Marc A. Scorca: Harolyn Blackwell. Thank you so much for being with us today. I'm really grateful for your time.
Harolyn Blackwell: Thank you so much for having me, Marc. This is such an honor and privilege to be here with you today. This means so much to me.
Marc A. Scorca: You are such an important artist in the American story of opera, so it's really just an honor to have you here. But even though it's an honor, I'm not gonna spare you. I ask everyone: who brought you to your first opera?
Harolyn Blackwell: Okay. Let me start with saying that in my household, we basically listened to a great deal of jazz, musical theater and symphonic music. So I wasn't introduced to opera until I was about 17. So really late, I think. And it happened that I was touring with my best friend, different colleges in the Northeast. She went to Boston University and I wanted to go to Hartt School of Music, so we stopped in Connecticut and had a tour of the school. And we were passing the auditorium, and I heard this amazing singing. So I said to her, "Let's just open the doors quietly. No one's around, and we'll peek in". So we're standing there peeking in, and all of a sudden we hear this voice say to us, "Ladies, may I help you?" And we jumped. And I said, "Oh, I'm sorry, I'm sorry. We're just peeking in". And he said, "No, go in. Go in and watch the opera". And it happened to be the final dress rehearsal of Connecticut Opera's production (of) Lucia. And the singer was Cristina Deutekom.
Marc A. Scorca: Oh my goodness.
Harolyn Blackwell: Yes. Now I didn't know who she was. And so we sat there through act two, and then, of course, the mad scene and that just blew me away. So, we finished, we went back to the hotel, and the elevator arrives, the doors open, and who's standing in front of us? Cristina Deutekom. And I'm speechless, and I'm just a 17 year old, just trying to get the words out. "Thank you so much. Bravo. It was beautiful. And she was so gracious and so kind, and I never forgot that. And that was the first time.
Marc A. Scorca: Was it in your wildest dreams, that that would be a role you would one day sing?
Harolyn Blackwell: Never. Never in a million years. When I stepped on that stage to sing Lucia, I thought about that moment. That how life is, how universe, how God takes you on this journey and you just come full circle. And I remember that moment, when I walked on that stage for the first time. And I remember Anna Moffo saying something to me at the end when I finished the role. But not in a million years. I never really pictured myself as becoming an opera singer, because as I said, I listened to so much musical theater, and that's what I really wanted to do, Marc. That I wanted to be, as Ricky Gordon one day referred to me. "You're a Broadway baby, Harolyn.
Marc A. Scorca: I'm so glad you bring that up because certainly reading about your early career years, especially, and even into your career, some, the degree to which you went back and forth between opera and musical theater is noteworthy. And, yet, 17 years old, first time seeing an opera...Had someone already told you that you had performer talent? That you had talent as a singer, even as musical theater? That someone planted the seed that you were born for the stage.
Harolyn Blackwell: The person who planted the seed was my fourth grade teacher. Her name is Mrs. Nancy Notargiacomo, and she's still teaching today.
Marc A. Scorca: Really?
Harolyn Blackwell: Yes, and she was the person who really, not only discovered that I had a voice, but also discovered my personality. I was a very shy child, and she helped me to discover, as I said, Harolyn, the person and Harolyn voice. And one of the greatest lessons that she taught me was the following. I always was a child who said, "I can't do that. I can't do that" One day at a lesson, she said to me, "Can't is not a word in our vocabulary", and I have taken that from nine years of age until today. 'Can't' is not a word in our vocabulary. Yes, I can. So I am grateful to her every day.
Marc A. Scorca: Sure. But when did you begin to believe that maybe you could have a career on the stage?
Harolyn Blackwell: I think when I got up in church, to sing my first solo, Christmas Eve, and it was 'O Holy Night', and people just stopped and turned around and listened. And I remember seeing, looking down, and a woman cried, and that's when I realized the power of the human voice to move someone. And that's when I think I knew that, "Well, yes, I have something here. Maybe I should pursue this and continue with my voice lessons, continue with my piano lessons". But it was still a struggle. When I was in high school, I had decided I was either becoming a history major or fashion design. And I had a nun who was my choral director who said, "No, you're going into music." And when you're raised as a good Catholic girl, you do not argue with a nun.
