor of all countertenors—Derek Lee Ragin. He, for me, has been such an inspiration. What's really beautiful about it is that many of the things he has sung, I sing. So, I look to him for guidance.  To know that I am walking and following in his footsteps is mind boggling. I am so thankful, without ceasing, that he has walked the walk before me so that I can walk behind him, and I hope that I continue to do justice to each of the roles we both have done, and I hope to continue opening doors for other African-American countertenors. I love Leontyne Price—I absolutely adore her. Her countenance and demeanor, the eloquence with which she spoke, she was just so smart and well put together. Her voice is pure gold. And of course, we harken back to Marian Anderson, who paved the way for all of us—who are in this art form right now. I'm happy and proud to say I'm friends with most of the people I looked up to and they are all continuing to pave the way."

So whether these influences are decades old or as contemporary as today, there’s certainly no shortage of African American artists who left their mark on our art form-- and on those who follow in their footsteps.