“The Valkyries” is an opera like you’ve never seen or heard before. A high-tech drama at the Detroit Opera, it zooms in on the futuristic world of nine sisters and their treacherously unforgiving father. The main sister has gone against father rules and must now bare his wrath. Using Tron-esque, 3D computer graphics — performers act in real-time in front of a green screen, and are simultaneously being placed into a retro-futuristic digital world viewable on three giant, immersive 20-foot screens dangled above the stage. This combination of live performance and projected digital environment with dramatic operatic song makes this a worthy experience with some truly stunning moments and more glorious vocals.
The pandemic honestly closed so many theaters nationwide, forcing performers, whose seasons are typically booked well in advance, to rethink their options and live with another level of unforeseen flexibility and creativity that once seemed unthinkable. But also with the racial upheaval comes more opportunity for black vocalists to truly diversify opera’s culture.
BLAC spoke with three Black female cast members of “The Valkyries” — GeDeane Graham, Detroit-native Leah Dexter and Highland Park-native Krysty Swann — to discuss their lives as opera singers.
First Introduced to Classical Music
When the performance opens, a small group of women are galliantly riding their bikes back to their home after being victorious in beating their foes. A similar feeling when coming back home as a successful opera singer. Our Highland Park-native performer was first exposed to classic music and opera as a young child growing up with asthma. For Krysty Swann — who plays Rosseweise in the Detroit Opera’s The Valkyries — being back in Detroit can be homecoming. “They’d send instrumentalists to our elementary school and my mom was like ‘You’re gonna learn clainet,’ because she thought it would help my ashma and it did. That’s how I was originally exposed to classical music. I was always in choir and had great choral teachers that pushed me to sing and I always sang in church.”
Three of “The Valkyries” sisters have beautiful brown skin and proudly represents three diverse introduction and matriculations into the world of opera. While the traveling and elaborate costuming and endless rehearsing seems glamorous to most, the life of an opera singer is very rarely singing opera. There are days and nights of seclusion, away from family and friends, and times when you’re focused on the music and nothing else. “I went to Jackson State and all I knew was that I wanted to sing. But once I got into warm-ups, I heard students singing in different languages; languages I’d never heard before,” says GeDeane Graham. “The instructor said, ‘If you’re going to be a voice performance artist, you must be classically trained.’ After having to take out a year for my thyroid condition, my desire to get back in school was my own encouragement and my own determination. I didn’t have family encouraging me.”
Sing Pretty and Wear Pretty Dresses
The lifestyle of a performer can be transformative, but it also requires great discipline requiring strict regimes of study and practice in order to work at peak performance, especially during the time of production. “Most of what we do honestly is perperation. One of my teachers use to tell us that ‘You’re gonna have to fall in love with being by yourself,’” says Swann. “Even when you are with someone, you mind will be studying constantly because we study a lot.” Contrary to the name, opera singers do much more than just sing opera; just as opera combines music and theater, opera singers merge their astounding musical skill with impressive acting and movement ability in order to bring the work of a composers work to life.
“Because we’re staying in a hotel in downtown Detroit, our housekeepers are always taking bags and bags of bottled watered when they clean our rooms. We drink so much water like little fish in the sea,” says Detroit-native Leah Dexter, who, portrays sister Siegrune in “The Valkyries” production. “I spend an hour or so studying what’s next for me. I’ll carry my sheet music around studying, going through rhymths, singing through a section of the next production or the next score.”
“We’re in the hotel rooms a lot cause a cold can take us out. If we don’t say no to the parties and the gathering, we could loss out on our money,” says Swann. “A cold could take out your rent for the month. So even though this is my home — for this trip — I was in my hotel room most of the time. I can’t get to see my family until after the show. I’m the oldest of four sisters and I can’t do the family things I want to do because I have to take care of my voice. It’s my job.”
“So many artists of color’s voices have been institutionalized. You’re told, ‘You need to do this, you need to do that,’ but when you’re doing all 50 of those things, you still have to tell a story,” says Graham. “But you’ve stripped me down and now you want me to bloom like rose? My advice to young people that want to pursue this, never lose the passion and the love for what you’re doing.”