Marc A. Scorca: So singing in church and 'O Holy Night' is a lot harder to sing than 'Jingle Bells'. You really have to be able to sing 'O Holy Night'. So you went to Catholic university in DC, and studied music education, thinking you might be a music teacher or because that was a good career choice and you could study voice, and study music.
Harolyn Blackwell: Well, I had very practical parents who said to me, "You may want to pursue this career as a performer, but there are a lot of wonderful singers out there, a lot of great singers. And how are you going to make a living, as you pursue this?" So they discussed with me and said, "I think maybe you should really consider music education". But let me also say this, that both of my parents - they were my first teachers - both of my parents were teachers. My aunt was a teacher. So I come from a long line of teachers. So it was almost in my DNA that I would go into education, and also being very practical about having a career. And as my father said to me, one day, he said, "You need something to fall back on".
Marc A. Scorca: Right? A safety net.
Harolyn Blackwell: "You need a safety net, because you don't know how long this is going to take. You don't know whether you will like this, as a career. Because, as I said, there are a lot of wonderful singers out there.
Marc A. Scorca: And you actually taught for a couple of years?
Harolyn Blackwell: Yes. I taught for one year and I taught K through eighth grade and that was quite a learning curve. And so I was teaching at two schools, and working on my degree full time, plus performing. And I remember - it must have been about the middle of February - I came down with the flu, and I was so sick. And I remember the principal of one of the secondary schools said to me, "Ms. Blackwell, you are burning the candles at both ends". And I said, "Sister, you are right". And I went home and I said to my mother, "I have to perform. I am a performer. I have got to do this". And my mother looked at me and she said, "Okay, how do you plan to do this?" And I said, "I'm not quite sure, but give me 10 years". And she said, "Okay." And I went out there and I started auditioning. I performed (in) a group called The Young Columbians in Washington, DC. And I was a secretary at a radio station. I worked for the US government. So I did all these odd jobs before I really started performing, or really getting something from my auditions. And I'm grateful that Washington DC had a really thriving arts scene. So growing up in Washington, DC was great, because I was able to do something...the Kennedy Center had not been built at that point; they were in the process of building it. But working at Blues Alley - I remember doing a cabaret there, working with this group from Columbia, Maryland called The Young Columbians, and also singing at church. So, I was very fortunate.
Marc A. Scorca: So take us then to West Side Story, because your first big credit is being in West Side Story, and you traveled to New York for an audition? How did that come about?
Harolyn Blackwell: Well, life is strange. I'm going to preface this by saying, two years prior to West Side Story being on Broadway, I was here visiting friends, and they had said to me, "They're holding auditions for West Side Story. You should audition". And I turned to my friend. I said, "I don't have time to do that. I have to finish this master's degree". Again, being very practical. I've got to do this first and foremost. And the second thing he told me, he said, "I want you to be on the lookout for a young singer by the name of Kathleen Battle". 'Cause they had both gone to Cincinnati conservatory. And I said, "OK". So I have forgotten about West Side Story. A friend of my then- boyfriend was at a bar, and he was talking to someone from New York, struck up a conversation. And both of them being actors, they were talking about that they were holding auditions for West Side Story And they had not found a Maria. So he then said to call my then-boyfriend and said, "They haven't found a Maria. You should get on top of this", gave him the name of the casting agent. My boyfriend then became my agent, called up and somehow got me a stage audition.
Marc A. Scorca: We're talking about for Broadway. We're not talking about for some lovely little theater off in the suburbs. We're talking about Broadway.
