Monday, May 12, 2014

Performer Profiles: Mezzo-soprano Monifa Harris (video)

5:12 AM
Monifa Harris has a rich, smoky, velvety voice that's impossible to describe without sounding like a wine snob salivating over a cabernet. Based in Durham, she sings locally, internationally, and in New York. She recently appeared as the mezzo soloist in Tippett's A Child of Our Time with the North Carolina Master Chorale, toured Greece with a diverse program including arias, spirituals, and Greek folk song, and coached and understudied the plum role of Carmen with Sing Through Central in a readthrough overseen by the Metropolitan Opera Guild. But Monifa's also known to lots of local musicians as the founder of Singers' Circle, a Durham organization that puts on concerts a few times a year and, in between, functions as a place for Triangle-based singers to network, coach rep, and receive feedback. We met up last week at Beyù Caffè, where Monifa had a ton to say about her performing and her passion for creating community among musicians in the Triangle. If you are interested in the growth of classical music in Raleigh, this is a lady you need to be talking to.

When did you start singing?I started in high school chorus, but I had always loved singing. I sang to myself under the volume of the radio, in the car, and, like, in my bedroom when I was absolutely certain that no one was listening. [Eventually] I started singing in studios, with a friend of mine who did rap music and stuff like that, and then a friend of mine at work would ask me to sing. It was a night job--she would ask me to sing a couple times a month, and one of the ladies at work worked at the music school [at the University of North Florida]. She got me in touch with a teacher there, Dr. William Brown, and he got me a scholarship. That's when I started singing officially. And that's when I started with opera. Because I didn't know anything about opera--not a thing.

What was the first piece of opera or classical music that you did fall in love with?
That's hard. I mean there are experiences that I fell in love with before I even sang. My first opera was Madama Butterfly with Florida Grand Opera in Miami because our school went. My favorite opera that I just really adored was Rigoletto. It was a video recording with Luciano Pavarotti and Edita Gruberova. Gosh. It was incredible. Just, "oooohhh!," you know? [laughs] Especially the ending! For me, it was definitely about the story and how the music meshed with it.

When you first started envisioning yourself as an opera singer, what were the important parts of that vision? What were the things you hoped you would go on to do?
That I would be a full-time singer, you know, that I would travel. For me it's a venue to experience different cultures, to share with people. Different cultures receive in different ways and just being part of that is really important to me. [Recently] I got to go to Greece and Bulgaria. Interestingly enough, my opera experience was in Bulgaria [with the Varna Opera Theatre Orchestra], but my iconic musical experience happened in Greece, because I was coaching with Greek musicians; I was learning Greek folk song and getting immersed in that culture.

What was your project in Greece?
It was set up by someone who went to Longy with me, [Greek singer] Panayotis Terzakis. He does a lot of producing of his own stuff, so he set up our concerts in Athens and Nafplio, Pelopponese, at the capitol building. The Nafplio concert was opera mixed with some Broadway, a couple pieces of African American spiritual, and Greek folk music. In Athens we did it in almost a club type place, and we did poetry and storytelling and mixed that in with spirituals and Greek folk song.

I'm interested in talking about how classically trained musicians limit ourselves because there are so many rules, traditionally, about how we perform. You're clearly someone who if you ever did feel constrained by those things has thrown them out the window.
For me, music is the central subject--opera's just a part of that. I fell in love with the [classical] technique because I love to sing with my whole body, so that's something I would never give up. I like to bring that into my other music. And of course you have to be very focused when you're going toward an operatic career. But apart from that, if I'm picking music for a local venue, it's more about what sounds good in my voice and what are people going to enjoy? And what do I feel like I connect to? That doesn't necessarily mean opera. I choose music I have that personal connection to and that I could share in an authentic way. For me it's about connecting with people.

I've really found that I've enjoyed the contemporary pieces I've done as well, like I just did a concert at Halle with the composers' series, and that one . . . to sing somebody who's right there with you and telling you exactly what the music is supposed to be when you sing it . . . I find that very enthralling. I really enjoy having that insight into another human being. Understanding what the notes on the page really mean to somebody is awesome. So I'm finding I like contemporary music a lot just because of that connection. But, yeah, I think [being] open to trying those things has allowed me to connect to more people.

