Opera singer Jasmine Habersham on her solo debut, the need for Black stories

Jasmine Habersham

Credit: Daniel Welch

Credit: Daniel Welch

Jasmine Habersham

Jasmine Habersham has established herself as one of the most delectable Georgia-born musical artists to emerge in some time.

The soprano from Macon discovered her fluid singing voice as a teen, then studied at Shorter College and the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. After making her debut at Kentucky Opera she has gone on to grace opera stages throughout America and beyond, with great success in the light lyric roles of Mozart and Donizetti as well as an intriguing sampling of challenging contemporary fare.

Habersham made her European debut this season at Britain’s Opera North, as Gilda in director Femi Elufowoju Jr.’s critically acclaimed mounting of Verdi’s “Rigoletto.”

Jasmine Habersham (The Girl) and Brian Vu (The Soldier) rehearsing for "The Kaiser of Atlantis." Courtesy of Rafterman

Credit: Courtesy of Rafterman

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Credit: Courtesy of Rafterman

A ubiquitous presence at The Atlanta Opera, she makes her Atlanta solo recital debut on Oct. 29 at Morningside Presbyterian Church, as part of the Nancy Frampton Rising Artists Series. Arts ATL caught up with Habersham for a glimpse into her busy operatic existence.

Q: How does it feel to make your recital debut in Atlanta?

A: It’s exciting, because I get to do art in a very intimate way, which in some ways is harder than doing opera. I’m doing some arias, but I’m also doing things that are near and dear to me, like a Ricky Ian Gordon set of songs with texts by Langston Hughes; also, spirituals by John Carter, and some Sondheim and Leonard Bernstein.

It will be a view into the music I listened to in my room as a teenager — songs that I discovered long ago and wanted to finally do in recital. There will be some newer pieces that I wanted to challenge myself with, but for the most part my program is filled with pieces like Gordon’s “Dream Variations” that I remember hearing on Audra McDonald’s album long ago. So, this will mostly be music that brings me back to a “homey” place and first gave me my inspiration to sing.

Jasmine Habersham

Credit: Cam Powell

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Credit: Cam Powell

When I was a teenager, I went to “Midsummer Macon,” a two-week arts exploration camp. I was introduced to Audra McDonald in the musical “Ragtime,” saw she had other albums, and that set the course for me. When I discovered her recordings of Ricky Ian Gordon’s music, I fell down a rabbit hole. It is exciting to revisit that music now, as the adult artist I have become. I have a much deeper understanding of it now.

Q: Your repertoire is very eclectic. Are you inspired by other genres of music?

A: Oh, yes. I started out in musical theatre, then fell in love with opera. A couple of years ago I did the American Traditions Competition in Savannah. It was one of the most unique experiences I’ve had. There are nine different categories. You have to do nine songs by nine different American composers in nine genres. That competition pushed demands on me as an artist more than I had ever imagined. Of course, I am inspired by classical singers, but I am often inspired by jazz vocalists, singers like Nancy Wilson and Sarah Vaughan.

Jasmine Habersham as Gilda in "Rigoletto" with Opera North.

Credit: Cliva Berda

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Credit: Cliva Berda

Q: You just made your European debut. What was that like?

A: Fantastic. Being in Leeds for four months was incredible. I had a great time with Femi Elufowoju Jr. He is the first Black director to stage an opera in England. He did an amazing job of incorporating his Nigerian background and experience as a Black man in Britain into the opera. I wore braids, which I usually don’t get to do. It was wonderful to feel in my natural element while creating that story.

Q: You have spoken in the past about your need to be seen “beyond ‘Porgy and Bess.’” Tell us more about that.

A: First of all, let me be very clear. “Porgy and Bess” is the great American opera. I don’t know there is anything that comes close to it. It is a fantastic work, and I love singing the role of Clara. But when I say I want to be seen beyond it, I mean I would like people to be more imaginative when it comes to casting. That is happening now, in some beautiful ways. But what can happen is that sometimes companies only hire you if they need “something Black.” People get typecast. Porgy is in most Black singers’ package certainly, but there are so many other things we would like to express.

Get this. I did an audition, and I didn’t have “Summertime” on my list. I sang Nannetta from Verdi’s “Falstaff,” Juliet’s waltz, and some Handel. And they still asked for “Summertime.” Look, I get it. Opera is a music business. You gotta fill seats, and “Porgy” is one of those shows that is beloved. But we need to express other stories.

Jasmine Habersham as Nanetta in "Falstaff" with the Berkshire Opera.

Credit: Ken Howard

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Credit: Ken Howard

Q: Bass-baritone Ryan Speedo Greene told me that he can leave the stage after performing a Schubert Liederabend (song recital) and someone will inevitably say “I would love to hear you sing ‘Old Man River.’”

A: Oh, my God. I cannot begin to tell you how many of my Black male colleagues that has happened to. And again, “Old Man River” is a great piece, I’m not downing it. But it can feel sometimes like they just want you to do the most stereotypical thing.

We need to create new Black stories that expand our understanding beyond “Porgy and Bess.” I think people get tired of “trauma opera.” There are a variety of different things to explore besides oppression. Jake Heggie is doing an opera called “Intelligence” about Mary Bowser, a slave who was a Union spy during the war. That is an important story to tell because it comes from a place of power. We need to explore other ways of telling stories that come from a place of empowerment and go beyond the idea of Black people being downtrodden. One way to do that is to create new works that present a diversity of Black experience that is not exclusively trauma driven.

Q: What do you love most about performing?

A: I love the special kind of synergy that happens between myself and an audience. When I am onstage, I want people to see my soul so I can connect with them in a significant way. You bring your most radiant, authentic self to live theatre. It can be scary, and you feel vulnerable sometimes, but that sense of connection is an incredible experience.

I am delighted to be doing this recital for Atlanta’s audience. I love being back in my home state of Georgia, and I am looking forward to sharing some music and a little bit of my heart with the community.

MUSIC PREVIEW

Jasmine Habersham

7 p.m. Oct. 29. $30; students $10; patron level preferred seating, two tickets, $100. 1411 N. Morningside Drive NE, Atlanta. 404-876-7396, morningsidepc.org.


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Credit: ArtsATL

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Credit: ArtsATL

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