Harolyn Blackwell: Broadway. Got to be in a Broadway audition for West Side Story. Now mind you...this is why I always tell my students. I cannot tell you how many times I auditioned for Maria and how many productions of West Side Story...never, never got the role of Maria. So here I am, on the train coming up to New York City for this Broadway audition. And I get on stage and I sing, "I feel pretty". And then they asked me if I would sing "Somewhere". Fine. I sang "Somewhere". Then the voice of God from the darkness said, "Ms. Blackwell, do you dance?" And I said "A little bit". They said, "Well, Ms. Blackwell, do you dance?" I said, "Well, somewhat". And the third time, I could see that he was getting irritated, "Ms. Blackwell, do you dance?" I said, "Yes, whatever you want me to do, I can do". So afterwards, this gentleman came up to me, balding, with white beard, the mustache, and he's telling me, "We enjoyed your audition, and we'd like you to stay for the reading". I said, "Great, fine". I did my little dance bit, and I was able to get to the next stage for the reading. And my then-boyfriend is in the background and he's doing all these motioning like this (gesticulates, moving hands), and I'm going, "What is he doing?" And the gentleman left. And he came over to me. He said, "Do you know who you just spoke to?" I said, "I don't know, but he sure was a lovely gentleman". He said, "Well, you just spoke to Jerome Robbins, Harolyn. And at that moment I thought, "Okay, I have lost this job totally". But it was an amazing experience, and really I came to it in this respect, Marc. I said, "It's my first Broadway audition. What are my chances getting in West Side Story on Broadway, my first audition? But you know, I'm going to do this audition and I'm gonna learn something from it, and if I don't get it, that's fine. Yes, I can be disappointed, but that will enable me to do my next audition". Well, I was fortunate and they called me to understudy the role of Maria, and to sing 'Somewhere'.
Marc A. Scorca: And then you did that on tour, for a couple of years.
Harolyn Blackwell: I did it for about two years. It was on Broadway from February to September? Then we closed the show and then we went on to Europe and toured France and Italy. But Let me go back and say that this was really a special moment in reviving this West Side Story, because it had been 25 years since the original collaborators had come together to revive the show. So I had the opportunity to work with Robbins and Bernstein. Stephen Sondheim wasn't around much or Arthur Laurents. Chita Rivera. So it was amazing, big deal to work with the original collaborators.
Marc A. Scorca: A dazzling big deal for someone who was young, in a first real effort to get into the big time, and you got into the big, big time.
Harolyn Blackwell: I had friends who kept saying to me, "How?" I said "Again, God, and the universe was just aligning all of this for this moment".
Marc A. Scorca: Now, during this, Harolyn, was opera at all lingering in the background for you? Or Broadway: here I am. Watch out.
Harolyn Blackwell: It was more Broadway: here I am. Watch out. But the Broadway scene is changing about that time. There were maybe two revivals, and there were more new Broadway shows that that really incorporated more of the pop, jazz music. So at that point you were having Godspell Jesus Christ Superstar, The Wiz, Bubbling Brown Sugar, A Chorus Line. So, we were moving more away from the - I would call the golden age musicals - that were really based more on operetta.
Marc A. Scorca: Right. Absolutely.
Harolyn Blackwell: When you do the history of musical theater, most of those Rodgers and Hammerstein, Jerome Kern...they were coming out of the operetta experience, and bringing that to musical theater. That was changing. And every time I would go to an audition, everyone would say to me, "Lovely voice, beautiful voice. Well, we want a different style". I'm auditioning for Dorothy for The Wiz, and that wasn't my voice.
Marc A. Scorca: What I gather from that, is that your training had you singing in a very technique-based vocal training.
Harolyn Blackwell: Yeah. Exactly. And I'm grateful for that technique, because let me tell you, Marc singing eight shows a week is truly...you learn about stamina and you learn about vocal technique. It teaches you so much, but I mean, it's a totally different type of stamina that we need, and when we're singing opera, but those eight shows a week, really, vocally speaking, it's tricky. You really have to know what you're doing. But I would say the turning point for me was, - and I'm sure you remember this - there was a Bohème that they did at the Public Theater with Linda Ronstadt. Do you remember that?
Marc A. Scorca: You know, I remember her on Broadway.
Harolyn Blackwell: It was right after she did Pirates. A year or two after that, they mounted a Bohème for her in the parks.
Marc A. Scorca: That's right. I had forgotten about that.
