When Adrienne Danrich was growing up in the Central West End, she thought opera was just for white people.
Then a teacher introduced her to the work of great Black artists in the field, including Jesse Norman and George Shirley.
Now she’s an acclaimed soprano who alternates her performances with opera companies around the country with shows she’s devised to celebrate Black artists. She’s making her debut with Opera Theatre of St. Louis this month, in “Awakenings.”
On Tuesday she leads her program “Music as the Message: Sing on, Sing on!” — an evening of performances at the Grandel by St. Louis musicians and poets, plus Opera Theatre singers. They will perform work by Chuck Berry, Otis Redding, Maya Angelou and others.
St. Louis Public Radio’s Jeremy D. Goodwin spoke with Danrich about her musical upbringing, and the paradox of celebrating Black music in a society that does not always protect Black people.
Jeremy D. Goodwin: How will the mood on Tuesday be different from that of an opera recital?
Adrienne Danrich: You’re going to be invited to join in on the singing. We are going to embrace you. We’re going to invite you to be a part of the experience, as opposed to a passive listener.
Goodwin: There’s a difference between a recital, when you say ‘Here is a piece for you to appreciate,’ and a community event.
Danrich: That is so true. When people ask me to do a recital, I never do a recital. No! Come on, people, let’s rock together. It is a different thing. I just did a concert in Carnegie Hall where it was very, ‘We are presenting this work to you.’ It was very proper.
I was raised to be a lady. But I’m not always proper.
Goodwin: How did you find your way into the world of opera?
Danrich: I thought I was going to be Aretha Franklin when I was a child. At eight years old my daddy had me singing ‘Natural Woman’ on the stage. I really thought that that’s what my path was going to be.
When I was a child, I literally thought that opera was only for white people. Until I got into high school and my high school music teacher, Aquila Tanglin — who ended up being my godmamma — introduced me to the Perry twins, Jesse Norman, Shirley Verrett, George Shirley.
I was like, ‘Oh my god’. Mind blown. I had no idea…
Goodwin: About the lineage of great Black artists in this field?
Danrich: Yes. When I first saw Leontyne Price sing on that commercial for the United Negro College Fund … She had this turban on her head and she was just so regal and just beautiful, and I was like, ‘I want to to do that.’
I knew that’s where I was going.
Goodwin: Hearing you talk about this, I have no doubt that there are little girls sitting out there having a similar experience who are saying, ‘I like what she’s doing and I can do that, too.’
Danrich: Thank you. It’s taken years to get to where I am now, to get to be in a spot where you say, ‘I’m going to sing what my heart tells me to sing.’
I cannot say that I want to be a mentor or for anyone to look up to me or anything like that. But if I can touch one person, if I can inspire one young person who might say, ‘Hmm, I was raised in gospel music and nobody in my family likes me singing this kind of music, and what would you say to me?’ I would say, ‘Sing what your heart wants you to sing.’
Goodwin: What should we expect on the program for “Music as the Message”?
Danrich: Well, you’re going to hear a little bit of Broadway, you’re going to hear some pop, you’re going to hear some opera. And you’re gonna hear a little bit of soul music on this program.
And the reason why I wanted to do that is because I love all of those things. And I don’t program anything I don’t like.
Goodwin: Is there one song on the program for “Music as the Message” that just had to be there?
Danrich: Yes. It happens to be a song that I wrote. It’s called “Breathe” and I wrote it out of pain. After the murder of George Floyd, I was awakened at 4 a.m. I went in the kitchen with my phone, because my husband was asleep, and I whispered this song into my voice recorder. And as the sun was coming up, I finished the song.
I wanted it to be an art song that anyone could sing. Well, that’s not quite true. I think you have to be a person of color to sing it. I sent it to my friend Drew Heringer, who’s a fantastic composer based in New York. he took my melody and words and put it together into a fantastic piece.
“Breathe” is dedicated to all people of color who have lost their lives due to systemic racism, violence and fear. One of the main points of the song is: Treat your neighbor as yourself.
I didn’t know George Floyd. But I can see my nephew in him. I can see my daddy in him. I can see my cousins in him. I wepts like that man was a part of my family. And I had no idea what to do with it. You can see, I feel it now.
There is a struggle in this country. Even as we celebrate the music of black people, the person, the black person is still relegated to ‘the other.’
Goodwin: What would you like people to walk away with from this show?
Danrich: I’m hoping to just weave a little bit of love, a little bit of hope, a little bit of joy into those people who are there. Who then, hopefully, will pass it on when they leave the building. And maybe it’ll last a week, maybe longer. It won’t last forever. But that spirit that I want to leave folks with, I would love it to carry on until the next day and the day after that.
Follow Jeremy on Twitter: @jeremydgoodwin
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