Soprano Leah Hawkins has been garnering great acclaim for her outstanding performances throughout the United States and Europe in a wide and versatile range of repertoire. A powerful, rich voice, distinctive style, wisdom, love of life, and generosity of spirit abound in this trailblazing young artist. It was a joy and an inspiration to speak with her. For Ms. Hawkins’ bio, please visit her website (mentioned at the end of this interview).
You were previously a mezzo-soprano. What made you decide to switch to soprano?
I was a mezzo as an undergrad student and I identified with the repertoire and the characters. When I started the young artist program at Washington National Opera, a coach there heard me sing and said, “that’s not a mezzo voice, you’re a soprano!” So, around October of 2015 I started exploring soprano repertoire. It was tough. It was an emotional change.
Well, I had decided that I was a mezzo. You know how singers take on these personas and characteristics, so I thought I was the earthy, grounded kind of performer and character. Now suddenly they’re telling me I’m going to cry a lot and be the lead and hold the show together… it was a bit of a shock to my system.
Do you find that you go back at all to those mezzo voice colors?
It’s not conscious but I know that I do it. I’m always trying to find some of those mezzo colorings as far as like the strength within the characters and not falling into the “woe is me” sort of thing. Even when I’m being fun and cutsie, there’s a sense of being grounded. Sometimes, it’s hard to identify with some of these soprano roles. For example, I didn’t identify with the Countess [from Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro] when I started learning it. I was thinking, this woman has power, this woman is a Countess, why would she be whining over a man? I guess it’s part of the different facets of being a woman. We can cry, we can be strong, we can be flirty. So, I try to incorporate all of that into what I sing and not fall into a one-sided way of performing.
You are an alumna of two young artist programs: the Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann Young Artist Program and the Washington National Opera’s Cafritz Young Artist Program. How did these experiences transform you as an artist?
The Washington National Opera (WNO) program really gave me confidence as a performer because the young artists there are ambassadors for the company. They look to us to represent them. I met so many political figures. Ruth Bader Ginsburg knew me and would hug me when she saw me. I got to sing at The White House and meet the President of France. The donors were really good to us. I also really got a sense of comfort on stage. Then at the Met, it was scary at first. I left WNO feeling like, ‘oh, yes, I’m ready, let’s do this!’ But because the Met is such a huge entity, I very much felt like a young artist there. And it was really great to be around all of those amazing artists and be able to talk to them or sit with them in the lunchroom and ask: ‘What do you think about this or that repertoire?’ In the Met cafeteria, it’s like a family atmosphere. Both programs gave me different experiences that I really needed.
You have recently sung in a program with the Portland Opera called “Journeys to Justice,” featuring works about love, justice, and the experiences of being a Black American; a concert available to stream until May 31. Tell us about it.
In Portland, I sang “Songs for the African Violet” written by one of my undergraduate classmates and dear friends, Jasmine Barnes. I premiered this cycle a few years ago at her graduate recital. She wrote the text; it’s about being a Black woman, about our feelings and the different experiences we have and how they affect us, and the frustration that comes with it. We just want to live. It’s not like I want this special treatment, I don’t need a red carpet every time I walk out the door, I just want to live without concern. I just want to make art. There are so many layers to that and so much that I realize I keep locked within myself because I have work to do. I have a job to do so I can’t afford to allow myself to focus on such emotions.
Such emotions are a lot to carry with you when you go to the theatre and have to focus on the music and your role.
It gets heavy. And sometimes, I didn’t realize I was carrying them. I grew up in Philadelphia, which is a Black city, generally speaking. So, I grew up very comfortable being Black, I didn’t feel like an “other.” I went to a very mixed arts high school, and to undergrad at a Historically Black University. I always had a strong sense of pride in being Black. So, I don’t have memories of hardships from my early years but what I do carry is worry because I know that there are people out there who don’t like me just because of the way I look. It gets heavy when you realize you get treated differently than some people. For me it’s just stupid, I mean, how could you look at someone and just assume things?
I remember listening last year to the panel discussion on racial disparity and inequality titled “Lift Every Voice” moderated by renowned mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges and hosted by the L.A. Opera, during which the participants, who are acclaimed singers, shared eye-opening experiences about being a Black singer in the opera industry. A “NY Times” write-up suggested that this video should be sent to every opera house director and board member as diversity in opera did not appear to be at the forefront of their priorities. What are your thoughts on diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives in the opera industry at the moment? What would you like to see happen in opera companies?