Harolyn Blackwell: Yeah. And I went to the audition, to audition for Musetta, and finished singing 'Quando m'en vo' and again, the music director said, "Great, wonderful". And he said to me then, "Can you sing it a third down?" And I said, "Excuse me". He said, "Yes, we're going to transpose it a third down; can you sing a third down?" I said, "No, Puccini didn't write it a third down". In that moment. I thought, "Number one, I've lost this job. Number two", I walked out and I thought, "It's changing to the point that I now have to find another way to express myself". And it was my best girlfriend, who sat down with me. I said, "I only sang two operas when I was at Catholic University, because I spent too much time in the drama department, Marc. I was going back between the drama department and the school of music. And I nearly lost a scholarship, because they had to remind me that, "Well, Ms. Blackwell, you have an opera scholarship, but you're spending too much time in that drama department". I said, "Oh, yes, I understand". So I had only performed two operas during my time when I was at Catholic University. So how do I even start this? And my girlfriend sat down with me, took out Musical America. We opened it up, and she said, "You're gonna audition for apprenticeship programs".
Marc A. Scorca: Wow.
Harolyn Blackwell: I said, "Okay". And she said, "And we're gonna sit here, and we're gonna write letters, and we're gonna send them out to maybe 10 apprenticeship programs". And that's how it started. And I went to audition for the Houston program. That was the first audition I did, and I got into their program. I was ready to go to their program. And then Chicago called me, and my friend said, "Well, why would you be interested in auditioning for Chicago?" I said, "Because I'm curious. I've always been a very curious person". I said, "If nothing else, I'll go there, and I'll learn something from the audition". Well, Marc, I was the last name they called for the ensemble. And I remember several people coming up to me afterwards saying, "Congratulations, you must be thrilled". And I'm going, "Yes. Now, what am I going to do?" And so, I sat down. I wrote down the pros and cons (as my father has always taught about every major decision I had to make), and they were both great programs. And the Houston program afforded me the opportunity to work with John DeMain, who I had worked with in West Side Story - he was the conductor for West Side Story - but I was working with a teacher here in New York City that I really wanted to continue working with. And Houston wouldn't allow me to do that.
Marc A. Scorca: How interesting. 'Cause I know that while you were in Chicago, there was a foot in New York as well. And now I understand; it was a voice teacher. Okay.
Harolyn Blackwell: It was was Franco Iglesias. I was studying with Franco Iglesias, who had coached and worked with Plácido (Domingo), and I'd just started with him and things were really working well. And the teacher they were going to assign me in Houston was a brilliant teacher, but I felt that we had this connection, and I really felt that I wanted to see where that would go. And, as I said, Chicago allowed me to come back and forth to do that. So...
Marc A. Scorca: And when you sort of switched the dial a little bit to the opera side, and were studying with Mr. Iglesias in New York, did you have to change anything from your musical theater experience, or had you approached musical theater in a way that vocally allowed you to step right into opera?
Harolyn Blackwell: I have always felt that whatever repertoire that I sing, I had to have a good vocal technique, and I even believe this, and I teach this, that whatever you sing, you have to have a good vocal technique. The style changes. So singing the style of musical theater is totally different than singing the style of opera, than singing jazz, but the basic technique of how to take a good breath, of how to project the voice, that's just basic, and that doesn't change across the board. The style changes. So, what I discovered was that I needed more vocal stamina singing opera, and that is what I had to acquire. Also because I didn't do that much singing of opera in college that I really had to concentrate on my languages again, and the style. So really Chicago was a wonderful opportunity for me. And I'll be honest with you. I wasn't quite sure. I was not quite sure whether I wanted to continue. I really felt that Chicago would be giving the opportunity to see if I had the wherewithal to do this, and if I really had the passion for it. I knew I had the passion for musical theater, but did not really have the passion for this. Did I really have all of the things I needed to pursue an opera career?
Marc A. Scorca: Did you discover that passion pretty quickly or was it a slow boil?
Harolyn Blackwell: It was slow. It was difficult, when I first arrived in Chicago. I was in a new city. I didn't know anyone. I had come from this musical theater background. The majority of the singers in the program had just come out of school. And they had (degrees from) Indiana University, Cincinnati, all the big schools. And they had been doing this for four years, five years. I really was like an infant again, crawling, standing up, trying to find my feet. I just had this instrument, That was a good voice, but I had to learn everything from scratch again. I had some of this when I was in college, but it had been years.
