The purpose of this project is to provide a collection of transcriptions from the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020. This project seeks to give a platform to all parts of the vocal performing arts to better understand the lived experiences and mentality of those professionals. In collecting stories from the COVID-19 pandemic Nicole Heaston, soprano, discussed her experience in shifting to being on screen. She also shares the story of how “Lift Every Voice and Sing” became an internet sensation.
Nicole Heaston, soprano
Interviewed January 25, 2021
TB: Starting on a positive note, what is the best thing that's happened in the last week?
NH: In the last week? Trump left Washington, D.C. That is the best thing that happened.
TB: We are still in the first week of the new Biden administration and we got to see the amazing Amanda Gorman. What are you proudest of accomplishing in your career so far?
NH: There have been so many things, but I remember when I made my Met debut. As a young singer, that is all you are looking forward to. Then you get there, it is done, and you think, "Now what?" There have been a lot of highs, and I would say that was one of my highs.
I think doing Alcina was another high for me. The very first time I did that was in Norway. It was something that took me completely out of my box. And it made me tap into more of me as Nicole the artist, instead of me as Nicole trying to please somebody else and what they want out of a performance.
I would also say I'm proud of the Purple Robe Song series because it took me out of my box of being nervous about myself on film. Saying things like, "Do I look too fat in this?" or, "How does my hair look? How does my voice sound?" I have always had apprehension when it comes to video. When I first started, if you had a video of yourself out there, you were on the higher echelon. Not everybody did that because it just wasn't the way. Now, with the advent of YouTube and everyone having a camera on their phone, everyone videotapes themselves all the time. I was just more averse to it because I was self-conscious. But when I decided to do Purple Robe, I really didn't care. I said, "I'm going to do what I want to do and be myself." It liberated me in a way that I had never felt. Then I also got a chance to learn how to video edit for myself. So I learned a whole bunch of new skill sets. It was great.
TB: The Purple Robe Song Series is incredible. Do you remember when you began this series?
NH: I began it in April of 2020.
TB: The Juneteenth video was just such a highlight of the summer. It has turned into a huge video, just on Facebook, it had 6,000 shares and over half a million views. Can you talk me through making this and your thought process?
NH: Honestly, I didn't expect any of that. Literally, I woke up at 4 a.m. because the way my mind works is that things come to be between four and six o'clock when I am partially asleep and partially awake. So, I wake up like, "This is what I want to do" or "That is what I am going to eat for dinner." But that day, I woke up and said, "I want to sing Roland Carter's 'Lift Every Voice and Sing' with as many Black opera singers as I can."
I didn't know how many that could be and I didn't know if anybody would do it with me. But I knew I had to have my ducks in a row. So I called Kenneth Overton because he knows a lot of Black opera singers. I asked him, "Do you think somebody would do this?" And he said, "Of course!" I also had this ignorant belief where I figured that every Black person knew that version of "Lift Every Voice and Sing" because I sang it in church, the Chicago Children's Choir, and at college. I sang soprano and alto. I knew all the other parts in it. So I assumed everybody else did too.
So I reached out to other singers, hoping they would want to sing it with me. But I knew that I could not do the video editing myself. I had seen the work that Ryan McKinny had done, so I asked him if he would facilitate the video editing for me. And after that weekend, he let me know that he would be able to do it.
I thought it would be something where I would just grab some friends, sing it, and Ryan would put it together. Then it would be part of the Purple Robe Song Series and be seen by a couple hundred people. And we would move on. But that is not what happened. Funny enough, the video was supposed to come earlier in the month and wasn't planned for Juneteenth. At the time, I had a theme for the Purple Robe Song Series every day. For this, I was going for June 12, though I can't remember what the theme was, maybe a song that inspired me. (Because the calendar that I got had that theme on there, and I am such a stickler for rules.)
So we gave everyone the music to sing. Kevin Miller played, and everyone made recordings. When it all finally came back, Ryan said, "I could use a bit more time working on it. I think this can be important and that we should take more time." So I took off my rules and said, "Juneteenth is coming up. That gives us another seven days. We can relax into it, and Ryan can really take his time." I called Bill Doggett and asked if he had some pictures of the recent and ongoing civil unrest that we could use and he generously shared his photos with us. Then I talked Ryan through what I wanted: pictures here, zoom in here—I was very detailed in what I wanted. Ryan was perfection in reading my mind and putting everything down.
