By Wynne Delacoma
Angel Blue, a rising American soprano who makes her Ravinia debut with an August 8 recital in the Martin Theatre, remembers exactly where she was when the opera bug bit her—hard.
“The first opera I saw was Turandot,” says Blue, talking with Ravinia by phone earlier this summer from France, where she sang the title role of Puccini’s Tosca in a new production at the Aix-en-Provence Festival. [The New York Times declared Blue “warm and golden yet immensely powerful … unassuming in jeans, a white V-neck T-shirt, and a blue hoodie” in the unique production by film director Christophe Honoré.] The four-year-old Angel heard a concert version of the opera with her parents and siblings in Cleveland’s Severance Hall. Even though the performance wasn’t fully staged, she was dazzled.
“I remember all the orchestra instruments being on stage,” she says. “It was very dark, and the light was very bright on the woman who was singing. It was very bright and very loud. I liked the way it made me feel. It made me happy. I had a range of emotions, but the one that stuck with me the most was that I was very happy when I left the theater.”
That day she told her father, Sylvester Blue, a pastor and gospel singer who also studied classical music, that she wanted to be the woman in the spotlight.
By any measure, that wish is coming true for the California-born soprano, now in her mid-30s. Since her San Francisco Opera debut in 2009, her credits have included performances with the Canadian Opera Company, the Los Angeles Opera, Frankfurt Opera, the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden, La Scala, and the Berlin and Munich Philharmonics. She made her Metropolitan Opera debut in 2017 as Mimì in Puccini’s La bohème. A mere two years later, on September 23, she will reach one of the opera world’s loftiest heights, starring in a production to open a new Metropolitan Opera season. She sings Bess opposite bass-baritone Eric Owens’s Porgy in the Met’s first production of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess in nearly 30 years. (Coincidentally, Owens gave his first performance of that role in the same 2009 San Francisco production that was Blue’s company debut, in the role of Clara.)
And Blue’s résumé includes a credit few opera singers can claim—beauty pageant winner. She was the first African American to be crowned Miss Apple Valley (CA) and her titles include first and second runners-up in Miss California competitions. She sang Violetta’s rousing “Sempre libera” from Verdi’s La traviata to win the overall talent award as California’s representative in the 2005 National Sweetheart Pageant.
“Without pageants, I don’t know that I would be where I am now,” the singer says. “It taught me so much about myself and comparing myself to other people. I learned very quickly not to compare myself. By the time I finished pageants and modeling, I had a very strong idea that I needed to focus on what I had to do and not worry about what other people were doing.”
Growing up in Apple Valley, CA, approximately 100 miles northeast of Los Angeles, Blue was surrounded by music. In addition to her father, who died in 2006, her mother plays keyboards. Blue’s three older sisters and younger brother play instruments and sing. She also plays bass guitar and piano. But vocal music was her first love, and from the start, she reveled in the spotlight.
“In church I played the bass guitar,” says Blue. “And because my mom wanted me to learn piano, I took piano lessons. But I just really enjoyed singing. I always liked being in front of people, performing. When I was younger, I felt it was a very large part of me, as a person. I always felt fulfilled when I sang.” But she craved a certain kind of singing. Surprisingly, perhaps, for a pastor’s daughter, she wasn’t keen on choral music. “I never enjoyed singing in a choir,” says Blue. “When I was in choir, I liked having the solos.”
Blue attended the prestigious Los Angeles County High School for the Arts, making a daily commute—two hours each way—that entailed her parents driving 45 miles to San Bernardino, where she caught a Metrolink train to Los Angeles. When time came for college, however, her parents couldn’t underwrite the ride. They had little tuition money left after helping Blue’s three older sisters through college. She managed to finance her undergraduate work at University of Redlands and master’s degree in opera performance at UCLA through scholarships and her beauty pageant earnings.
“I mainly did pageants because of my mother,” says Blue, who is “just shy of 6 feet” with a fit, statuesque build. “It was almost like a challenge. My mom said, ‘Angel, you know you’re going to need money to get through college. Our savings are gone.’ She said, ‘You’re tall, you’re very thin. You should go and do some pageants.’ ”
“I thought she was being funny,” says Blue. “At the time, I was taking a modern dance class at Victor Valley College (a state community college in nearby Victorville, CA). “I said to her, ‘Sure, Mom. If I go to school tomorrow and somebody hands me a pamphlet to do a pageant, then I’ll do one.’ I was being very sarcastic, almost rude.”