Marc A. Scorca: It's so funny. They may have had the conservatory training, but you were the one who had two plus years on the stage doing eight performances a week. So you were, in a way, far more experienced in one lane than they were.
Harolyn Blackwell: Absolutely. And that's what I realized one day. We were doing a concert at Grant Park, and I don't know if you know the director, Marc Verzatt?
Marc A. Scorca: I know the name, but I don't know him.
Harolyn Blackwell: Yes. Marc was directing and I was doing an aria from Wiener Blut, I remember now. And he said to me, "Harolyn, I don't have time to really stage this". I said, "Well Marc, what am I going to do?" He said, "I'm gotta move on". And I thought, "Well, I'm gonna have to stage this". And that's what I learned from doing eight shows a week. What I learned from doing eight shows a week is that the stage is my home. I feel more comfortable on the stage than I really do sometimes walking down the street. Myy husband's a running joke. My husband says, "How is it you can run across stage and do all those things. And yet you walk down the street and the next thing I know, you've tripped over your feet and you're on the ground" . I said," I don't know, because that is my home. That's why I feel so comfortable, being as a person, as a performer, as a singer". So yes, I had had that experience that they had not had. And I had the experience of really being... You know, I tell people there's a reason why this is called show business. We understand the show part of it, but there is a business side of it. And I remember telling this young singer who was not returning the following year, and she was distraught. She said, "What am I going to do?" And I said, "You're gonna file for unemployment". And she said, "I can't do that". I said, "Oh yes, you can". I said, "Because that unemployment check will help you pay for your lessons". I said, "We all know this. As soon as we finish a job or a show ended...it used to be up here on 94th and Broadway. It was our Cafe Unemployment.
Marc A. Scorca: Now, in terms of giving you a green light go signal, The Metropolitan Opera Auditions and your success there had to have been the period at the end of the sentence that said 'opera is a place for you'.
Harolyn Blackwell: Yes, definitely. I would say again, outta the clear blue sky, I was told that since we were at the Chicago Lyric Opera Center, that we all had to audition for The Metropolitan Opera Auditions. And again, I just thought it would be a great experience. There's no way, not in a million years. And four of us came from the Chicago region and I thought, "Okay, so I'm going back to The Met. Now let me preface this by saying I had made my Met debut, with West Side Story. They did an evening honoring Leonard Bernstein, while we were doing West Side Story. And this was during the transit strike. So I brought all my things and I stayed with a friend who lived on 23rd Street. And so I remember walking in with my little suitcase, and one of the boys said to me, "Are you moving into The Met?" And I turned and looked at him, and said "One day". I don't know why he was being really silly, and I thought, "Yeah, one day this is gonna happen". I guess I should say that was my Met debut in the respect that we did the quintet from West Side Story.
Marc A. Scorca: ...and you walked in the stage entrance and you sang on the stage...
Harolyn Blackwell: ...and I walked in the stage entrance with my suitcase going "Here I am; I'm ready to go", long before I even thought about becoming an opera singer, but you're absolutely right. We were selected, the four of us were selected. Again, I thought no way, because most of those who were selected, they had been there two or three years or four years in the program. I was still the baby. And when they called my name, I was in a state of shock, Marc. I was in a state of shock. And I remember my mother coming to me in my dressing room afterwards. And she looked at me and she said, "10 years, Harolyn". And I looked at her and said, "What do you mean?" She said, "You said it would be 10 years". And I just stopped and I hugged her. And I said, "You're right, mommy".
Marc A. Scorca: Wow.
Harolyn Blackwell: Never knew. I mean, I don't even know why I picked 10 years, but I knew what I had to learn, what I had to accomplish. And this is what I try to tell my students is that, it's a process. It never stops. It's continuing. You will take four steps forward and go take five steps back. But I always had this goal of knowing where I wanted to go. I didn't know how I was gonna get there, and I knew that eventually I would get there, if I was willing to do the work, be patient, persevere and say a lot of prayers. So I remember one day when I was doing a Fille, a journalist asked me, "So what has been your success, Harolyn?" And again, out of nowhere, I said, my four p's: patience, practice, perseverance and prayers.
