By Angela Allen
PORTLAND – More often than not, he plays the villains (Méphistophélès in Faust) and the weirdos (Bluebeard in Bluebeard’s Castle). She portrays the vulnerable tragic heroines (Violetta, Mimi, Marguerite).
Certainly those aren’t the only roles rising opera stars Alfred Walker and Angel Blue perform. But these parts have given them access to the world’s best stages. Both will sing at the Metropolitan Opera during the 2018-19 season – she reprising Musetta in La bohème, he as the Speaker in The Magic Flute. And more is in view: Blue will sing Violetta in La Traviata in her Covent Garden debut and Walker takes on Jochanaan in Salome at Oper Köln and Thoas in Iphigenie en Tauride at Oper Stuttgart.
Walker is singing Porgy to her Bess at Seattle Opera through Aug. 25. Each performer has seen growth in the other since the first time they met. “Alfred was a great Porgy then and he’s even better now,” said Blue.
“He makes the job easier by simply being who he is: talented, fun-loving, and very creative. It is rewarding to work with someone who is open to his colleagues’ ideas and opinions. He is also a great singer with his very strong and supported sound. We blend well together.”
Barrell-chested and imposing in stature, Walker owns a voice loaded with depth and color. Opera News, commenting on his performance in the title role of The Flying Dutchman, called his bass-baritone “inky with clear projection.”
Walker also is gifted with a huge range, from low E to high A-flat. He can reach baritone heights or descend to intimidating lows. With a facial expressiveness that can light up a stage or transport an audience to hell, he is as fine an actor as singer. And his flexible instrument allows him to play a range of characters. “I love my voice for that reason,” he said in a recent phone interview from Seattle between rehearsals of Francesca Zambello’s production of Porgy and Bess. “It keeps the repertoire constantly flowing.”
Recently, Walker was hired for a bass role, but the directors decided the baritone part would be the better fit. Which opera? He can’t say; it hasn’t been announced. But he’s been caught in the bass-baritone change-up more than once.
Blue, who has been compared to the legendary Leontyne Price (Blue calls herself the diva’s “No. 1 fan” and modestly rebuffs the comparison), sings with a bright, vibrant soprano – her stunning timbre has been noted often – and acts with a stage demeanor that can melt hearts. “Her voice is like sunshine, warm and magnificent,” said Walker about Blue. They met when she sang Clara and he was Porgy in a 2012 Boston Symphony Orchestra concert version of the opera.
Walker also sang Méphistophélès to Blue’s Marguerite in Portland Opera’s recent Faust and expressed admiration for her commitment: “Sometimes you look into a singer’s eyes and you see nothing. With her, she’s always there. She always gives back. It’s easier to sing and act when you have a colleague who is giving energy back. She has a world-class voice and is a great actress. She’s very collaborative.”
He added about the 5’11” former model and pageant queen: “She is a beautiful person, inside and out.”
Blue, whose fluid movement and poise attest to her many California beauty-contest titles, fell in love with opera as a child. Her parents took her Puccini’s Turandot when she was 4; she immediately decided to become an opera singer. “The music was loud, the orchestra was booming, and I recall the ‘lady in the light,’” she said. “Today I realize what captivated me was the famous aria ‘In questa reggia.’ My mom reminds me that I sat quietly in the seat with my knees hugged to my chest and watched without moving. That same excitement lives inside of me each time I’m on stage.”
Blue, 35, attended Los Angeles County High School for the Arts and studied classical piano and voice. Her sisters took up the harp, guitar, and piano; her mother played violin and piano; and her brother, a music arranger, mastered the bass guitar, piano, alto sax, and drums. Her father studied classical voice at the Cleveland Institute Music. “All of this love of music came from my dad,” she said. “He loved music, all music.”
After studies at the University of Redlands, Blue earned a master’s in opera performance at UCLA. She paid her way through college by winning beauty pageants, in which she often sang arias for her “talent.” In the 2005 National Sweethearts pageant, she won the overall talent contest performing “Sempre libera.” To this day, she says she embraces the pageantry. “It was part of my life,” she said. “I have a positive opinion about my beauty-queen legacy, and I choose not to be concerned with what others may think of that. Those were great years for me. I learned a lot about myself in my early 20s, lessons that help me in my 30s.”
Walker, who grew up in New Orleans and declines to reveal his age (though jokes he’s old enough now to play parts he wasn’t before), came to music much later than Blue. His sister “was the musician in the family,” he said, and he did little singing other than in church. However, as a psychology student at Dillard University, he and a friend joined the choir because they’d heard it had a spring tour and “there were a bunch of cute girls.” When he auditioned, Walker said he was a tenor. “I just had that in my mind.”
His voice was much lower and deeper than a tenor’s. His eventual mentor, Philip Frohnmayer, head of the vocal department at Loyola University, where Walker studied after graduating from Dillard, heard him sing. Walker remembers Frohnmayer saying to the choir leader: “Who is the guy with the voice?” and the choir leader responding, “Oh, that’s Alfred Walker. But he’s not serious. Don’t waste your time with him.”
Walker met up with Frohnmayer, a respected baritone, who told him, “You have a world-class voice, but you don’t know how to sing. I can teach you.” Walker never looked back and never found a better mentor than Frohnmayer, who died in 2013 at 66. Walker flew from Geneva, where he was performing in The Flying Dutchman, to attend the funeral.
In the late ’90s, Walker earned a spot in the Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann Young Artists program and debuted at the Met in the small role of Grégorio in Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette. He began singing German repertoire, in which he went on to sing Orest in Strauss’ Elektra, which he first performed at La Scala in 2005 and called his “big break,” and roles in Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman and Parsifal. Those parts, as well as Porgy, have built his reputation. His appearance in The Flying Dutchman “started this whole avalanche of work in German,” he said, but he since has sung opera in many languages all over the world. He eventually wants to portray Wotan in Wagner’s Ring cycle. Walker has been offered the huge role several times but insists it’s not time yet. “But one day,” he said.
Walker’s chief desire is to work with “really, really good conductors who have new ideas about traditional opera. People who can help develop and improve me, test my ambition.”
Blue, who lives in California after several years in London, plans to keep taking on new parts, but she calls her charitable foundation, Sylvia’s Kids, a major passion and pursuit. Named for her mother, who retired from teaching high school at the age of 75, the foundation provides scholarships to graduating minority high school seniors for further education. “My parents were incredibly active in my education,” she said, “and I want to share that same support with others.”
[Angela Allen’s review of the Seattle Opera Porgy and Bess can be found here.]
Angela Allen lives in Portland and writes about the arts. She is a published poet and photographer and teaches creative and journalistic writing to Portland-area students. Her website is angelaallenwrites.com.