You have an intense day job. [Monifa works as the administrative assisant to a high-ranking Duke plastic surgeon.] It must be very stressful to balance that with all the music stuff you're doing.
Yeah, it's very strenuous. Honestly, if I wasn't doing the music then I'd be more stressed out, because that's my outlet. It's more than just the stress. There's just the time, and how much energy you have, and the hours in a day that start building on top of each other. Whatever work it takes to put into [music], I always err on the side of, "this is fun," right? If it stops being fun, then I have to pull back. When you're auditioning and stuff like that--like when I was doing the stuff in New York, that was big. I had to put myself on as a professional singer. So to have that level of preparation . . . I had no downtime. I was working out after an eight-hour day and then going into the practice room for three, four hours to learn a role in a month and a half. It was stressful. But it was also obviously one of the biggest experiences in my life because I got to sing under the auspices of the Met. So it worked for me.

How was it interacting with more typical career-track New York singers?
The great thing about interacting with those people is that you realize the difference in the mentality. There really isn't anything else for them. They're much more intense. But it's more image than anything else, as well, because I haven't met anybody--including people who are hired fairly regularly--that doesn't have other work on the side. I've met people that have sung at the Met that still have other jobs.

Maybe talking about the day job balancing act is a good segueway into your decision to start Singer's Circle. Can you talk about how you came up with the idea for the group?
To be brutally honest, I was working but I wasn't singing. I fell in with, at the time it was the OCNC [Opera Company of North Carolina, now North Carolina Opera] chorus pretty quickly, but you know, a production or two a year--it's not like you're doing a ton of singing. I was teaching voice. It wasn't enough for me. So I wanted more singing; I needed an outlet. And I couldn't find one . . . so I made one!

I also noticed that my problems weren't singular. Everybody who was in my position had that problem. People--instead of singing or developing their voice--end up just working full time and all that work goes to pot that you did during your degree. What was worse was that the singers in the area didn't know each other. People had no idea what the other voice studios were in Raleigh-Durham. They had no idea where people were coming from and they didn't ask, "where do you sing? Who's your teacher?" I'd go to a concert somewhere that I read about in the paper, and this group didn't know about the last group I was with, didn't know about the last. We should know each other if nothing else! We should know each other.

I thought I would create a network so people could find each other. And it was about just having the chance to sing, singing with other people. I was thinking I would love to do a thousand coachings, but I couldn't afford it, so maybe we could share the cost of an accompanist. That was the idea initially. After that I just took my cue from the singers around me--what they were saying they wanted and what they were saying they needed. That's why we started doing the concerts and why they became more regular, because people kept asking for them.

What's coming up for you?
In June I'm gonna be doing Zanetto with Capitol Opera, and then Singer's Circle's doing a readthrough of Otello and I'm singing Emilia.

What kinds of performances are you hoping to participate in, maybe that you haven't before? Do you have any programs you're working on putting together?
I'm excited about getting into more recital rep. I have a hidden dream of writing music that I'm just now paying attention to myself, because I've found it to be a very painful process and I've kind of put it in a corner somewhere. But I feel like with more time I'll be more comfortable exploring without feeling like I need an end in mind in order to spend time on it. Because of that, I'm interested in new music in the area; I would love to do more new music and more chamber music. I was thinking of doing more early music.

I feel like it's important to develop musically, but also to find what I have to bring to music. That originating creation, I think, is a big part of being an artist. We lose that some in classical music. The lack of work creates an anxiety about always being professional, always being heard as perfect or good enough, and also this idea that you're not serious if you're not working on those things--if you're not working on your aria set, if you're not working on your next opera audition, you're not a real singer. But all my best opportunities have come because in whatever I was doing, I've insisted on having fun.

For more info about Monifa check out her website. If you want to collaborate with a fabulous mezzo on any type of project--especially those she mentions above--contact her, and tell her I sentcha.
For more info about Singers' Circle or to get involved, click here. SC is fundraising for their upcoming readthrough of Verdi's Otello--give them a boost here.

About the author

I'm Andrea. Everything you need to know is here.