Marc A. Scorca: Those are good. As I read your biographies and various interviews, you talk about your contact with Reri Grist, whom we're honoring this, this October. So happy about that. Renata Tebaldi, Carlo Bergonzi. And another one you talk about, the great colleague, Alfredo Kraus. These are amazing artists to know. Did you have any role models as you developed your career? People who actually did go back and forth between Broadway and opera or people who were in your repertoire fach, and you just thought of them as role models, or talked to them as role models. Any of those?
Harolyn Blackwell: I would say definitely Reri, because our paths really were so similar, to the point that every time in the beginning of my career, when I would go audition, people would say, "You remind me so much of Reri Grist", to the point that when I did my European audition tour, I called her up. I'd never met her. I called her up. I said, "Miss Grist, my name is Miss Blackwell. Sam Biefels, (who was my manager then), gave me your number". And she said, "Well, how can I help you?" I said, "Well, I would like to meet you. I'm here in Munich for a couple of days". And she said, "Well, I really don't have time to give you a lesson". And I said, Miss Grist, I am not interested in a lesson. I just wanna meet you, because every time I walk into an audition, everyone says that I remind them of you, and I just want to meet you. That's all I want to do; nothing else". And when I met her, I went, "Oh, okay. Our voices are very similar. We're built the same way. And her personality, I love Reri. I mean, she tells you the way it is. Exactly tells you the way it is. And so when I was back for my European debut, I called her up and said, I will be doing Oscar in Ballo, would you coach me for week?" And she did. And so I would say Reri. I think Mattiwilda Dobbs. I think of Leontyne (Price) of course, even if we didn't sing the same repertoire. But there've been so many people. I mean, Luciano. Being on stage with Luciano every time was a lesson.
Marc A. Scorca: So many people have said that to me, in these interviews that I've done. So many people who had the pleasure, honor of singing onstage with Pavarotti said how much they learned from him.
Harolyn Blackwell: I learned so much about the voice. I learned so much about the text, where to place the text, the phrasing, the style. It was a lesson every night being on stage with him. And I am so grateful that I had that amazing opportunity. I remember the first time working with him was in Chicago and it was a final dress rehearsal, and he flew in the night before for that rehearsal. And so he was basically marking and we were in act one, scene two, and I was kneeling at his feet, and he finally decided to sing. And I remember looking up at him and this is what entered my mind, Marc. "Oh my God, this is the most beautiful voice I have ever heard in my life". Just surrounding me to the point when I missed my entrance. And I heard the conductor go, "Oscar, Oscar, you are late". "Sorry maestro..."
Marc A. Scorca: You were dazzled.
Harolyn Blackwell: I was dazzled and mesmerized by this sound. And to this day, I remember walking into Tower Records one day. I walked in, and there was a recording, and I turned to the gentleman and I said, "Luciano Pavarotti", and he looked me and said, "How do you know?" and I said "I know that voice better than anyone else..." I think that anyone who has performed with him knows that voice.
Marc A. Scorca: And you mention Tower Records. And for those who listened to our interview in 2022, to remember just walking through the aisles of Tower Records, just up on Broadway and seeing all of the posters of the opera singers and the miles of CD's, or, in my day, the LP's. It was just what we did. You saw your friends at Tower Records.
Harolyn Blackwell: Exactly. I mean that was a meeting place. And you just scour and grew through the records and through the LP's and you find this one recording, you just thought, "Oh my God, I've got have that. That's it. I've been looking for this; here it is".
Marc A. Scorca: It's so true. I've loved reading in your interviews, Harolyn, because as your repertoire changed over time, and you took on some more lyric roles, lyric coloratura, but lyric roles, you say that your voice changes every time, every year, every day, your voice is changing. Do you ever stop studying voice when you make a life as an opera singer?
