Michelle Johnson is a soprano singer who made her Madison Opera Debut last year as Santuzza, the lead character of Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana, or Rustic Chivalry.
Earlier today, she held a “master class” with in classical singing with students at James C. Wright Middle School.
Johnson says that even though she wanted to be an educator, her vocal coach in high school sent her in another direction.
“She asked me, ‘What do you want to do?’ and I though I wanted to go into education. I come from a long line of educators. My mother, my father, my grandparents, everybody were teachers, principals, all that jazz,” Johnson says. “But then she said, ‘I really think that you have something special, and I think you should try out for some conservatories.’”
Even though Marian Anderson broke the color barrier at the New York Metropolitan Opera in 1955, black singers like Johnson are underrepresented.
In September, The Chicago Sun Times reported that out of 368 singers on the Met roster this season, only 36 are black.
Still, in the book Black Opera: History, Power, Engagement, University of Michigan Professor Naomi André writes that even though opera once functioned as “an exclusively elitist event” for society’s upper crust, there is “nothing inherently ‘white’ or ‘nonblack’” about opera.
Johnson says that teaching about that accessibility is part of why she loves visiting students.
“I grew up in the PBS era, so when people used to come to my school, that’s what really got me excited about this work and that’s what captured my attention, so I’m all about outreach,” Johnson says. “I love going to schools, I love going to churches, I love to just spread that it’s for us, it’s for people. The classical world is not just for the elites. It’s for regular folk.”
Alida Lacosse is a performing musician and has taught at MMSD schools for four years.
Lacosse says that just having her students see performers who look like them can be powerful. Even if they don’t end up pursuing careers in classical singing, seeing representation in the field can encourage them to consider the possibility that they could enter it.
“People will tell you [that] you can’t do [that], but yes you can,” Lacosse says. “Equity is about representation, and [that representation] should be women that are different, because not all black women are the same, [and] not all women are the same. Diversity is representation, it’s all different kinds [of people].”
Johnson will be singing with the Madison Symphony Orchestra this weekend as part of A Madison Symphony Christmas.
A special reception will be held Friday, December 13th at 5:30 PM in the Upper Lobby of the Overture Center for the Arts.