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It's a diva thang: Angela Brown on Crispus Attucks, Verdi's heroines, sparkly jewelry

"Opera is not brain surgery, child. It's entertainment.”


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Angela Brown has a cold.

I know what you're thinking: It's January. Those bugs are going around. Normal, right?

But oh, ho, when a Metropolitan Opera star soprano has a cold, it's a whole different ball game.

Brown's en route to a drugstore for some fortifying meds when I ring her up to talk about her performance Sunday at All Souls Unitarian Church, where she'll perform a variety of pieces, with and without the choir. Despite her pedigree – top reviews for her renditions of Verdi heroines with operas across the globe, recitals at Carnegie, a Grammy nod for recent release Ask Your Mama, by Laura Karpman – she's a regular in churches around here, including “almost weekly” performances at her home congregation, Capitol City Seventh-Day Adventist Church. Yes, Brown is busy: world traveling and launching her own jewelry line (It's A Diva Thang, perfectly gold and glittery). But she's an Indianapolis girl through-and-through, and that's what we spent our time talking about: her time at Crispus Attucks, learning rhythm percussion from Miss Rose at School 76, testing acoustics at Carmel's Palladium (where she'll return in March with the Carmel Symphony Orchestra), and more.

Cross your fingers she kicks this cold, because our girl's got stuff to do.  

NUVO: How will Sunday go? I know you're doing a piece called “My Soul's Been Anchored with the Lord” with the choir.

Angela Brown: Yes. That's going to be one piece. We're still trying to decide between an anthem or an inspirational song. I think I might go inspiration. So, that'll be a surprise. [laughs] And I'm doing a spiritual. So it's going to be a nice collection of a few things.

NUVO: I was thinking through the legacy of musicians that attended Crispus Attucks: Wes Montgomery, Freddie Hubbard, Rodney Stepp, JJ Johnson, James Spaulding, David Baker … Angela Brown! There's some magic in that school. As someone who came out of there, I would love to hear your experience there, and what you think made it so special.


Brown: Well, you know, Crispus Attucks was designed to set apart African-Americans. It was designed for segregation. So when you're in a situation where you are set apart, you can't help but have the cream of the crop there! It ended up backfiring. The powers that be that made it, it backfired, and it became a breeding ground for genius. And it just so happens they were black! It's just because it was just going to happen. Like I said, we were set apart for segregation, but the best came out of that. It was meant for our demise, and it came about as good.

NUVO: I was thinking about my mother, an elementary school music teacher, when I read a thank you to Miss Rose at School 76 [in 19 Stars of Indiana; Exceptional Hoosier Women.] It's so powerful how those early teachers can have such a hold on you. What do you remember about Miss Rose and the early days in music class?

Brown: I just remember her allowing us to sing. I remember playing on the instruments that she would bring in, and the rhythm stuff that we would have to learn. She was just a nice lady. She just allowed us to evolve and to be. She was my very first touch on anything of structure when it came to music.

NUVO: The Indianapolis Opera has obviously been in a transitional period, and has had some different leadership and different seasonal changes happening. What are your thoughts on the future of opera in Indianapolis?

Brown: Great! The future of opera in Indianapolis will be great. What's the saying? If you always do what you've always did, you'll always get what you always got. There has to be some changes, and someone has to be brave to bring about those changes. I'm actually on the honorary board, which means I don't say anything and don't go to anything, but my name is affiliated with the Indianapolis Opera. I'm very proud to have been and to be a part of this organization, even in their restructuring.

Times are changing. And I do believe with Kevin Patterson at the helm that there will be some new and exciting changes to come to the opera landscape here in Indianapolis. Just keep them in prayer, keep them in your heart, keep them in your bank account. Give, give, give, because opera costs lots of money. But it's worth it, to bring the beauty that opera does have to this great city. And that's one thing that makes Indianapolis a great city. We are the cultural mecca, being in the Midwest. We have everything. And we do it with great quality and excellence. It will be fine. Opera will be fine. It might look a little different, but it will be here.

NUVO: I love this quote that you gave to another alt-weekly, The Westward, about Opera ...From a Sistah's Point of View. You said: “At first I thought it was just black audiences I had to reach. But after a while, I realized white people don’t like opera, either!”

Brown: There you go!

NUVO: What's the key to unlocking opera for someone who has never listened to it before?

Brown: What is the lynchpin? The thing that makes them go a-ha. It's understanding it, and making it palatable. You know, being myself, and telling the story. That's why I do Opera...From a Sistah's Point of View. Not to dumb it down, because it's not about being dumb. It's about being exposed. I find that when I have some good ol' fun with it, and explain to them what's happening, they can find themselves in opera. They can find a situation – whether about love, or about loss of love, or death, or a war, or anything like that – or if it's about seeing themselves personally, whether they're Asian, whether they're Black, whether they're Italian, whether they're Italian, whether they're Hispanic. You can find yourself in opera. It's just about being comfortable with it, and not trying to make it brain surgery. Because opera is not brain surgery, child, it's entertainment. It's entertainment, that's what it is. Not to try to set it up to be something like [feigns hoity-toity voice], “Ohhh, only ...” Please. Give me a break. Only the rich can enjoy it. NO. It started out with the poorer people in Italy. And then it was a command performance of something that was supposed to be written for the kings and queens, and then it took off to something that became an elitist art form. But it really started very grassroots.