Well, I’m now seeing these companies program works by composers who should have been programmed before. Everybody woke up at the same time. The bulk of my work this year is singing works by Black composers and I absolutely love it. For me it feels like common sense; I always include Black composers on recitals and programs. So, for everyone else to suddenly be on board, I wonder, what the heck took so long? But I’m enjoying it. On the flip side, I do feel like it’s an easy way to tokenize us again, because once again with the bulk of my work focused on this music, suddenly I’m only a Black singer. I’m always going to sing works by Black composers, but I can sing other repertoire. I was speaking with a Korean composer who is often included on programs as “a female Korean composer,” and she said, “I kind of just want to be a composer.” That’s my only bit of frustration about what is going on. I just want to make sure people don’t keep falling into that tokenism trope. And it’s hard. Everyone is learning so I’m sympathetic to that.
There have been many discussions on how the administrative staff of opera companies is predominantly white. Are you beginning to see any changes?
We’re starting to see changes. In Portland they hired two Black artistic advisors, Karen Slack and Damien Geter. They’ll bring a different perspective that will only make the company better. I am on the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee at Washington National Opera. So, we’ll bring our experiences and hopefully enlighten some people. Maybe they don’t know the kinds of things that we encounter, whether backstage or whether just in the supermarket.
Would you share with us some examples of what you’ve encountered?
Yes. Just recently I went to this mineral hot spring bathhouse in Washington which was so lovely. I get out, I’m feeling refreshed, renewed, I’m at the sink washing my hands and some woman walks up to me—and I’m the only Black person in there—and she says: “Do you guys have water bottles for sale here?” I tell her, ‘I don’t work here,’ and I walk away. But why did I have to be the one to work there? What about me said that I worked at that bathhouse? These assumptions… I know they’re not going to change overnight. My major frustration is that if people would use common sense, we would avoid lots of issues. Why would you say that to someone? Then, at a donor event someone asked me how I got into opera. I told her my story. I said: ‘I wanted voice lessons at twelve and my parents got me voice lessons.’ And she said “oh, so they could afford it?” Why would you ask someone—anyone—that? Why would you even part your lips to say something like that to a stranger?
But… so far, because of the young artist programs, I’ve been protected in some ways from worse things. Also, I can be silly, but a lot of people don’t know that. They look at me and assume that I’m more serious. Especially when I’m working, I can be very intense and focused, so maybe they think I’m not to be messed with. I’m also not afraid to speak up for myself when it matters. There was an article that came out about an opera administrator here in the States who has long been telling people to lose weight in order to have a career. I think she thought she was helping. She’s a bigger woman herself so I think she was projecting her issues with her own appearance onto the rest of us. We were in a class one day at the Met, and she told some young woman that her outfit was not for her body type. I’m sitting in the audience fuming but not saying anything. Then she specifically asked me if I had something to say, and said “shoot it to me straight, honey.” I said: ‘you’re known for telling people to lose weight in order to have a career, but it feels arbitrary because there are fat singers and there are thin singers, so who gets to decide who has to lose weight and who gets to stay big?’ And she didn’t have much of an answer.
But it’s a question of what you choose to wear. You can look good in your clothes no matter what size you are.
Exactly. It’s so foolish, this idea that big people aren’t desirable. I’ve never had a problem dating. Who created this ideal?
I loved what you said in an interview for Atelier d’Excellence that being your most authentic self and singing with love are your modes of protest.
Absolutely! All of that foolishness—that’s what I call all the chaos in the world—is going to be there no matter what, so we can choose to press forward no matter what. And there will be people who hate it, so let them hate it, let them be angry about it. I’m going to keep living and striving and enjoying my life in any way that I can. I’m not going to give them the power to stop me.
Speaking of singing with love, sometimes people can get so wrapped up in the fame ideal that the love of what they do gets pushed aside.
It does when you focus on the things that don’t actually matter at the end. The audience wants to feel something. I want to feel something as well. I want to connect with the audience, I want that exchange to happen. It doesn’t matter if I have world fame or if they like the dress that I’m wearing. The experience of feeling together, that is special.
On May 1st and 2nd, you will be one of the soloists in “Greenwood Overcomes,” with Tulsa Opera, a special program of works by living Black composers performed by Black artists, that commemorates the centennial of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. Please tell us about this program and what it means to you.
This was a terrible event in American history that a lot of people don’t know about. I didn’t even learn about it in school. I love that we are featuring all of these living Black composers from all over, we have Afro-Canadian, Jamaican, African Americans, so you have these different experiences of Blackness represented, because Blackness is so vast. I get to sing with a Jamaican accent, with a bit of patois, which is so fun. I’ll get to premiere an art song. It will be streamed on the Tulsa Opera website.
This summer you will travel to Greece to perform the role of Desdemona in “The 7 Deaths of Maria Callas,” an opera/performance art project by Marina Abramovic with music by Marko Nikodijevic and scenes from operas by Bellini, Bizet, Donizetti, Puccini, and Verdi, featuring the roles that were ideal showcases for the Callas magic, especially in their famous onstage death scenes. First, are you a Callas fan? And second, what is this project like?
I am a Callas fan. The way she dealt with text and emotion, the way you can feel everything she’s singing and believe what she’s saying, that’s what I love.
