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.