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Karen Slack’s “African Queens” Project is a Marriage of New Music, History, and Timeless Artistry from Black Composers

Many musicians have a recording that changed their fervor — an album that they studied, trapped in its sound, attempting to crack it open. For soprano Karen Slack, it was Leontyne Price singing Verdi’s Aida with the London Symphony Orchestra. “With the blue cover,” Slack emphasized during our recent Zoom interview. “I just mimicked the sound. I listened to it every single day that summer — every single day — and I copied the sound over and over and over again… I went back to school the next year and my teacher said, ‘What happened to you?’ because I had no formal lessons, no formal training, nothing like that.”

A choir teacher at Baldi Middle School encouraged her to think seriously about her voice. At the time, she was only enrolled in the music classes at her public school in North Philadelphia, where she was born and raised.

“I grew up in the 80s, so there were music programs at many schools,” she remembers. “Now it’s like an anomaly, where only the advantaged communities can take part in it. But back in the day, we had strings and choir and art and real music classes.” The value of having music in the public school system cannot be overstated, and Slack is a testament to this as a young Black woman from North Philadelphia without any formal vocal training who eventually landed across town at the Curtis Institute of Music.

Also among her influences is the inimitable soprano Jessye Norman, who Slack credits with showing her “the idea that you can have the trifecta career: the concert career, the recital career, and the opera career.” Slack admires how Norman was able to seamlessly move from the operatic stage to an intimate chamber music setting, and how she used her talents later in her career to create The Jessye Norman School of the Arts, a youth arts program in her hometown of Augusta, GA.  “She was not just an opera singer,” Slack emphasizes.

Karen Slack -- Photo by Kia Caldwell

Karen Slack — Photo by Kia Caldwell

As she looks at modern day opera casting, Slack is vocal about her frustrations with how Norman’s legacy is seemingly disregarded. At this point in her career, Slack says she would like to sing more of the repertoire Norman sang, such as Sieglinde in Wagner’s Die Walküre, Ariadne in Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos, or Jocasta in Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex, but “no one who looks like us is singing that repertoire.”

It’s an issue that perpetuates itself: opera singers of color who don’t see themselves in certain roles don’t pursue them. Slack posted on social media last month that she wishes Norman had created a program for the repertory she mastered in her lifetime.

“Had Ms. Norman had her racehorses, training them, pouring into us, a stable of artists — then her legacy would live on beyond her,” Slack says. “Now we would be ready to sing that repertoire and would have been taught by the greatest.”

But she is quick to temper these feelings: that legendary Black sopranos like Price and Norman potentially missed opportunities to further open up the field. Slack often works with one of Norman’s former principal accompanists, Mark Markham, so she has heard the stories — which have helped her understand that merely existing as an opera singer while Black was work enough; that both making it in the field and having an illustrious career was more than anyone could have reasonably expected, creating a pathway for today’s singers to do even more.

Karen Slack -- Photo by Kia Caldwell

Karen Slack — Photo by Kia Caldwell

Slack now maintains her own “trifecta career” of opera roles, concerts, and recitals. Her work spans multiple venues and genres, from the Met Opera stage performing Terence Blanchard’s Fire Shut Up In My Bones to the Met Museum performing Shawn Okpebholo’s chamber work, Songs in Flight. Where she sang Verdi’s Aida, she might also sing dwb (driving while black), a one-act, one-woman chamber opera by composer Susan Kander and librettist Roberta Gumbel.

She also hosts a Facebook Live talk show called #KikiKonversations where she sits with other singers, accompanists, stage directors, artistic directors, composers, agents, managers — people spanning every arena of the field. In the first conversation with mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges, Slack talked about the transition from being a young artist to a full-time professional singer. “The hardest part was finding my voice,” Slack said. “Not finding my voice,” she continued while pointing at her throat, “but finding my voice,” she repeated, pointing one finger at her head and the other at her heart, “finding out what I wanted to say and how I wanted to say it.”

Figure it out she did, as evidenced by her latest commissioning project, which was born from a composer roundtable hosted on #KikiKonversations. Premiering Aug. 1 as part of Ravinia Festival in Chicago, African Queens features new songs by eight leading Black composers: Jasmine Barnes, Damien Geter, Jessie Montgomery, Shawn Okpebholo, Dave Ragland, Carlos Simon, Will Liverman, and Joel Thompson. The texts by Lorene Cary, Alicia Haymer, Tsitsi Ella Jaji, Deborah D.E.E.P Mouton, and Jay Saint Flono (Slack’s creative collaborator on the project) each represent a different African queen, from the Queen Mother of the Zulu Nation to Nanny of the Jamaican Maroons.

“Jay and I researched several queens and found many tremendous stories,” Slack explains. “It was difficult to choose, but I submitted 12-15 stories for the composers to select whichever queen spoke to them… What I learned is that we don’t have to do another opera about Cleopatra, Nefertiti, or just settle for Aida as the representation of African royalty. These women’s stories are powerful and there are plenty to choose from! We have more than enough to create new roles to perform on the lyric stage. This is why I created this recital in the first place  — so that it sparks interest to develop and present these stories that have been historically ignored.”

Karen Slack -- Photo by Kia Caldwell

Karen Slack — Photo by Kia Caldwell

The upcoming premiere is a bold showpiece for Slack’s voice  — coming from the world of “traditional, large-voiced singers [that] aren’t typical in contemporary classical music,” Slack pointed out. “Four of the composers have written for me in the past and already know specific aspects of my voice, so it was wonderful to receive the songs and see what new surprises they created,” she continued. “They each surprised me in one way or the other and wrote completely different pieces than I expected.”

Following the Aug. 1 world premiere at Ravinia, Slack and pianist Kevin Miller will tour African Queens across the United States, including performances at Aspen Music Festival and School, Washington Performing Arts, 92NY, and the Nashville Symphony. The recital program is a manifestation of the visibility Slack brings to the experiences of Black musicians on every level of the industry, in every arena, building on the work of people before her like Leontyne Price and Jessye Norman.

“Our generation, we are not doing what the generation before us did, and the generation before that. We’re actually in it and making space; in it and taking people along with us; in it and advocating” Slack shares. And she doesn’t question her choice to speak up and out. “I earned the stripes; I earned the right.”

 

 

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