“That may sound too cheesy, but Paris is everything I expected and more,” acclaimed soprano Angel Blue says with laughter when you ask her about the effect the City of Lights has on her. She is about to make her Opéra national de Paris debut in a blockbuster production of Charles Gounod’s Faust by German director Tobias Kratzer, alongside a five-star cast: Benjamin Bernheim, Christian Van Horn, Florian Sempey and Emily D’Angelo, under the baton of Thomas Hengelbrock. She tells us about the challenge of embodying this emblematic role of the French repertoire, her past of beauty pageants in the United States, and her will to share optimism with the people she meets.
Opera Online: Director Tobias Kratzer has a very physical approach for Faust in his Opéra national de Paris production. Does it match with the idea that you had of the work?
Angel Blue: I think it’s the same as my ideas, but in other ways it’s very different. I really admire his vision for the piece because he has made it very realistic. Opera characters seem so far and unattainable, what the action is does happen to people but that’s not real. Faust is very real, with the idea of a man who wants his youth back, maybe not just for a woman, just for himself to relive his life.
Becoming Marguerite isn’t easy, but I think going through her journey is even more difficult. It feels scary to make Marguerite more human but it’s nice when opera characters are real people. Tobias does a physical job on her by bringing out her generosity and loneliness, you can really feel her struggle and pain. It’s interesting for a man to intuitively read a woman’s emotions so well. He’s very into details and the specificity of the character and I’m very grateful for that. He adapted the church scene (act IV) in the subway, with Marguerite hearing the demons from her headphones. We did this scene today and Christan Van Horn said that the subway is in a way people’s church, and it’s true. I used to live in London for 3 years, and when you think of the tube it really is a place to think although it can be crowded with so many people.
In the past few years you have participated in productions of Porgy and Bess and Fire Shut Up in My Bones at the Metropolitan Opera. Do you feel it’s the right time to deal with racial issues in opera in general?
I think it has always been the right time. I just guess sometimes people aren’t listening or they are just pretending to be interested in the topic but not truly caring about it. As a musician I always think there’s a difference between hearing and listening. We hear things that don’t sound comfortable and we don’t want to listen to them. You’re offered a black square on Facebook so everybody may know that you’re officially against racism, but putting in on social media is not the same as making an opera. I’m not judging anybody, I’m a black woman and I just look at life through my eyes, I try to see other people’s points of view, but I think sometimes people just pretend to be with me. They hear it but it’s going in one ear and out the other, it’s not heard by the heart. It's been very hard for me to talk about racial issues in opera because I got hired to do lead roles and I’m a tall black woman. I’m at the Paris Opera singing Marguerite, I’ve been several times at the Metropolitan Opera and at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden so how am I really supposed to talk about that? I’ve experienced racism but I’m still focused on what I want and have to do.
You’re hosting the “Faithful Friday” chat shows on your YouTube channel and you were a host at the BBC. How different is it to be interviewed and hold the microphone?
I don’t like actually talking about myself, and that’s not necessarily because I don’t want to as I’m really genuinely interested in other people. “What do you like to do?” and “Where are you from?” are the questions I usually ask the people I meet with. On the other side of the microphone, I find your position to be more interesting because you get to learn more in the session. I would easily reverse the roles if I could now, “How did Paris change you and what did you expect from it? How did you get into journalism? What countries have you been to? Why did you choose to stay at home in France for journalism?” I like people so I think that’s cool to get to know them. When I’m doing an interview I’m putting all my energy into it, like when I’m singing. I want to be focused on one thing at a time.
You were first runner up for Miss Hollywood (2005), Miss California (2006) and Miss Nevada (2007). Do you feel the same kind of pressure in pageantry and opera?
I feel that way now. When I started in opera I just finished competing in a very high modelling career. I felt the pressure to be singing better all the time but I got a lot of comments that I was very lean. The pressure I felt from pageantry was to be always thinner and when I did the Young Artist Program at the LA Opera and started singing, the people were more interested in how I sounded so I put more pressure on my voice and less pressure on myself to look like a model.
Now I think it’s both and being honest I hate that. I feel like now to be back in 2006 when I kept hearing, “Angel, it’s great for you to sing and you’re very talented, but on top of that you need to be this gorgeous, sexy, attractive woman.” For Miss California in 2006 I was competing against women who were naturally thin, and at the swim suit competition I had to wear a size 34, whereas the year prior I was a size 38. I’m 1.83 m tall and I worked really hard on my body to be able to wear a blue 2-piece bikini, and I don’t even think I was on stage for 30 seconds. When I came off stage I just remember thinking, “Was it worth it?” I worked very hard on the French for Marguerite, to be able to follow the conductor and listen to my colleagues. I actually love singing, and the pressure of having to look a certain way should not come into opera that heavily.
You’re having a lot of live moments on social media. How important is this to keep this being sincere and honest with the people?
It’s just who I am. I find people fascinating. That, for me, is not so much about my career. When I go live, I just hope somebody’s there to chat with them and see how everything’s going. Although social media can make you feel closer to the people, I hate them in a way because it’s very distracting and that’s just a horrible ground for comparison. My father used to tell me not to get caught into drama. I was always talking about the people around me winning competitions and he would say, “Focus on what you have to do and not on the people. Just make sure that you know what you’re doing.” So I’m taking that with me a lot.
You’re also talking a lot with children in your live moments. Is it important for them to get the right angle to enjoy opera?
I think kids are very impressionable. When I was a younger singer there’s a lot of information that I didn’t get, and most of that was the honesty of the job. I didn’t hear, “Angel, you’re doing well.” Of course you need to know what you have to do better but you already put the pressure on yourself so you don’t need other people to put more pressure on you. When I go live with recently graduated younger singers I want them to know that it’s awesome to learn 4 French chansons and 2 Lieder and take Italian at the same time. Children just repeat not only to themselves but also to each other so this is important to spread positive words with them. I wish opera had more of that. I came to Paris a week ago totally scared about singing French in France, and everybody in the room fluent in French, their ears listening to every syllable that came out of my mouth. When I finished the first rehearsal Benjamin Bernheim said to me, “Your French is very good. You can have more ‘u’ and some consonants, but actually I can understand it!” In my opinion that’s the best way to encourage someone to keep moving forward.
Interview by Thibault Vicqthe 26 of June, 2022 | Print