It was at Spelman College, a historically African-American university in Atlanta, where Janinah Burnett received the sort of education that can be traced to her current standing as a soprano for the Metropolitan Opera.
"At Spelman, a lot of my peers were classically trained," Burnett recalls. "It was the first time I had heard anyone sing like that, especially African Americans like me. I wanted to sing that way. I asked, 'How do you make that sound?'"
She soon learned how, and Charlotte audiences will be able to hear the results for themselves when Burnett headlines Opera Carolina's upcoming production of Georges Bizet's The Pearl Fishers, which will be presented during the month of April at Belk Theater.
Bizet was a master tunesmith, as the 19th century French Romantic composed several operas. While Carmen, his tragic ode to the gypsy temptress, is his most famous, The Pearl Fishers also secures a notable place in theater history, boasting one of Bizet's most infectious melodies, "Au fond temple du temple saint" (aka "The Pearl Fisher's Duet"). Set in ancient Ceylon, this exotic, seductive fever dream features Burnett as the mysterious, veiled priestess Leila. The conflicted priestess comes between two friends, a tribal chief and a young pearl fisher, and the resulting triangle sets the opera's romantic and apocalyptic plot in motion.
Staged once before by Opera Carolina in 2005, the current production of The Pearl Fishers boasts a full cast and orchestra in the service of soaring melodies, haunting arias and a heartbreaking story of forbidden love and sacrifice. Performed in its original French, the production features English subtitles. But superimposed titles are not the only technical perks planned for this show.
"We're transforming the production using advanced technology not available in 2005," says Opera Carolina's General Director James Meena. Indeed, Stage Director Bernard Uzan and Lighting Designer Michael Baumgarten have devised a novel array of digital projections that enrich the traditional set design.
"We're using the set from 2005," explains Baumgarten, whose first full-time production with the company was, coincidentally enough, that 2005 staging. "But behind it, instead of the same white [cyclorama] changing colors, we've got transforming vistas. It's almost a travelogue." All this technical wizardry is designed to augment the opera's powerful emotions. "It has to enhance the mood and the story," he adds.
Like Baumgarten, Burnett is also familiar with the opera, having previously sung the role of Leila with the Syracuse Opera in 2010.
"Leila speaks to me," she reveals. "I'm a helpless romantic. I also like her spiritual aspect. She has a connection with the gods. While her worldly nature is reluctant, the divine has chosen her."
Similarly, it could be said that opera has chosen Burnett. The only child of a poet mother and jazz musician father, Burnett displayed an early affinity for jazz singing. She continues to hone her jazz chops, headlining a sold-out show at NYC's Metropolitan Room last December. But it's her opera experience that makes her particularly unique, as she's part of a young generation of African-American performers who have carved accomplished careers in opera. Yet despite the presence of peers such as tenor Thomas Young, who started the successful franchise Three Mo' Tenors, and the members of the female version of Three Mo' Tenors, Three Mo' Divas, African Americans are far from common in opera, and artists like Burnett remain pioneers crossing cultural borders.
Honing her craft in college required a lot of work, but the incessant practice paid off, and Burnett won acclaim for her ability to project her feelings as well as for her technique. She says that, for her, the emotions just come out. "The voice is an extension of the acting, which is why opera is so powerful."
Baumgarten concurs, noting that The Pearl Fishers, like all good opera, "is all about this glorious music and this overpowering emotion."
"That's why I love doing a production like this," he explains, "because it's so big and bold. You've got an amazing cast, singing out loud. You've got gorgeous music, talented dancers and magnificent scenery.
"You've got opera."