Marina Abramovic has dedicated her life to performance art and to pushing her body in ways that the rest of us don’t necessarily think of to do. I love that. There are seven singers, and we each sing one aria. During our arias, there are projections behind us of the stage deaths. So, Desdemona dies of asphyxiation and you have Marina Abramovic “dying” of being choked by snakes, which is visually stunning. During Tosca she jumps from a skyscraper, and slowly falls to the ground. We were more of an embellishment, the soundtrack to the action which took the pressure off because it’s not about us. They asked us not to be too active physically, but more restrained. It was a lesson in allowing just the voice to tell the story. Sometimes we focus on movement too much and less on storytelling through our words. Now that’s something I want to work on constantly, not relying on physicality so much but relying on my voice to do the work.
What other singers do you love?
There are so many! I love Florence Quivar. She’s a Philadelphia native like me. I love Leontyne Price. I always listened to Black singers because I was listening for my own sound and I’m so lucky that I had those artists to look up to. Jessye Norman, I love her!
You sang at Jessye Norman’s Memorial Celebration at the Met.
Yes. I felt like I was floating the whole day. When we walked offstage at the end, I had to run to the dressing room because I was a hot mess, I was bawling. I got to honor one of my heroes and it’s still surreal to think about it.
Do you sing in other musical genres?
When I started singing, I wanted to be a pop/jazz kind of singer, so I think there are still elements of that in my singing, and I get to use them in certain repertoire. I enjoy mixing things together, but I would never call myself a jazz singer. I have many friends who do it so incredibly well that I sound like a child in comparison.
I enjoy that certain alertness and responsiveness to rhythm in jazz, and some have that instinctively.
That’s the beauty of artists from different backgrounds, we carry those instincts into opera. That’s when you hear those subtle differences, and think, “ooh, I never heard it that way before.” You can have a Black singer, or a Cuban, a Brazilian, a Mexican singer—we all bring these different influences into opera.
Tell us about your work in bringing opera to children.
I started needing to sing for and work with children. I think it came from my sisters having children and seeing how quickly they catch on to things, how brilliant those minds are. If you play any music for my niece, for example, she’ll start humming and she just has a sense for where the melody is going. We can learn so much from watching and listening to children, watching that freedom of expression and that fearlessness they have when it comes to music and to life. I feel like I gain from my experiences with children, maybe even more than they gain. I’m on the advisory board for an arts organization called The Time In Kids (Children’s Arts Initiative) that takes visual arts and blends it with opera and takes it into schools. The founder, Cyndie, has a passion for bringing the arts to children. Some of these children are from tough homes, some are homeless and living in shelters. Some have parents who are incarcerated, others have their parents but are living in not-so-great areas. They all deserve art, and they can appreciate it. I want children to feel like art is not something beyond them. And they love it.
So, it’s not that opera is intimidating. It’s a matter of bringing it to people and into schools even more extensively.
Exactly. There should be more time and energy invested in that. Then we can see the difference when we have representation onstage, we see the audiences come out. If there’s a Korean singer onstage, Korean people come to support in droves, the same with a Black singer. We saw Porgy and Bess sell out at the Met. Akhnaten sold out. When you show a diversity of experiences on stage people will come, they will spend money.
As you mentioned in another interview, isolation has given us a chance to reflect on who we are beyond our professions. What has Leah discovered about Leah during this time?
There was so much I realized about myself. One of the biggest things I learned was that I’m very silly. I’ve always been fun and open, but I realized that in order to stay sane, especially through everything, I had to use humor. That was one of the big revelations even for my family. I was always the mature child focused on my lessons and school; I took myself very seriously in college. I was always hyper-focused but now I realize I can be hyper-focused and have a good time, I don’t have to choose between the two. I think it was just me releasing this need to seem like I have it all together. Or also that I have to hold back my tears. I cry like everyone else and that’s ok, that’s what makes me human and helps my artistry. I also realized how much I enjoy referring people to jobs and getting people work. I’m very good at making connections for all kinds of people.
Any special message for your fans?
I believe that words have power. They have the power we put into them and they manifest themselves in various ways. So, we need to have hope and believe, and really think positively and write positively. Don’t just talk and write about the bad things happening to you, talk and write about the good things happening and that you want to see happen. On December 31st I always write down my goals for the next year. It sounds so corny, but the first year I did it, all the goals I wrote down came to pass. There’s real power in believing in that. So, I just want people to continue being positive and realize that words have power not only in the positive but also in the negative. If you say bad things are going to happen, they will probably happen. I’m believing for good. I’m believing that beautiful things will occur. Beauty will come if you believe.
Discover more about Leah Hawkins and her work on her website.
Top photo of Leah Hawkins by Dario Acosta
All photos without a credit are courtesy of Leah Hawkins