Lawrence Brownlee was one of the singers we worked with, and he said, "Nicole, I think this is going to be really important. Do you want me to ask my publicist to help you out getting it out there?" I said sure, and they were fantastic. Unison Media emailed me then, and they went to the mat. They sent it out to all the publications and showed me how to put it on my Facebook page, where it would feed off to other people.
We put it out at midnight on Juneteenth, and it just went immediately. People were so moved by it, and it was amazing to me. For me, it was a little overwhelming because I wasn't expecting it. It was literally something I thought of when I woke up in the middle of the night. But people loved it. And I loved it. And Roland Carter loved it! That is what really got me. As long as he was happy, I was happy. Having people from George Shirley to new singers who were just starting out view and share this video was amazing.
TB: It was such a beautiful moment, so thank you for making it possible. Can you take me back to that February/March time period? Where were you, and how did you first realize that your life would be affected by this pandemic?
NH: I knew my life was going to be affected in January. When everybody else was sleeping on it, I was looking at China. I was supposed to do a Le Nozze di Figaro with Hamburg Opera. It was a production I had done with them two years ago, and they wanted to take it to China. At that time, everything was going on in Wuhan, China. I was watching and wondering if this opera was going to happen. Hamburg was waiting to see what would happen because we were supposed to go to China in March.
When I started seeing it, I went to get masks on Amazon, and it was a two-week wait to get a mask. Immediately, I said on Facebook, "It is coming here. If I can't get a mask in the United States in January, this is going off in China." But nothing was happening here, and so I started planning immediately. While everybody else was hoarding toilet paper and that type of stuff in March, I already had my toilet paper and all of my food. I was ready because I could see it. I was looking at it happening someplace else.
By the time we got to February and March, I remember thinking things would not go well. And they cancelled the opera in China. But I did think, "This is temporary. By the time we get to June/July, they'll have this under control." Because I was thinking about things like Ebola or SARS, which were alarming and then just didn't happen or went away, that wasn't the case. So when it first started, I thought it was going to be temporary. But once they [the government] shut down the country in March, I realized how different it was because we've never shut down like that before. I did still think that we would be back singing in the fall. But once we hit May or June, I knew this would be here for a while. You just have to buckle up and say, "It is what it is." And do your best to stay safe.
TB: Before we started the interview, I noted that you are one of the busiest opera singers during the pandemic. Could you talk me through your mindset as you were transitioning your stage-based career to one of being a filmed performer?
NH: The Purple Robe Song Series really facilitated that transition. At the beginning of the pandemic, there were two types of singers: ones that wanted to sing and tape themselves doing it, and others who said, "I'm not putting my voice on film. My voice is meant for the theater." Because people thought it was temporary.
[Through this situation,] I was still a person who had been seen singing a lot of the time, which showed two things: 1) my voice was still in shape, and 2) I was comfortable in front of a camera. Though I had things scheduled for the fall, that all went out the window. Then Houston Grand Opera came in and picked that up. They were planning on doing a digital season and asked if I would join them. They chose me because I live here and they had seen that I was comfortable in front of a camera.
The first piece I did with them was a recital that is going to be airing in April. But then we did Vinkensport, which Ryan McKinny and Loren Meeker directed. Because I had worked with Ryan, I already had that conversational situation with him. [Vinkensport] was filmed like a movie. We were on set (outside), and we were singing with a track in our ear. Because I had sung with a track for the entire Purple Robe Song Series, I was completely comfortable with it. So, I had no idea that the series would propel me to and prepare me for, what opera has had to be during this pandemic season.
TB: Would you say that this is something that will continue on its own after the staged work begins to come back?
NH: I hope so. I think it is so interesting. Many of my colleagues are doing it now at different opera houses, like Atlanta Opera. It is a way to actually get opera out to the masses who may not necessarily get into a concert hall. Once the theater does come back, there is space for it. And I think there is a venue for that to happen because it is interesting and creative. Opera doesn't have to only be one thing.