Sure enough, the next day a fellow student, a former Miss Teen California, handed Blue a pamphlet about an upcoming beauty pageant. Thanks to her winnings and some modeling gigs, Blue was able to graduate University of Redlands debt-free.
Blue’s record as a beauty winner wasn’t always an asset as she worked her way through the operatic apprentice ranks, notably as a member of the Domingo-Thornton Young Artist Program as Los Angeles Opera from 2007 to 2009 and a finalist in the 2009 Operalia competition. She won first place in Operalia’s zarzuela competition and second in its opera category that year, and she toured with Plácido Domingo, founder of Operalia and namesake of the LA Opera apprentice program, in 2011.
Staying in shape for pageants required Blue to spend hours every day in the gym. She recalls one coach telling her that if she were as serious about her voice as she was about the way she looked, she would be a great singer. At an audition in Europe, an administrator asked her why she was even thinking about a career in opera. “It was an issue, absolutely,” says Blue. “Opera can be a very snooty place, and at times it’s hard to navigate. But I look at snootiness and all of that as something like turbulence. We fly so much, all of us. One has to figure out how to navigate around turbulence—or avoid it altogether, if you can. But if you do have to go through it—hold on.
“I felt fortunate, though, because I would always find someone who would be willing to work with me, to coach me on things I needed to work on at that specific time.”
Even for someone as gifted as Blue, launching an opera career is like trying to jump onto a fast-moving merry-go-round. Young artists regularly find themselves singing roles for the first time alongside artists who have performed their roles for decades. “I sang my first Bess last year,” says Blue, referring to performances at Seattle Opera in August 2018. “One of the guys I was singing with had done over 400 performances of Porgy and Bess, including 100 of that particular production. When I was a kid doing piano competitions, I’d be talking about how other [kids] in the competitions had played a piece before and I’d never played it before. My dad would say, ‘Angel, just do your job.’ That’s my motto going into any opera production now.”
Blue’s father was a huge influence on her life and career, and he will be on her mind during her Ravinia recital with pianist Catherine Miller. He opened her ears to all kinds of music, and unlike some young singers, she doesn’t limit herself to one kind of repertoire. Her operatic roles stretch from Puccini and Verdi to Alban Berg and Benjamin Britten. “If I only sang Puccini, if I only sang Strauss, I would do myself a great disservice,” she says. “If you look at somebody like Beyoncé, she’s a pop singer. But she’s been influenced by so many genres of music. You’ll hear elements of rock and roll, elements of hard rock, elements of country. That’s one of the things that makes her a great artist. In the classical realm, I feel the same way.”
Blue’s Martin Theatre recital reflects that range. She plans to open with the Alleluia from Mozart’s Exsultate, jubilate followed by four songs each by Strauss and Rachmaninoff. Also on the program are arias by zarzuela composers Pablo Luna and Ruperto Chapí, songs by American composers Bruce Adolphe and Jake Heggie, and three spirituals. “I feel like there’s a little bit of Puccini and Verdi, Mozart and Handel, and Jake Heggie and Bruce Adolphe in what I do,” says Blue. “All of those just create who I am musically.” Unlike opera, in which singers inhabit distinct characters, she sees recitals as a chance to tell stories. “What I love about opera is becoming a character,” Blue says. “I love acting. I like to pretend. I like make-believe. But in recitals, I’m a storyteller. I can tell my story. I can tell whatever story I want.” (Her Ravinia audience will include members of her husband’s family who live in the area. The recital marks her Chicago debut.)
“The first half of my recital is very [neatly packaged],” Blue says. “It’s what we think a recital should be, very heartfelt, but [straight-edged]. I start out with Mozart and I sing the Strauss and the Rachmaninoff. After intermission it’s kind of let-your-hair-down time. The singing for me becomes more free.
“It’s sort of like being on Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride at Disneyland,” says Blue. A true California girl, she has held a season pass to Disneyland since she was 14. “It starts out nice and then it gets kind of crazy and then it kind of comes back down so we can get off the ride easily. I hope the audience comes with me on our little journey.” ▪
Wynne Delacoma was classical music critic for the Chicago Sun-Times from 1991 to 2006 and has been an adjunct journalism faculty member at Northwestern University. She is a freelance music critic, writer, and lecturer.