5 Questions to Briana Hunter (mezzo-soprano)

Briana Hunter‘s career in opera has been nothing short of a meteoric rise. The dedication to her craft is ever-present in the care she takes to fully embody the essence of her characters. With a repertoire that includes roles in Carmen, Jeanine Tesori’s Blue, and Terrence Blanchard’s Fire Shut Up in My Bones, she has earned critical acclaim, establishing herself as a mezzo-soprano to watch. For the 2023-24 season, Hunter’s performance schedule is packed as she returns to the Metropolitan Opera with roles in Dead Man Walking, Carmen, Fire Shut Up in My Bones, and Madama Butterfly. She is also set to produce a number of projects as an Artist Propulsion Lab Fellow for WQXR.

Another remarkable milestone is the release of Dispersed and Transcendental Chants, Op. 18, a new collaboration with composer Julián De La Chica featuring poetry by Hunter and interdisciplinary artist, facilitator, and cultural worker Rae De Vine.

Out Nov. 17 on Irreverence Group Music, the deeply emotional album forges bridges between this world and ancestral veneration, African spirituality, personal confession, grief, and strength. Based on African Diasporic tradition, the song cycle for mezzo and piano is open to interpretation yet hauntingly grounded in its own truth. “Chant No. 7: Mother” is the work’s anchor; its soft yet poignant lyrics are a beautiful ode to the worlds that had to exist for Hunter to have life. The piano accompaniment does not seek to stand out; instead, it lightly accentuates Hunter’s voice as she delicately expresses the connection between herself and her mother (“You, mother, found me in my dreams and made a new reality when I couldn’t face my mothers or my fears”). Weighted and deeply-rooted downbeats in the piano shape most of the tracks, but “Chant No. 5: Yemaya” and “Chant No. 10: Ring Shout” pick up the momentum and infuse color in an otherwise blue and gray album.

Briana Hunter -- Photo by Caitlin Oldham

Briana Hunter — Photo by Caitlin Oldham

When you began training as an operatic singer, were you surprised by what your voice could produce? Did you always know this ability was within?

I always tell people I would sing even if no one wanted to hear me, and oftentimes they didn’t. When I was little, I would be in the elevator with my family singing along to the Muzak, and my sister would make fun of me. Later on, I think I just got lucky that the sounds I made were alright, and then came the growth and training.

I must have known I had it in me, but it definitely started as just the most natural form of expression as my love for music became more and more evident. I had the good fortune of having parents who not only recognized this was within me, but encouraged me and exposed me to all kinds of art, theater, and music. There was a studio in my town called Sweet Arts Studio that taught all artistic disciplines. I took acting classes, drawing, painting, piano, and voice. I was that quiet kid who simply came alive in this arena. The public school I attended in Pennsylvania had an incredible drama and choral program. I essentially did a musical and a play every year from the fifth grade on. I was a theater major as an undergraduate. I would say I started out as an actor in straight theater with music on the side. Drama and story are inextricably linked to any music I make and are my way into any piece. It was incredible to be able to contribute my words and determine the story being told from the outset of this song cycle.

Can you tell us about the motivation behind your partnership with Julián De La Chica on Dispersed and Transcendental Chants? How did the vision for this project come about, and why this project now?

I had heard a previous album by Julián De La Chica and soprano Rachel Hippert, and I fell in love with it. It was Experimentelle Und Unbestimmte Lieder. There was this profound trance-like yet emotional quality to the music. I couldn’t escape the feelings it pulled out of me. I already knew I wanted to create something that wasn’t just a commission, but highly collaborative, and after probably a year of listening to the album, I knew I had to reach out to Julián. I didn’t know him at all and took a chance by writing him a cold email. I was so glad he responded! We met up at a small coffee shop, talked about all of the things we were passionate about, and it became clear we were going to create something together.

We knew we wanted to create something that tapped into the African diaspora, but I also knew I didn’t want to speak about it too generally. It needed to be linked to my story and how my ancestors carried me to this point. This album, the poetry, and the journey are deeply personal. I’m at a point in my career where I’ve had the great fortune to bring other artists’ visions to life, and I was craving more freedom and autonomy to follow my own heart, sing about things that held deep meaning for me, and expose a bit more of my inner self. This album feels incredibly vulnerable to me.