As artists, we need that instant gratification of having an audience there and knowing how they're relating to what we're doing. That helps us know that we're doing something that is touching to someone else. When you do something virtual, you put it out there, and you have no idea how people will react. As I said, I had no idea how people were going to react to "Lift Every Voice and Sing." So you want to know what you are putting out so that you know you are on the right track and doing the right thing. But [audience reception] also warms your heart. And we sing so that people can give us love back. We give love to receive love. It will be nice to have that again. But doing these videos is a lot of fun.
TB: One of the issues I have heard from artists through these interviews is that they miss the energy you get from the stage. You have done this for a while, so how have you recreated that energy you get from the stage?
NH: It is really hard in some ways. I just did Giving Voice with Houston Grand Opera, which is the easiest comparison. I did Giving Voice the same time last year, and it was with a packed audience. Everyone was so energized and excited to be there. It was an audience of people who had never really come to [an] opera before. For them to see a cast of nothing but African American singers singing everything from opera, to spirituals, to standards; they were so excited. And you [the singer] felt that, and it made you give much more.
This year, we did it again, but it was videotaped. We walked out, sang, and we walked off stage. No applause, nothing. They would have you walk back onstage to verify if something needed to be re-recorded. So, you would poke your head out like, "Was that okay?" And they would say it’s good. So you say, "I guess it was good enough." But you don't really know. With a performance, you only get one chance anyway. I missed that feeling.
But when you’re singing, you have to tap into why you're singing. Give as much soul and love in that performance as you would if an audience was out there. It makes you be on your toes. You can't be dependent on an audience.
TB: I know that you have had several contracts that have come during the pandemic. But can you talk to me about the financial effect that the pandemic has had on you?
NH: Financially, it has been a huge hit. I have been blessed because my husband has a steady job, to be completely honest. So, I am not one of the singers wondering how they are going to pay their bills. But as an artist, I had fees for a Falstaff in Sweden. I was supposed to do my first Thaïs in Utah. And I had concerts here and there.
Now, the fees you are getting for most digital work are lower, and you are not working as long. Honestly, I think we worked for two weeks doing Vinkensport, where I was supposed to be in Sweden for three months. There is a big difference in that.
There are a lot of companies that want to put out digital work. They want to give the audience something and give work to opera singers. But I have encountered some companies who have tried to take advantage of artists. I understand that they are not getting money or butts in the seats, and I get that. But sometimes, they offer little to nothing and want the world. Like, "We would love you to do a two-hour recital for this little amount." But there is a lot of work that goes into that, and many singers are having trouble. They are young singers who still have to pay exorbitant application costs to put their information out there for programs etc. It has been very hard for them in that sense.
Some companies have been absolutely great. They have had to cancel jobs but still paid a rehearsal fee or half your fee because they know that we're all in a sad situation. But I have realized opera companies are in a pickle, too, because they're not getting money coming in either. I have been very good, and I can't complain as I have continued working. But it has been tough, and there are a lot of people who haven't sung at all.
TB: What would you say is the hardest lesson you've learned in the pandemic?
NH: The hardest lesson I've learned is that you have to save your money and really budget yourself better when it all comes back. That has always been my issue anyway. I love to spend. But I have heard from a lot of singers—especially singers who were working really consistently and getting nice fees before the pandemic—who were spending money because they always knew they had money coming. That's the beauty of our career. Or at least it was. You knew you had a certain amount of work for the next three, four, or five years. But when it all ended, and suddenly engagements were cancelled for a year; you didn't need that first-class ticket or whatever you had taken. So it came to bite you afterward.
That was a hard lesson that a lot of people (not just me) learned. We need to be more frugal. And we are really not going to be the same once we come back. Because I don't think fees are going to be the same. Opera houses aren't going to be the same. I think there are going to be some opera houses that are going to be gone. So everyone is going to need to learn how to live more frugally.
TB: Normally, I ask about how this has affected the creative process. But since we have talked so much about the Purple Robe Song Series, I would like to know about your creative initiative in doing so. Why was it so important to you to do this series?