Harolyn Blackwell: No, no, no. Never. Never, because everyone's different, but for me, I know I need another set of ears to help me, because what we hear inside of us is not always what's coming outside. And there are moments when you, and learning so much repertoire, or you're performing a great deal, that things creep in, and you're not even aware they're happening. And so for me, it has always been important to have my team as I call them. My voice teacher, my coaches, that are there to remind me and put me back on track. And what's funny now as a teacher, you're saying this to your students, and then when I go to my teacher and he's telling me the same thing. I'm going, "Yes, I know. I know. I know. I know. Okay. Let's do that again". I feel you always need that person who really knows you, knows your voice to really keep you on track. So I always, yes. I study with Dr. Robert White now, and I love him. I adore him. I was with Shirlee Emmons for many, many years and she was brilliant. She really saved me, because I was a singer who had a natural voice, but there comes a time when you have to know what you really are doing.
Marc A. Scorca: Right.
Harolyn Blackwell: And she taught me that. She gave me a real technique, and for that I'm forever grateful. That has been the base of everything. I get information from all types - from teachers and coaches, but she gave me the base technique that I still use today.
Marc A. Scorca: Oh how wonderful. And Dr. White is such a nice man.
Harolyn Blackwell: Oh, I adore him. I adore him.
Marc A. Scorca: Lovely man. You as a teacher. Are there wonderful rewards to being a teacher that you...well, I guess going back to being a teacher. You taught K to eight way, way back, and now you're teaching other singers. Is it rewarding to you to be a teacher of rising singers?
Harolyn Blackwell: Oh, absolutely. Well, can I say this? They really keep me on my toes, because I feel honored to be teaching them, because they are teaching me. I learn something from each and every one of my singers, and I teach at three different schools. I teach at Manhattan School of Music, which is a conservatory. I teach at Barnard, Columbia, where most of my students are basically from all disciplines, but they've had some music background. They've either done some musical theater; they've taken voice lessons. So a wide array of disciplines. And then at NYU, where I teach classical as well as musical theater. So from each of them, I am learning something and because of that, they are really guiding me, and helping me to become a better teacher, day by day.
Marc A. Scorca: As you say, you are a curious person. You like learning. And they all must ask you for advice. So is your advice the four p's or do you have other advice for them?
Harolyn Blackwell: Well, it's the four p's...I think the most difficult thing for them to do, and maybe we were like this...sometimes you forget to enjoy the process. Sometimes I feel that we're so busy getting to the end result, that we forget to enjoy the process. The process of learning, really, of taking things apart, putting them back together, failing. You need to fall on your face every once in a while. You need to fall and pick yourself up and go, "What did I learn from that experience. To be analytic. To take things apart. And what I find often, is my students, when I give them new information and they haven't processed it immediately, the first reaction is, "Oh, I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I didn't get that. I'm so upset. I didn't get that". I said, "Well, I just gave you the information. You need to go take that information, process that information". Because when I say to them, "I'm here to guide you. I'm here to give you the information, but eventually you are going to have to get into that practice room and you are going to have to do the nitty gritty, dirty work of pulling it all apart and putting it together". Then it becomes a part of you as your person, your body and your voice. So that's one thing I constantly say, "Enjoy the process".
Marc A. Scorca: Enjoy the process.
Harolyn Blackwell: Because the process is long. It never stops.
Marc A. Scorca: And you have to live in it, to get through it. I mean, there's no doubt. There's no skipping it.
Harolyn Blackwell: Marc. May I quote you on that? Thank you. You've given me a gift today. Thank you.
Marc A. Scorca: It's so true. I'm just delighted that you are passing along both sides of your musical personality, the music theater and the opera, at all of these wonderful institutions. Before we sign off today, I wanted to bring up the topic of Sissieretta Jones.
Harolyn Blackwell: Oh, thanks.
Marc A. Scorca: And, only a few months before she passed, I interviewed Jessye Norman about Sissieretta Jones, because I knew that the life and career of this remarkable singer was of great interest to Ms. Norman and put together a program about it. And I understand that that is equally of interest to you and that you've taken up the banner of Sissieretta Jones. Could you tell us some about Sissieretta Jones, and what you're doing with that?