Julián De La Chica -- Photo by IGM

Julián De La Chica — Photo by IGM

The song cycle references the Ifa Orishan deity Yemaya and the Haitian Vodou god Bondyé. Could you share how this rich cultural heritage influenced the composition and your method of interpreting the music?

I knew I wanted to call on all corners of the diaspora and acknowledge and celebrate all of the inventive and determined ways in which keepers of African culture and religion held onto their Gods. It’s like echoes or ripples through time. They may go by a different name, whether you’re in Cuba, Haiti, West Africa, but after all of these centuries and all efforts to erase our identities, we still know them. That is absolutely incredible to me.

Furthermore, the religions that honor these orishas and loas are deeply rooted in the divine feminine and the power of women, versus the very patriarchal Western Christian traditions. I’ve always felt strongly tied to and called by my matriarchs, both earthly and divine. In the song “Yemaya,” poet Rae DeVine writes, “I’ve always known your name / but never the words to your songs” — this sense of knowing intuitively what is at first unknown, a sense of intuitive belonging. Yemaya is also known to hold power over the water, and slaves were said to have prayed to her as they made the horrendous journey through the Middle Passage.

For centuries, we have seen images in song and literature of women going to the sea or some body of water, whether it’s “The Awakening” by Kate Chopin, Ophelia in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” “Chanson Perpetuelle” by Chausson (text by Cros), etc. In this case I didn’t want to depict a woman going to water to end it all, but to be welcomed home. The whole song cycle is a ritual or a call to come home no matter where you are. The ancestors are with us, the old and the recent. One day, we will be the ancestors for future generations. There have been specific times in my life I have felt them, profoundly.

Briana Hunter -- Photo by Caitlin Oldham

Briana Hunter — Photo by Caitlin Oldham

What is it like to receive critical acclaim in a genre where Black artists are still underrepresented? Do you feel your ancestors have supported you as you navigate this path?

One hundred thousand percent I feel my ancestors have supported this path. I know I wouldn’t be here without them guiding me and protecting me. Several years ago, my father brought home the diary of his grandfather. He started writing it in January in the 1930s. He had immigrated to New York City from the island of Montserrat. In the first entry, he simply reflected on how cold it was here. This is absolutely the direct inspiration for the song “Great-Grandfather,” but it also connects to the final “Closing” piece, which is a reflection on my time in NYC.  There’s a direct tie. I feel the presence of my relatives moving through me every day, especially when I’m here.

One of the poets on the album is Rae DeVine, one of my oldest friends. It was one of those bonds that felt more like finding someone again from a past life. They have a deep and intuitive spirituality, and, ever since we met, we have talked about that intuition. We both have deep roots in the American South and the Caribbean. We felt a connection even before we delved into our roots, but as our understanding of our origins grew, so did the depth of our friendship. That’s why I felt so compelled to include their poetry on the album, as well.

The song “El Poeta” is the piece that I really feel reveals the connection between Julián De La Chica and myself. Obviously, he is all over and inside of the album as the composer, but this song really felt like a meeting of the souls. There was a version in English at one point, but something about it felt more honest in Spanish, so we went with that. Furthermore, the album looks to the entire African diaspora, which is not limited to anglophone countries. I had relatives who speak Spanish, and it’s Julián’s native tongue.

This piece speaks to the heartbreak of the artist holding the emotional weight of the world. “I pray to the good Lord that the poet will scream, because in their crying is our redemption.” Art is one of the many ways we have carried our legacy and heritage. It helps us see ourselves more clearly. It helps us process big feelings when traditional words fail. Artists often are the first to speak truth to powerful systems and are silenced as a result. At this stage of the cycle/ritual, we are breaking through the sorrow and finding healing. They weep for the pain of the world, and in their crying out is our redemption.

What do you hope audiences will take away from the album? Are there specific themes or narratives that you hope will reach listeners?

I hope they feel invited to participate in the ritual as listeners, and to allow the album to take them on a journey. I want them to be transported and challenged. I hope it gives them space to grieve and feel connected to a collective experience that contains multitudes. I hope they feel the absence of time while listening. I hope they can experience the palpable truth that the past, present, and future exist all in the same room.


I CARE IF YOU LISTEN is an editorially-independent program of the American Composers Forum, and is made possible thanks to generous donor and institutional support. Opinions expressed are solely those of the author and may not represent the views of ICIYL or ACF.

You can support the work of ICIYL with a tax-deductible gift to ACF. For more on ACF, visit the “At ACF” section or