NH: I wanted to show my friends on Facebook—because that is really where it started—a variety of what I am as a singer and what opera singers can be and are. Many times, people think 'opera singer' and think something that is very artificial and not real. Whenever I tell people I'm an opera singer, they gasp, and they think differently of me. They think that you're either super rich or cultured—which I am, by the way. [Laughter]
So, I wanted to show a variety of different things. When I was putting the list of songs together, I would write them out and see this day was jazz, then a Broadway song, here an aria, there an art song, and then a rap piece. It was to show everyone that music is music. And if you like a rap song, you may actually like "Voi che sapete." Listen to the harmonies of Mozart; that is some funky stuff. He has a groove to him. I wanted to put that out there for people so that everyone could have a little bit of something to look forward to.
TB: Minus a pandemic, it is January 25, 2021. Where would you be, and what would you be preparing for?
NH: Right now, I would be in Oslo, Norway, doing Missy Mazzoli's opera, The Listeners. She wrote this piece for me, and I was going to play the role of Claire Devon. We had workshops in Philadelphia before the pandemic. It was supposed to have its premiere in Oslo this March. So, I would be there working on that. But it has been moved, not cancelled. Because it is a great piece and Missy is fantastic.
TB: Looking back on this experience, how do you think this will change the musical landscape in the future?
NH: A lot of things are going to change. With the whole racial aspect, I think it will change a bit. I hope opera houses are going to start looking at getting more diversity, not only on their stages but also behind the stage. I am hopeful it will change.
Fee schedules will change, so the amount of money certain singers were getting is probably going to be lessened. I am praying that opera houses don't come back and out of desperation to make money and get things back, they hire the same exact singers they were always hiring. I hope they diversify, but I don't mean that racially because there have been so many singers that have been out of work.
That was my biggest pet peeve when I saw some companies doing recitals with these super famous singers. That was great, but they don't need the money. Many other artists out there may not be A-level singers, but they still get hired. Put them on and let them be seen. Let them find an audience so that when we do come back to the theater, their audience will say, "I saw that singer in a recital. I would love to see them the next time they're on stage," instead of companies just hiring the same five people. I am hoping that will change. And what will probably happen is we will have more digital offerings sprinkled into a season. I don't know if it is more expensive, but it will be something that can pad the seasons.
TB: I know you are very passionate about working with the next generation of singers. If you could give them advice about getting through a situation like this, what would it be?
NH: I've been telling young singers that what they need to do is work on their technique. Often, young singers—because of the generation they're in—are very social media-driven and they’re awesome at it. They are great at selling themselves, but you can't sell a product that is not complete.
During this time, work on new repertoire. Get on Zoom and work with your teacher, work with coaches, and ask other opera singers to work with you. That way, when the pandemic is over, and you are in front of an opera company, you are prepared and not behind the 8-ball. Because a lot of singers did go into small depressions of, "What do I do now?" They retreated from singing, and either they’ll eventually go back to it, or a lot of them have left the business.
But don't let whatever progress you've made be stagnated or fall behind. You have to keep moving and know that this is just temporary. Everything in life is temporary. This pandemic is not going to last forever. You may be miserable now, and you may be broke right now, but in two years you won't be. So don't miss the boat by sulking in it. You have got to pick yourself up by your bootstraps and keep moving.
TB: Thank you for talking with me today. Lastly, what is your video binge recommendation for the pandemic?
NH: I've seen everything. We'll start off with the most recent binge; Bridgerton is a must. Then Schitt's Creek and Ozark. Also, I love dark stuff like The Boys on Amazon. I started watching WandaVision and was upset that I got through episode three, and there was no episode four. I wanted to get my binge on!
I have to say big ups to Amazon and Netflix. They have saved my life because I am such a TV person. I'm totally fine staying at home. While everyone else is trying to get out of the house, my husband and I say, "Give us some good TV, and we are good. We can be here for another year if you need us to be!"
TB: Thank you so much for sharing your story and thoughts with me today. It has been a privilege to chat with you.