Harolyn Blackwell: Yes. Sissieretta Jones was an African American opera singer around the early 19th century, and she was the preeminent African American female opera singer of that time. And to be honest with you, it was Jessyewho introduced me to her, when she did her Honor! Festival. And the last night of the Honor! Festival, we paid tribute to all those African American singers who had performed on Carnegie Hall stage. And the first person was Sissieretta Jones. And she asked me to sing, to represent Sissieretta Jones.
Marc A. Scorca: 'Cause Sissieretta Jones was a coloratura...
Harolyn Blackwell: We don't quite know...yes, she was a coloratura. I really think she was a lyric coloratura. OK. I think she was a lyric coloratura, knowing the repertoire that she sang. But they said that she had this amazing voice that went from like a low C to a high A without any problems - just glorious sound from top to bottom. It was even from top to bottom, and with impeccable languages and style. And so there was a plethora of these singers about this time, but she was the preeminent one. And what was fascinating to me about her was that she was given the name, The Black Patti, which was basically how they marketed her, because of Adelina Patti. And it was something that she never really took to, because she, in her own right had an amazing instrument, but again, because of the marketing tool, that really is how she became labeled - as The Black Patti. And then she started her Black Patti Troubadors, which basically toured around the country.
Marc A. Scorca: And around the world too.
Harolyn Blackwell: Yes. Around the world, around the country. She herself sang in Australia. She sang for the King of England. She sang in the Caribbean. She's sang in Germany. She sang in Russia. She sang for four presidents. And, she died a pauper, no one knowing anything about her. And so it was Jessye who introduced me to her and also Rosalyn's story, who wrote the book of Of Thee I Sing, about African American female opera singers. So when Jessye approached me about this, about really calling her by her name: Sissieretta Jones and her own rights, and what she accomplished as an opera singer, as a black woman, as an entrepreneur. In that day and age, that was unheard of. That was unheard of.
Marc A. Scorca: When I spoke to Ms. Norman a few years ago about Sissieretta Jones, she told me that they had not yet found any recording of her. Still no recording?
Harolyn Blackwell: Still no recording, but I am still hopeful. I know somewhere on the face of this planet, I am one day gonna find that recording. It is somewhere in someone's basement, or some collection somewhere that no one knows what they have. I am sure of it, somewhere. I feel it in my bones. It's there somewhere. We just have to keep looking for it. Possibly, there might be something over in Europe, but it has to be somewhere. I hope we hear her voice.
Marc A. Scorca: The story is incredible about her talent, and, as you say, her talent and her entrepreneurialism, and all that she went through and then a sad end to her life. It really is remarkable.
Harolyn Blackwell: Well, you know, I just realized this. I read this recently that when she died, no one knew her. Marian Anderson made her European debut. The same year, a couple months apart. I was doing some research and I thought how ironic that the torch was being passed. Someone not knowing about Sissieretta Jones, but yet Marian Anderson. Then Marian Anderson to Leontyne; Leontyne to the rest of us.
Marc A. Scorca: As you learn more - we did write about it in our magazine a few years ago when I spoke to Ms. Norman. As there is more, we'd love to continue covering it. I just think it an historic story that should not in any way be lost, but really should be known more broadly. So thank you for that.
Harolyn Blackwell: Well, Jessye has given me and my other colleague Adina Williams - this is our mission. And I had several people who said to me when she passed away, "Well, I guess that's the end". I said, "Oh no, that's not the end of this project. We will carry this project to its full fruition, just as Jessye has wanted us to do.
Marc A. Scorca: Good for you. Harolyn Blackwell, thank you so much for this time today.
Harolyn Blackwell: The pleasure has been all mine. And I want to say, Marc, I want to thank you. I want to thank you for all these years of giving us so much of yourself and making OPERA America the amazing and important institution that it is in the world today.
Marc A. Scorca: ...you have the same repertoire as Reri Grist. You are physically of the same stature as Reri Grist. I was gonna say, you also have the same grace as Reri Grist, because she is such a fine, gracious lady. And you have that same quality.
Harolyn Blackwell: Every time I see her, I give her this big hug, and I start crying and I said, "It's because of you that I am".