Opera star Leona Mitchell hasn’t slowed down.
She still seems to moving at the speed of sound.
Though she has left performing in the greatest opera houses of Paris, London, Rome, Buenos Aires, Sydney, Vienna and San Francisco behind, she’s still plenty busy giving recitals, teaching master classes and promoting the Leona Mitchell Southern Heights Heritage Center and Museum in her hometown of Enid, Oklahoma.
In fact Mitchell, who sang 18 consecutive seasons at The Metropolitan Opera in New York, is coming to Fort Lauderdale for a concert Thursday, Feb. 20 and a master class Friday, Feb.21 at the Nova Southeastern University Museum of Art Fort Lauderdale. The appearance is presented by the Venetian Arts Society in celebration of Black History Month and opera stars Renata Scotto, Tito Capobianco and Virginia Zeani are reported to be attending.
“It happened so fast,” says Mitchell reminiscing about her career in a Valentine’s Day telephone interview. “It’s a whirlwind, traveling 300 some days a year. But you must understand, [opera has] been my whole life. It is me.”
Here in South Florida, Mitchell says of her concert: “It’s intimate, a potpourri of things. I’ll sing some Negro spirituals, some Cole Porter, some traditional operatic things.”
That variety of material comes from a dizzying amount of performances during the zenith of her career in the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s as a leading sprinto soprano (“Light, but with a lot of depth and drama. It means you can do those dramatic roles like ‘Aida,’ “Butterfly’ and ‘Tosca,’” she explains).
And it might not have happened if not for a teacher.
“I was in segregated schools until I was in 6th grade,” she explains. “There were other brothers and sisters, I was one of 15 children in my family, just as talented as I was but did not have the opportunity. Well, in the desegregated school I had a teacher Maurine Priebe. She really wanted to be an opera singer but she came back to take care of her mother. I had an old 78 recording of her. Her voice was very similar to my voice. She heard that [operatic voice] in me. Around that time Leontyne Price made her debut at the Met and [Priebe] bought me that record and said, ‘Look at what is happening.”
Attending Oklahoma City University led to singing contests that earned her a San Francisco Opera internship where she was taken under the wing of Kurt Adler, the general director of SFO and conductor/chorus master at the Met.
Then there was the Julliard School (the “New York Times” raved about her “La Boheme” in her recital) and when a soprano had to bow out of the Met’s “Carmen,” Mitchell stepped into the role of Micaela, making her Met debut in 1973.
“I didn’t have to audition or anything. And after that everything just happened so fast.”
After conquering “Turandot,” “Madame Butterfly,” “Aida,” “Samson,” “Il Trovatore,” and “Porgy and Bess” [the recording of which earned her a Grammy] she married Elmer Bush III, a teacher, in 1980. Four years later they welcomed a son into the world, Elmer Bush IV.
“He is not into opera,” Mitchell says of her son who lives nearby in Oklahoma. “He doesn’t like to be out front. But I will tell you this one time, I guess he was around two or three years old. And I was doing this recital at the Met that honoring Coretta Scott King and I was backstage and there he was in his little tuxedo and tie and before I knew it he had gone out onstage and took a bow. He stole the whole show from me. He just did it like mommy did. Oh, and I’ll tell you this one other story and then I’ll stop. I was in Australia doing ‘Aida’ and he was about five years old. I put him in the opera as a little slave boy. Well, one night he said to me, ‘Mommy I want my own room with my own name on the door.”
Mitchell stays close to her family. Her sister Barbara Mitchell-Finley is curator of the Leona Mitchell Southern Heights Heritage Center and Museum, which is housed in their minister father’s former church.
“It’s like a jewel in this part of the country,” Mitchell says. “I’m proud of it.”
And her niece, Dr. Angela Molette, is researching the family’s complicated and multi-level connections with the Chickasaw Nation. In addition to exhibits spotlighting Mitchell’s career on the stage, the Museum includes memorabilia of the Ethnic Indigenous Native Americans, Black Indians and Freedmen of the Five Civilized Tribes.
“You know Oklahoma was a black state with the Trail of Tears and all of that,” says Mitchell. “There was a lot of mixing going on.”
But there are some moments that even a repository like her museum can’t capture.
“I remember I was trying to learn opera and one of my brothers were like, ‘What kind of singing is that?’ and they were mocking me. I said, ‘I’ll show you guys.’ And then they were in the audience hollering ‘bravo’ too.”
IF YOU GO -
Salon Concert, 7:30 p.m., Feb. 20 at NSU’s Museum of Art Fort Lauderdale, 1 E. Las Olas Blvd., Fort Lauderdale. Tickets are $45 general admission; $30 for MOA and VAS members; $60 V.I.P. tickets (preferred seating, champagne reception, Master Class)
Master Class, 10 a.m., Feb. 21 at NSU’s Museum of Art Fort Lauderdale. Tickets are $20 general admission and free for MOA and VAS members as well as students.
Contact: 954-709-7447 or VenetianArtsSociety.org.
Here are a few thoughts Leona Mitchell shared of some of her contemporaries and some of her greatest roles:
Luciano Pavarotti – “He was like a big brother really. Gosh, he really was one of a kind. I remember seeing him in his costumes. It was like a movie, but live. Here I was an ingenue. I dare not say hello. But then he came up to me and spoke. He told me later, ‘My dad really loves your voice.’ He really respected his father.”
Placido Domingo – “I had my debut with Placido. So loving and giving. He said to me, ‘You don’t look nervous.’ I was so new I didn’t even know to be nervous. At that point I was just trying to get the job done.”
Jose Carreras – “He is genuinely a sweetie. We had so much fun at the Met. You know when he got sick [Cancer in the late 80s] Placido used to visit him all the time. A lot of people don’t know that.”
Joan Sutherland – “In Australia they were like a second family to me. Joan became a great friend besides being a great opera singer, one of the best coloraturas ever.”
“Carmen” – “She was progressive for the time it was written. She could choose.”
“Porgy and Bess” – “It encompasses so much. Gershwin was amazing.”
“Turandot” – “Grandeur. It’s huge, it’s expansive, it’s big. It’s opera at its best.”
“Aida” – “To me it is the quintessential operatic part. My mind went back to  and performing ‘Aida’ in Egypt among the pyramids. It actually takes my breath away. I tear up. There as this museum with all this black art. It was overwhelming. And the journalists said to me, ‘Welcome home sister.’”
“Madame Butterfly” – “I am so identified with that character. I’ll tell you a little story. You know the story requires something like three straight hours of harsh singing. There is a little time between the second and third act which is the only time I can rest, like 15 minutes when you stand there like a statue. Well, we are performing in Israel and the director comes to me and says, ‘I want you to dance there.’ So I choreographed this dance all by myself and it was breathtaking. I don’t know what came over meMy husband still talks about it.”
“Il Trovatore” – “I remember when I was performing it in Vienna. It was so outrageous. The tenor hadn’t been asked back in years. And I’m singing [this aria] and it’s hard as hell. Then the whole opera stop and they bring out this big birthday cake for the tenor. The whole opera stopped. Can you imagine? But I’ll tell you, it made me sing better.”
“Yes, Giorgio” – “It’s a cult film now. Luciano [Pavarotti] and I had the same publicity manager. He asked me if I would do it and I played myself so why not? Well, I learned that filming opera and performing opera are completely different. I’m on for about five minutes or whatever and I tell you that it took three weeks to tape. They had to fix a lens or adjust a light, hours and hours. I came away with a respect for the stamina of movie actors. I would kill myself.”