Black History 365: Latonia Moore

Latonia Moore remembers clearly the moment she fell in love with opera. She entered the University of North Texas as a jazz performance major, but a classical music requirement led her to sing in the chorus for Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci (“Clowns”).

“I was just in the chorus, lowly little chorus girl, but I fell in love with being someone else,” Moore said in an interview with Leila Fadel of NPR’s Morning Edition. “Like me, Latonia from Houston, Texas, could be an Italian villager watching this comedia dell’arte troop come through town. I felt just so alive and at home.”

Moore says she didn’t grow up watching or performing opera — “my family’s not into opera, that’s not their thing” — but other types of music were a big part of her childhood. She sang gospel music — including in her pastor grandfather’s own church — R&B and jazz. Her older sister Yolanda introduced her to art songs, and she joined a choir.

Today, Moore has graced opera stages around the world, with the title role in Verdi’s Aida being her most performed and recognized one. But it’s also one that comes with its fair share of controversy, since non-Black singers often perform in blackface or have their bodies painted to portray the enslaved Ethiopian princess, long after such practices have been shunned in other performing arts.

Moore says she’s fine with the practice for the sake of art, so long as it doesn’t go “over the line for most people.” She herself has been painted darker in some cases for the role.

“When I started into opera, I didn’t really think about the fact that I was black. … It didn’t matter what my skin was, because this is an art form that’s based on suspension of disbelief,” Moore said. “Anyone should be able to go up in any brand of skin and be able to convince you that they’re an Ethiopian princess. So the makeup is not necessary … but if most people are offended, then drop it. You don’t need to do it.

“Convince them with your acting, with your voice. That’s our job.”

Moore pointed to other Black divas as sources of inspiration, including Leontyne Price, Shirley Verrett and Marian Anderson. “Being a Black opera singer, not a challenge — not really,” Moore said. “I have no obstacles.”

Singing her star-crossed character into existence

She spoke with NPR as she readied her performance as Leonora in Verdi’s Il Trovatore at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington. The Washington National Opera season opener runs through November 7.

Moore says the multifaceted nature of her character Leonora is “reflected in the staging and the costuming and definitely in the way I sing it.”

Moore is quick to admit the notoriously difficult role was one she long avoided. “Vocally, whew baby, this is a big mama to sing!” she said. But as the soprano studied for the role, she uncovered more layers about the character, who with Manrico (played by Gwyn Hughes Jones) forms a pair of star-crossed lovers.

“This is a chick that’s kind of more like Juliet than people give her credit for. … She sees this guy, she falls for him immediately, and she’s like, ‘I don’t care about anything else in the world,’ ” Moore explained. “So she gets to be young and youthful, but at the same time, kind of like this strong warrior-like chick, which you’re going to see reflected in the staging and the costuming and definitely in the way I sing it.”

Erhard Rom’s spare sets of stairs, grids and drapes sharpen the psychological drama that unfolds on stage, with stark shadow projections by S. Katy Tucker bringing to life the traumatic past of Azucena the gypsy (played by an electrifying Raehann Bryce-Davis) and Manrico’s tragic end. The lavish costumes designed by Martin Pakledinaz are richly detailed, from the soldiers’ shining armor to bright, multilayered dresses.

On stage, Moore inhabits her character with joy, lifting her voice to the rafters, and with despair, convulsing it as she pleads for Manrico’s life to the controlling and obsessive Count di Luna (played by Christopher Maltman).

Opera is an art form based on the “suspension of disbelief,” Moore says.

“Our job as opera singers is to sing the character into existence, and the way to do that starts with the words and being able to speak them like a normal human being,” she said. “It’s way more important to have a pulse than to just be perfect and only do what’s on the page.” As part of her preparation, Moore painstakingly spoke her parts and those of the other characters in English in order to help her “get it all sung into my voice.”

Thriving where jazz and opera meet

She demonstrated similar vocal agility in a production of Fire Shut Up in My Bones by Terence Blanchard that opened the Metropolitan Opera’s last season — the first time the Met staged an opera by a Black composer. The two had met when Moore was still in high school. She described it as “a full circle moment.”

“I was a jazz singer and, of course, he’s a jazz trumpeter,” Moore recalled. “It was such a beautiful coming together of opera and jazz and gospel and church and all of the things that I’ve known.”

She noted that Black opera singers often are told to avoid getting “stuck” performing in Black operas or productions like George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess — in which Moore has performed many times.

“See, I’m that one opera singer that was totally cool with being stuck, because I didn’t view it as stuck at all,” Moore says. “For me, opera in jazz, jazz opera is the best of both worlds. … There’s something about these operas where I feel like I was put here for them.”

Moore recalled Blanchard’s simple guidance to the cast simply to be “real” on stage — a real person with real feelings, and just let the music sing itself. As a result, she says, the singers bared themselves emotionally. “I remember at opening night I could barely even sing my lines. I was already crying so badly. It just it hit home so deeply,” Moore said.

The story, inspired by Charles M. Blow’s memoir, recounts the poverty-stricken childhood of a man who as an adult ultimately decides not to take revenge against a cousin who sexually abused him.

Moore is keen on making opera more accessible. Eschewing a highfalutin attitude over the rich, complex nature of an art form that involves so many different dimensions — from the human voice and orchestral music to visual arts and drama — she notes that opera in its most basic form involves people telling stories about other people.

“What’s more human that that?” she asks. “It should have never gotten to the point to where it was this hoity-toity, sort of snobby art form,” she added. “Your mind expands when you listen to this kind of music. Yes, it’s high art, but it’s for everybody. Opera for all.”