“Lift Every Voice and Sing” by Roland Carter
From the Purple Robe Song Series
Soprano 1 Nicole Heaston, Angela Brown, Kearstin Piper Brown, Janai Brugger, Anita Johnson, NaGuanda Nobles, Dara Rahming, Elisabeth Stevens, Brandie Inez Sutton, Marsha Thompson, and Cherisse Williams
Soprano 2 Meroë Khalia Adeeb, Denise Nicole Battle, Hope Briggs, Lisa Gwyn Daltirus, Adrienne Danrich, Tiffany Jackson, Michelle Johnson, Laquita Mitchell, Aundi Marie Moore, Karen Slack, Indra Thomas, and Cherissia Williams
Alto 1 J’Nai Bridges, Raehann Bryce-Davis, John Holiday, Briana Hunter, Jonita Lattimore, Latonia Moore, Key’mon Murrah, Krysty Swann, and Melody Wilson Alto 2 Lucia Bradford, Patrice P. Eaton, Leah Hawkins, Samantha McElhaney, Lori-Kaye Miller, Marietta Simpson, Darryl Taylor, and Tichina Vaughn
Tenor 1 Lawrence Brownlee, Dorian L. Dillard II, Limmie Pulliam, Issachah Savage, and George Shirley Tenor 2 Cornelius Johnson, Patrick D. McCoy, and Kay’mon Murrah
Bass 1 Justin Michael Austin, Mark Steven Doss, Brian Fenderson, Brian Major, Sidney Outlaw, Kenneth Overton, Reginald Smith Jr., and Jorell Williams
Bass 2 Donnie Ray Albert, Gordon Hawkins, Kenneth Kellogg, Nicholas Newton, Morris Robinson, Kevin Short, Robert Sims, Michael Sumuel, and Kevin Thompson
Conductor: Damien L. Sneed
Pianist: Kevin J. Miller
Producers: Nicole Heaston, Anita Johnson, Kenneth Overton
Editor: Ryan McKinny
Photos: Bill Doggett
About Nicole Heaston
Praised by the Houston Chronicle for her “warm supple soprano” and by the New York Times for her “radiant” and “handsomely resonant voice”, soprano Nicole Heaston has appeared with opera companies throughout the world, including the Metropolitan Opera, Houston Grand Opera, San Francisco Opera, Dallas Opera, Washington National Opera, Los Angeles Opera, Semperoper Dresden, Deutsche Oper am Rhein in Düsseldorf, and the Glyndebourne Festival in England. In the current season, she will debut the role of Claire Devon in the world premiere of Missy Mazzoli’s The Listeners at the Norwegian National Opera.
In the 2019/20 season, Heaston appeared in the Memphis Symphony’s opening weekend gala and sang Countess Almaviva in Le Nozze di Figaro at the San Francisco Opera. In the 2018/19 season, the soprano made three significant role debuts: Mimì in La Bohème at the Houston Grand Opera, Liù in Turandot with the Orquesta Filarmónica de Jalisco, and the title role in Didone Abbandonata at Theater Basel. She also debuted at the Hamburg State Opera as Countess Almaviva, sang her first MahlerSymphony No. 2 with the Houston Symphony, and appeared in recital at the Wang Center in Naples, Florida. Engagements from the 2017/18 season included the title role in Alcina at Theater Basel, Alice Ford at the Teatro de la Maestranza in Seville, Brahms’ Requiem with the Houston Symphony, and a gala concert at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow.
In the 2016/17 season, Heaston sang Adina in L’elisir d’amore at the Houston Grand Opera, Haydn’s The Creation with the Houston Symphony (released on the Pentatone label), Countess Almaviva in Le Nozze di Figaro at the Boston Lyric Opera, and Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni with the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra. Engagements for the 2015/16 season included Alice Ford in Falstaff at the Royal Danish Opera in Copenhagen and Countess Almaviva at Den Norske Opera and the Utah Opera. In the 2014/15 season, she sang Pamina in Die Zauberflöte at the Houston Grand Opera, the title role in Alcina at the Royal Danish Opera, and was the featured vocal soloist in the Houston Ballet’s staging of Stravinsky’s Les Noces. Her engagements for the 2013/14 season included Alcina at Den Norske Opera, Arminda in La Finta Giardiniera at the Glyndebourne festival, and the featured soloist in Of Blessed Memory at the Houston Ballet. In the 2011/12 season, Heaston sang Alice Ford in Falstaff with Opera de Lausanne and the title role in L’incoronazione di Poppea at the Semperoper Dresden.
