Girls of Summer
MICHELLE JOHNSON tells BRIAN KELLOW about her upcoming debut as Aida at the Glimmerglass Festival.
Michelle Johnson's impressive lirico-spinto voice is most familiar to those operagoers who frequent the competition circuit: in 2011 alone, Johnson was a top prize-winner in the William Matheus Sullivan Foundation, Gerda Lissner International Vocal Competition and the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions. But she's about to step out in a highly exposed way. This July and August, she takes on the title role of Aida in a new production at the Glimmerglass Festival, staged by Glimmerglass’s artistic and general director, Francesca Zambello.
At Glimmerglass, Johnson will become the latest in a long line of gifted African–American sopranos to sing Verdi's Ethiopian princess. Clearly, Zambello doesn't want this to be just another generic Aida: an African–American tenor, Noah Stewart, has been cast as Radamès, and on the podium is someone who should be well equipped to capture Verdi's "Egyptian" sound — Nader Abbassi, artistic director and principal conductor of Cairo Opera.
Zambello heard Johnson singing "Dove sono" in the finals of the National Council Auditions and offered her Aida. The Glimmerglass performances will come just after she winds up her fourth and final year at Philadelphia's Academy of Vocal Arts, where she studies with William Stone. "I thought about it for a couple of months," says Johnson. "I went out and bought a score and started to pay attention to what was going on. I started off with 'Ritorna vincitor' and got that into my body, and then I went to the father–daughter duet. I had to take the time to say, 'Michelle … are you ready?' No pressure was put on me. I felt that I could say no. I went to my coaches at AVA and my voice teacher, and they all said, 'You're smart. You know what you can handle. If you take your time, we believe that you can do this.' It's not going to be a cakewalk by any means."
Now twenty-nine, Johnson is accustomed to challenges and points out that although the competition circuit may seem far removed from the real world, it really isn't. "It gets tougher as it goes on," she says. "My name is sort of a familiar name in the competition world, so there's always a greater expectation, and it gets more nerve-wracking as you go." She credits the faculty at AVA with helping her become a far more consistent performer, and to develop her middle voice. She wants to keep building her repertoire sensibly and hopes to avoid the trap that has ensnared many other black sopranos. "I hope to not be stuck in Aida. I would like to open the door, do this, let it simmer awhile, and then jump back into it. I don't want to sing this Aida and then sing ten more after this."