When mentioning great Black opera singers, Alicia Hall Moran counts Leontyne Price as an inspiration. Like Price, Hall radiates greatness—she is a classically trained mezzo-soprano who recently starred on Broadway as “Bess” in The Gershwins’ Porgy & Bess; the production won a Tony Award. Hall Moran is known for her unique blend of classical music and soul. “I always wanted to sing big,” she says. “Opera is really attractive to me. I like the drama of it.”
We caught up with her prior to her Blue Note Jazz Festival performance to discuss her early influences, her famous great uncle and how she’s determined to balance motherhood while keeping her own dreams in sight.
She considers performing a sensual practice
“When I perform, I’m really concerned about the body. I like to follow the rhythms of not only the music but also my own body and how I want to react to the rhythm and the sound coming out my own mouth. It’s a sensual practice for me, very earth-driven. I really stand my ground to try and welcome people into my experiences. I really enjoy feeling people’s ears on me, so I bend notes and rhythms. I twist a song any way I have to twist it to get it to talk back. I never feel like I’m singing a song just for money. I appreciate that special concert feeling of being on a stage. People want to live through you for an hour. That’s what they really want, that’s what I want.”
Her great uncle was one of the principal orchestrators for well-known Negro spirituals
“My great-uncle on my mother’s side was named Hall Johnson, one of the principal recorders and orchestrators of Negro spirituals. So when you see one in a concert hall, oftentimes it was him who arranged it. They were several of these people, and he was one of the five primary composers who took that time in the early 20s to write those songs down. A lot of times, we are running from the painful legacy of that music, so it’s important that people who are not only just social scientists, but people who really are musicians and understand and appreciate great music no matter where it comes from, were able to write those things down and get them published and distributed. Now I have inherited the spirit of passing along that information because there is a lot of African music in there and ancestral information in there.”
She wants to stay in the griot tradition of passing that ancestral music along
“When you talk about spiritual singing or Negro spirituals like, “This Little Light of Mine,” or “Go Tell It On the Mountain,” these kinds of songs, they are being passed down…as music between people. I made an effort to stay in that bloodline of how the songs get passed.”
Her childhood best friend’s mother was famous opera singer Shirley Verrett
“I grew up in Connecticut. I had a Black choir conductor at my public high school. I had a childhood friend whose mother was a very important opera singer of her time, Shirley Verrett. She sang everywhere around the world. I grew up with her since I was 7 years old. I would go to their apartment to play, and she would be practicing to sing at the Met. Her daughter Francesca was my best friend.”
Opera is usually written in foreign languages, but Alicia prefers English.
“Most of the great operas we know are sung in French and Italian, but the opportunities to sing in the English language seduced me. I really like to sing in English, and I like to know what I’m saying. I want the people who I’m singing to to understand what I’m saying. I feel like I have a command in English that I enjoy.”
She uses her R&B sensibilities for her classical music
“I love pop and R&B, but the career that I’ve found is using my classical voice. I employ my sensibilities about R&B and soul and Motown. My passion is for all of Black music or music generated by Black people.”
She’s a mother of twins—with husband and fellow musician Jason Moran—and is determined to balance motherhood with her career
“If you want to work and have kids, you have to make it happen for yourself. There are many different ways to get things done, but nothing gets done without the discussion that, ‘I’m going to do this.’ The pressure to just focus on the kids and the lives that they have is intense, and they will take all your life happily and they don’t know because they are little kids. So it’s really on you—the adult—to try as hard as you can to keep your goals and dreams in sight.”
Catch Alicia Hall Moran at the Blue Note Jazz Festival, produced by Jill Newman Productions, this Friday, June 12, at the Highline Ballroom. Click here for more info.