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Classical Album of the Week: Welcome Summer with Soprano Angel Blue's Joy Alone

June 29, 2020. It’s impossible not to smile when you encounter the opera star, soprano Angel Blue, whether you’re caught up in the emotion or the humor of a song she’s singing, watching her breathe life into a character onstage, or chatting with her about finding joy everywhere she goes. "Joy" is, in fact, her middle name, and her 2014 release, Joy Alone, is our album of the week.

A classical artist who likes to warm up to the music of the rock group, Queen; an opera star who delights in talking with kids; a former beauty queen who helps inner-city kids go on to higher education. Angel Blue is all of these things and more. 

Angel sings with passion and conviction, inhabiting whatever role the music gives her -- whether on the opera stage, the concert hall, or in recital. “Summertime” is the first track on her album, Joy Alone.

“I’m an emotional person, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing” she says, smiling. “I go onstage to be honest.”

It’s one of the reasons she became a singer in the first place, a career she’s wanted since she was 4 years old, growing up in Apple Valley, California, when her dad became her first singing teacher.  With her father, a singer and Christian pastor, and her a mother, a Jewish high school teacher, Angel grew up steeped in two faiths and instilled with a love of music and family.

After studying music in college and getting her masters in opera performance at UCLA in 2007, she entered the LA Opera’s Young Artist Program, with the support of Placido Domingo, and has since been performing all over the world. She recently sang the role of Bess in the Metropolitan Opera’s 2019 production of Porgy and Bess and the concert version of highlights with The Philadelphia Orchestra.

Joy takes many forms and her album, Joy Alone, is rich with variety, with songs in English, Russian, Spanish and German.  In addition to George Gershwin's "Summertime," it includes lucious art songs about love and nature from classical composers Sergei Rachmaninoff, Richard Strauss, and Franz Liszt, and contemporary offerings by Jake Heggie and Bruce Adophe, whose song, "Valley Girl in Love," is sure to lighten your mood:

She sings spirited arias from Spanish operas of Pablo Luna and Ruperto Chapi.

There’s a gospel song from Carol Cymbala and Rachmaninoff’s timeless "Vocalise." All bookended by Gershwin’s "Summertime" and the traditional spiritual, "Ride on Jesus."

Joy Alone tracklist

1. George Gershwin (1898–1937): “Summertime” (from Porgy and Bess)

2-4. Jake Heggie (b.1961): 2 "A Route to the Sky "(from Paper Wings) 3. "Joy Alone" (from Natural Selection) 4. "Animal Passion" (from Natural Selection)

5. Franz Liszt (1811–1886): "Oh! quand je dors"

6. Pablo Luna (1879–1942): "De España vengo" (from El niño judío) [Zarzuela]

7. Bruce Adolphe (b.1955): "Valley Girl in Love" (from A Thousand Years of Love)

8. Carol Cymbala (b. 1947):"He’s Been Faithful"

9-11 Sergei Rachmaninov (1873–1943): 9 Zdes’ khorosho (No.7 from 12 Songs Op.21) Ne poy, krasavitsa (No.4 from 6 Songs Op.4) Vesenniye vodï (No.11 from 12 Songs Op.14)

12-15 Richard Strauss (1864–1949): 12 "Heimliche Aufforderung" (No.3 from Vier Lieder Op.27) "Die Nacht "(No.3 from Acht Gedichte aus Letzte Blätter Op.10), "Allerseelen" (No.8 from Acht Gedichte aus Letzte Blätter Op.10), "Befreit" (No.4 from Fünf Lieder Op.39)

16. Ruperto Chapí (1851–1909): "Las carceleras" (from Las hijas de Zebedeo) [Zarzuela]

17. Sergei Rachmaninov:  "Vocalise "(No.14 from 14 Songs Op.34)

18. Traditional Spiritual: "Ride on, King Jesus" 

Angel sat down with me when she was in town to sing the role of Bess in a Philadelphia Orchestra concert of highlights from Porgy and Bess. Here’s an edited excerpt of our conversation:

You wanted to be an opera singer since you were four! You started taking lessons at six and studied with your dad who was a singer.

Yes, I studied with my father; Actually, until I was 14 years old, he was my only voice teacher! I think my dad really taught me the basics, the very rudimentary thing about singing that one needs to know, just have a very solid foundation.

But I think what's even more important was he taught me that it should always be a fun experience for me. And I still hold that very dear today, because if it's not exciting to me, if it's not fun, when the joy leaves something, then maybe one should leave that thing, whatever it may be.