Angela Brown - RONI ELY
  • Roni Ely
  • Angela Brown
NUVO: I think that it's a really exciting, creative time to be in Indianapolis. I think we have a lot of different arts organizations that are coming together to put our arts scene on the verge of something. What are your favorite little parts of Indy right now?

Brown: It's funny that you would ask me that because I've been traveling so much that I feel like every time I come back to Indianapolis, which is my home, and I have a home here, I feel like I'm on another quest to find out what's going on in my home city. I'm still very much exploring and finding out what's going on in Indy. Some of my favorite places: I love the Northside, like 86th Street over by Nordstrom Rack [laughs]. Love it! Love all that that's going on over there. You know, they say you can live and die on 86th Street. I love this area. This is my area. This is my stomping grounds. But I want to really start to explore Mass Avenue. Mass Avenue is what Broad Ripple used to be back in the day. Now Broad Ripple's kind of like a party place, a lot of young people, a lot of clubs and bars. But you have more of what we used to call a hippie thing in Broad Ripple. Now it's more Downtown, Mass Avenue, and over in Fountain Square. These pockets of Indianapolis, I'm like, “Oh my god, this exists?!”

And it's funny that you would bring that up because I started my own jewelry line called It's a Diva Thang. It's an online store. I touch every piece. Right now it's definitely something that I create. They're my own designs. It kinds of adds to that Indiana/Indianapolis mystique of having so many creative entrepreneurs there. I've thrown my voice and my creativity into that side as well. … They're fabric-wrapped, acrylic bracelets. The reason I started it is because I was traveling so much. I would put my good, expensive stuff into my bags, and when I got where I was going, all my settings would fall out. So I'm like, what is the deal here? I need something that I don't have to baby, or coddle. I can put it on, if I hit it up against something it won't break. That's where I came up with fabric-wrapped jewelry that can go from the stage to the office to playtime, to the theater, whatever. You just have fun with them.

I have lots of eclectic designs, and I have my sparkle. Check it out. Even smaller women, I've found that if they have a larger hand, it's sometimes harder for them to get on an average-sized bracelet, so I have plus-sized bracelets, which are the thinner ones. The thicker ones are the regular-sized bracelets. Then I have hoops and teardrops and circles. So you can find your style with me. And I'm running a special! Fifty percent off everything site-wide. Just put in the code: SHINEONGIRL! at checkout, so you can get your 50 percent off discount.

NUVO: As a Northsider, what do you think about the Palladium as a performer?

Brown: I love the Palladium. I wasn't the tester for the theater, but I was doing a Christmas concert that year with David Bowden and the Carmel Symphony. The acoustician of the Palladium just happened to be there during my rehearsal. And he said, “Would you just do me a favor and sing a little bit a ccapella with no amplification or anything?” And I sang for him, and he said, “This building is meant for that.” It's one of the warmest places that I have sung, as far as the acoustics are concerned. Of course, when you have amplification, you have different artists that will use that facility, and they all have different needs, so sometimes you need amplification. I enjoy that space because it is so versatile. And I love how it looks. I love how it just seems to rise out of Carmel like a sphinx. I love it! I love how it's just kind of set apart.

NUVO: You're most associated with the works of Verdi. As you've continued to sing his work, and continued to perform it in a variety of different productions, how has your understanding of him as a writer and historical figure changed? What do you think of him as a man, as a musician?

Brown: [laughs] Now I'm not one of those historians that will wax long about his history and how he pulled on the counterpoints and blah, blah, blah. I think that when it comes to his heroines, he loved to see a lady weepin' and gnashin' teeth. All of his heroines always have an act where they sing a LOT. Like in Aida, it's the third act. It's power-packed and full of drama. So it's the third act for Aida. In Il trovatore, I think he got a little crazy altogether, because you didn't have to sing that much in the second act. So a lot of times, one of the arias that she sings is cut, because she's saying the same thing again. It just goes from maybe 8 to 10. I'm like, “Oh my goodness. Verdi just wants to sing all of his sopranos into the ground.” I'm like, “Come on now, Mr. Verdi!” I love it. He's not a punk. You can't be a punk and sing his music. He uses your voice from top to bottom, and the middle. He works it, honey. With all that said, with all the work that you have to do, I believe that he loved women and wanted to show them off. I have to speak of what I know, what I do, what I have experienced. And I believe he loved the female voice, and wanted to show every facet, every sparkling image, every diamond that it could be. And he allows that in his music, because you have to be able to do it. He calls for a lot.

If you go: 

Angela Brown
Sunday, January 17, 10:30 a.m.
All Souls Unitarian Church, 5805 E. 56th St.
free, all-ages 


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