Heaston has established a long-standing relationship with Houston Grand Opera, beginning as a member of the Houston Grand Opera Studio. Her debut with the company was in the title role of Roméo et Juliette, and she has since been heard as Gilda in Rigoletto, Susanna in Le Nozze di Figaro, and Zerlina in Die Zauberflöte. Heaston also created the title role in Houston Grand Opera’s world premiere of Jackie O, subsequently recording the opera for the Argo label. Since her debut at the Metropolitan Opera as Zerlina in Don Giovanni, Ms. Heaston has appeared regularly with the theater, singing Ilia in Mozart’s Idomeneo, Pamina in Die Zauberflöte (conducted by James Levine), and Echo in Ariadne auf Naxos. A regular presence in opera houses throughout the United States, Heaston recently sang Musetta in La Bohème with the Fort Worth Opera, Lyric Opera of Kansas City, and for her debut with New York City Opera alongside Rolando Villazón (which was recorded and broadcast nationwide). She has performed the role of Oscar in Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera with the San Francisco Opera, Dallas Opera and Lyric Opera of Kansas City, and she has sung Gilda in Rigoletto at the Nashville Opera and Opera Grand Rapids. Heaston made her debut with the Michigan Opera Theatre as Nanetta in Falstaff and has since returned to the company as Susanna in Le Nozze di Figaro. She sang Despina in Così Fan Tutte with the Dallas Opera and made her debut with the Washington National Opera in the role of Pamina. Heaston made her debut at the Glimmerglass Opera in New York as Susanna, performing the same role at the Wolf Trap Opera in Virginia, and sang the role of the Princess in Respighi’s La Bella Dormente nel Bosco at the Spoleto Festival and the 2005 Lincoln Center Festival.
In recent seasons, Heaston made her Italian debut in Adriano in Siria at the Fondazione Pergolesi in Jesi, Italy. She also made her debut at the Los Angeles Opera as Musetta in La Bohème, joined the New Orleans Opera in Rigoletto, and returned to Carnegie Hall for the Marilyn Horne Foundation “The Song Continues” annual recital. Heaston performed in Le Nozze di Figaro with Opera de Lille and The Creation at the Teatro Carlo Felice, and she sang Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni for her debut at the Glyndebourne Festival and the title role in L’incoronazione di Poppea for her debut at the Semperoper Dresden.
Heaston made her European operatic debut as Anne Truelove in Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress in Montpellier and sang Zerlina fin Die Zauberflöte at the Deutsche Oper am Rhein. She performed the role of Drusilla in Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea for her debuts at the Festival in Aix-en-Provence and at the Vienna Festwochen. She sang the role of Eve in Haydn’s The Creation for the Flanders Opera in Belgium, and sang performances of Gluck’s Armide with Les Musiciens du Louvre under the baton of Marc Minkowski, which was recorded for Archiv Production Deutsche Grammophon. Other collaborations with Maestro Minkowski have included Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater in Grenoble, France, and an appearance in William Klein’s motion picture Le Messie, based on Handel’s Messiah, for which she also recorded the soundtrack.
Equally active as a concert and recital soloist, Heaston has performed with orchestras throughout the United States, including the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, and National Symphony Orchestra for the Kennedy Center’s 11th annual gala. She has performed Handel’s Messiah with the Baltimore Symphony and the University Musical Society in Ann Arbor Michigan, and she has appeared in concert with the Fort Worth Symphony, performing Mozart’s Exsultate Jubilate and Mahler’s Symphony No. 4. Ms. Heaston was heard in Mozart’s Requiem with the Honolulu Symphony and Bach’s B Minor Mass with Boston Baroque, which was recorded for the Teldec label and nominated for a Grammy® Award. She debuted at Carnegie Hall in recital at Weill Recital Hall, and she has previously given recitals at William Jewel College in Kansas City and for the Marilyn Horne Foundation. Ms. Heaston also performed as a guest artist for the Cleveland Arts Song Festival and has given recitals in Grenoble, France; Little Rock, Arkansas; and Jacksonville, Florida.
Nicole Heaston completed her Masters Degree in Voice at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music and received her undergraduate degree in music at the University of Akron. Her various awards and prizes include the Shoshana Foundation Grant, Robert Weede Corbett Award, Oper Guild of Dayton Competition, Opera/Columbus Competition, San Antonio Opera Guild Competition, Metropolitan Opera Regional Audition-Encouragement Award, and Houston Grand Opera’s Eleanor McCollum Award Competition.