And you like all sorts of music?

I do. I love all kinds of music. Actually, walking over here today, I was listening to David Bowie and then I started listening to Queen. Freddie Mercury had such a beautiful, really great range and sometimes I warm up with him.

I also like a lot of rock music. I'm trying to think of some of my favorite vocalists, like Sarj Tankien and I really like Chris Cornell. Some of Chris Cornell's rifts that he does in Soundgarden and Audioslave are -- this is gonna sound strange, but I do believe musically it's correct --- some of the way that he sings is very gospel or bluesy. And I actually use that when I sing Porgy and Bess just to get it into my ear, you know?

And the other day I was actually listening to Guns N’ Roses and following along with one of Slash’s solos. Just to keep my ear informed on what different styles do. [And] I listen to a lot of country music. Of course I listened to R & B, gospel and classical, but I listened to a lot less classical than people would know. And that's because when I'm listening to it, I'm usually analyzing it and I'm not able to just sit, listen and enjoy.

You grew up with all different kinds of music; you released an album, Joy Alone, which came out in 2014.

Oh, that was so much fun. I have a wonderful friend in London named Ian Rosenblatt, and Ian had a recital series … And so in 2013, I was invited to sing at Wigmore Hall through the Rosenblatt Recital Series.  Maybe three or four months later, he said, would you like to record an album of your recital? ... He allowed me to get even more pieces together to put together to make an album.

And "Joy Alone" is a song that is written by Jake Heggie. ... I wanted to name the album Joy Alone because I talk a lot about joy. It's also my middle name, but it kind of is how I live my life day to day. 

There's a lot of things that can bring people down and make us despondent and upset, hurt or whatever it may be. But there is always an aspect of joy in everything. And “Joy Alone” is the song that I was learning when my dad passed away. And so for me, the height of what I wanted my album to represent was joy.

And also it seems that family is very important to you. You've founded Sylvia's kids foundation [which helps kids continue their studies after high school]. Sylvia is your mom.

Yes, my mom was a school teacher for many years, so Sylvia's Kids is an organization that my mom and I founded together and we're actually revamping everything right now. ...   

My mother was working at a Title I high school and also at a center for underprivileged teenagers. She was working with one young woman in particular who wanted to graduate desperately. She had a 1.5 GPA when she entered into her senior year. My mom and I bought books for her ..  m\M   y mom worked with her that year and I funded her education for the last year of high school. And by the end of the year, she graduated with like something like a 3.7. Now she's in her second or third year of college. So that's what Sylvia’s kids is about.

People always say it's giving back. I guess that's what it is, but it's just helping other people, just making sure that other people are taken care of, those who want to be, because I understand also that not everybody wants that kind of assistance.

But my mom and I, and my husband and my family, we all have this idea in our heads that when somebody does show an interest in bettering themselves, we would like to be there to help them with that. Our young people, specifically.

And I understand when you were going to college, you entered pageants to raise money.

Yes, I did beauty pageants.    I started when I was 18 and I finished when I was 24. That was the oldest you could be. At 24 years old, I was accepted into the Young Artist Program in Los Angeles. And that is when I decided, okay, no more pageants. Strictly think about singing!

Well you're doing so many different things and you seem to bring such a joy and joie de vivre to everything. The video you did with kids about what an opera singer was just so endearing. What does music mean to you ….and what role do you think it plays in our society?

What does music mean to me? Honestly, only one word. Everything. When I'm sad, I listen to music. When I'm happy, I listen to music. When I'm angry, I listen to music. It's everything to me.  I don't know what I would do without it. It's been a part of my life since I was a child. And not just opera, but all music. It's so vital and important. 

I've been very fortunate to travel around the world, and I think the other day I counted 42 countries that I've sung in. ... And there've been times where I've shared dressing rooms with people and we don't speak the same language; I've been in standing in line with people. We don't speak the same language, not from the same country, not the same culture or anything yet we're humming the tune that we hear overhead that's being played on the loudspeaker.

And that's why I think music truly is everything. It really is something that everyone can relate to. It goes beyond class and race and gender and religion and all these issues that we put on each other. Music doesn't do that. You know?  It brings really brings us together and that's beautiful.

Susan writes and produces stories about music and the arts. She’s host and producer of WRTI’s TIME IN online interview series, and contributes weekly intermission interviews for The Philadelphia Orchestra in Concert series. She’s also been a regular host of WRTI’s Live from the Performance Studio sessions.