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The Voice of the Black Community

Arts and Entertainment

Benefit concert showcases opera stars, power of music
Othalie Graham gives us another reason to enjoy opera
Published Tuesday, August 20, 2013 9:14 am
by Michaela L. Duckett

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International opera singer Othalie Graham as Giuseppe Verdi's Egyptian princess Aida. Graham will be in Charlotte Sept. 12 for Carolina Opera's "Art to Poetry to Music" benefit gala at Knight Theater. She will return Oct. 19 to star in Aida.

Internationally acclaimed opera singer Othalie Graham said she would like to see more African Americans at her shows.

“It’s a shame that a lot of us don’t go to the opera or don’t pursue that as a career choice,” said the dramatic soprano. “It’s certainly good to experience an opera.”

Graham travels the globe taking on challenging characters like Turandot, the Chinese princess who slays her suitors, and Aida, the Egyptian princess caught in the tumult of choosing between her homeland and her lover, among other roles.

Graham will be in Charlotte Sept. 12 to perform in Carolina Opera’s “Art to Poetry to Music” benefit gala at Knight Theater. The concert is a showcase of some of opera’s most popular music performed by a culturally diverse cast of stars from around the world under the baton of Opera Carolina maestro James Meena accompanied by the Charlotte Symphony.

“We believe that the arts can be a welcoming place for people from across the community to come together and celebrate beauty and artistry,” said Meena. “This is a unique collaboration through which we present artists from around world in an exciting program of grand opera selections that celebrate the 2013-14 season theme, ‘The Architects of Love.’”

The benefit gala will feature music from operas like “Aida,” “Turandot,” and “Das Rheingold,” as well as traditional Korean and Chinese songs enhanced by live-feed traditional Chinese artwork and poetry from across the globe.

Graham said you don’t have to be an opera aficionado to enjoy the evening.

“It’s something that everyone can appreciate,” she said. “It’s a big true-to-life singing, acting art form. So it’s very easy for everyone to understand. Even the little things that you may not understand, the English is right there in front of you; so you know what’s going on. But after a while audience members, even when it’s their first time at an opera, notice themselves no longer reading because they actually understand.”

A long black fur              

Graham was raised in Brampton, Ontario. Her Jamaican-born father was an electrician for the city. Her mother, a Canada native, was a secretary.

In middle school, Graham had a teacher, Mrs. Wallace, whom she describes as an “incredibly beautiful elegant woman” who wore a long black mink coat to school during Canadian winters. Graham was mesmerized by the coat. It sparked her interest in opera.

“I used to watch her put it on and take it off,” she said. “I’d look at it, and she would always see me watching her. She told me she was an opera singer and that she’d got in somewhere in Russia.

“And she said, ‘If you’re ever an opera singer, you’ll always have a fur coat to wear.’ So that’s what started the fascination.”

Graham’s father also fostered her passion.

He took her to see Leontyne Price, one of the first African Americans to become a lead artist at the Metropolitan Opera. Price is also noted for her portrayal of Bess in a 1950s production of the opera “Porgy and Bess” alongside a young Maya Angelou.

“I was just absolutely spellbound by her recital,” said Graham.

Hard work pays off

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Othalie Graham breaks racial barriers being cast to play the cold Chinese princess Turandot.

Graham also credits her father for instilling a spirit of self-determination and tenacity in her that has proven valuable to her career.

“Show business is very, very difficult,” she said. “Not everyone is going to like you or appreciate what you have to offer. And being able to still keep going is something that he really made sure that I understood was incredibly important. It has served me up until this day.”

Graham said one of the biggest sacrifices she’s made for her career was leaving Canada at age 25 to attend the prestigious Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia right after her father’s death.

“It was very difficult and very lonely,” she said. “It was the first time that I’d ever lived on my own. So it certainly wasn’t very easy.”

Graham is gearing up for another busy season with a travel agenda that includes her first visit to Croatia and will keep her on the road for weeks at a time.

The married mother of two said no matter which continent she’s on, she always performs a little ritual before every show.

“No matter how big or small, whether it’s an opera or concert, I always arrive extremely early,” she said. “I’m a very spiritual person so I walk out on stage before everyone else, before they open the theater and I just ask that I can sing as well as I possibly can on that day to honor my gift… and I just ask that my father can hear me.”

And two things she never leaves home without is a rosary inscribed with her father’s name, which she was given as a gift from a fan, and a photograph of her parents for her dressing room. 

Graham will return to Charlotte Oct. 19 to star in Opera Carolina’s production of "Aida," which kicks off the company’s 65th season.

This season has been dubbed “architects of love” and will also include Puccini’s “Il Trittico,” three one-act operas of passion and intrigue beginning Jan. 18. The season concludes with Wagner’s haunting tale of love and the high seas, “The Flying Dutchman” opening March 22.

For tickets or more information, visit operacarolina.org.


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