Smartists: Michelle Johnson

Published on Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls!

It’s no secret that opera, a four-hundred year old craft known for amazing voices and intricate plots, has struggled in wooing audiences in recent years. Early this year, The Metropolitan Opera House announced that they “brought in only 69 percent of its total potential box office revenue last season…the lowest in recent years”. At the mention of The Ring, most people under forty would think of Frodo, not Wagner. Yet, new talent like soprano Michelle Johnson, are threatening this trajectory by renewing opera with youth, originality and breathtaking talent.

Known for her “extraordinary breath control and flawless articulation,” with a “voice…velvety and pliant–a dulcet dream,” this graduate of the prestigious Academy of Vocal Arts is dazzling in appearance and aria, and just a joy to get to know.

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Born in Texas into a long line of educators, she was nurtured in an atmosphere of hard work and success. “…Education was essential to my career,” Johnson said, “My father is a Baptist pastor and my mother is an owner and director of an early childhood learning center, and my two older brothers are both in education as well.”

Johnson thought of being a teacher, but life had another plan for her—opera. When she was just 8, she saw Madame Butterfly on PBS. Johnson remembers becoming captivated by the high drama, the costumes, make-up, and the combination of song, music, and acting.

“It was nothing like I had ever seen before…I did not grow up in a house of frequent opera supporters. I grew up singing gospel in church, musical theater at school, and hip hop, R&B and alternative with friends. The opera world was a new world that I could not wait to discover,” Johnson said.

So discover she did. Instead of following in the footsteps of her family, she auditioned for music school. She was accepted to New England Conservatory of Music. Her education there was followed by a stint at Boston University’s Opera Institute. Eventually, Johnson arrived in Philadelphia, PA to attend the prestigious Academy of Vocal Arts.

“While at AVA, I was able to really focus on taking my craft to the next level. Nothing can take the place of being in your craft’s environment everyday with some of the most talented beings. I had two choices, grow or quit. I chose to grow,” she said.

Though it was the more challenging decision, to grow, it gave her a philosophy on her life and craft that’s worth sharing with you, my darling Smart Girls.

“[In opera,] I have learned…it’s always best to be honest with yourself… It’s too exhausting to try to be anyone other than myself. It’s also too uncomfortable. I am in a field where one is dealing with other’s opinions on a daily basis.  I’m playing characters that have been portrayed for hundreds of years. It’s always important to take in other’s critiques and advice but in the end [remember] it’s just me on the stage. I always respect what the composer has written but I always have to add my own color and flare to the piece that I’m presenting.”

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She means to add her own color literally, too, as a black woman in an art form that tends to tip-toe around and avoid the discussion of race.

“Many of the soprano roles I play are not black women…Most of the time the race of a character is not important to the storyline one bit. I find it very strange that many people find it very acceptable to perform a make-up transformation on a male that is not of color so he can play ‘Othello’ but it’s very seldom that one is eager to perform the same transformation for a woman of color to play ‘Desdemona.’ I am willing to take any challenge that comes my way.”

But there are a couple of women in particular that she acknowledges helped clear the way for her.

Firstly, it is opera legend, Leontyne Price. “I can not put into words what I feel when I listen to her perform. I just feel such an emotion in my gut. She’s brilliant and I hope to walk in the path that she has opened for black singers.”

Secondly, Johnson credits her mother Zelda with inspiring her and keeping her strong in who she is. “…That brilliant, intelligent, strong, classy lady [hangs] in there with me. I feel I can always ask for advice or a listening ear and she is always there. She truly was a great example of being comfortable with who you are in spite of other’s opinions.”

Johnson’s passion, originality and support system have brought her this far, but she is adamant about continuing having a long, healthy career. “Of course I would love to sing all of the grand diva roles right now,” she said, “but I know I, and my throat, would hate me after five years of unnecessary pressure being placed on my vocal chords and self.” She stresses that it’s great to have drive and passion, but that in the end it’s just as important to “have fun, enjoy life and be kind to your body.”

Johnson is gracing the stage in many upcoming performances. Right now, she is preparing to make two house debuts this season with the Kentucky Opera and the Sarasota Opera as “Minnie” in Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West and “Elisabeth” in Verdi’s Don Carlos. If you’re inspired by her story and nearby, get out and hear this Smart Girl sing!

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