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On today’s edition of THE INTERVUE, Emmy & Tony Award–winning actress Phylicia Rashad narrates a powerful new NSO co-commission commemorating the 60th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s iconic 1963 speech at Amherst College called “JFK: The Last Speech” at the Kennedy Center’s Concert Hall for two nights only – Thursday October 26th and Saturday October 28th!

Also on the program: Duke Ellington’s swinging trip to Jazz-age Harlem and John Adams’ Harmonielehre, inspired by the composer’s vision of an oil tanker blasting into space.

Our guest today will be singing at this special event for the two shows.  She is a recent graduate of the Cafritz Young Artist program at Washington National Opera where she made her thrilling debut as Micaela in Francesca Zambello’s acclaimed production of Carmen. She has also performed as Mimi in La Boheme at the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis and the Queen Sonja Competition in Oslo Norway.

Let’s welcome to our stage, soprano and DMV native Katerina Burton!

Thank you so much, Dean. It’s a pleasure to be speaking with you today.

Well, so happy to have you here today especially since this is a wonderful program, which I cannot wait to see on Thursday night. For those who have not heard about this program, can you tell us what it is all about?

So, this is a new work that has just been composed by Dr. Adolphus Hailstork. This is the 60th anniversary of the speech that John F. Kennedy delivered at Amherst College. And, in honor of his relationship with the poet Robert Frost, this piece combines the wonderful & raw poetry of Robert Frost with a little snippet of the speech itself, which of course will be narrated by Phylicia Rashad. So, it is going to be an incredible and powerful work that I think is going to really make an impact on those who come to see it.

Absolutely, with the great talents like Ms. Rashad, the National Symphony Orchestra and you in attendance & entertaining us. It is going to be a sensational program. Can you tell us what will you be performing in the program itself?

So, my job as a singer, I am delivering the words of Robert Frost. And it is not just one poem, it is a selection of eight poems, including one poem that he was supposed to give at Kennedy’s inauguration, but it was not delivered. So, it is nice to be able to hear something that is not visited as much as famous as “The Road Not Taken” for example.

What was your initial reaction when you found that you are going to be performing at this week’s program?

It is an honor and every in every aspect. I am familiar with this speech and the poetry of Robert Frost that you know, something as an artist that is important to me, especially as an opera singer. We focus so much on text and the meaning of that text. And, the way that his speech is so relevant today, because of the subject matter, the fact that we still need to be advocating for arts and liberal education. It means a lot to me personally.

And the honor of performing with the National Symphony, who I have worked with before in previous seasons, but it is an incredible experience to collaborate with such high-level musicians, especially this conductor, Kevin John Edusei is wonderful. And what can I say collaborating with Phylicia Rashad, it is a gift. It is just incredible. And she has been so gracious throughout this whole process.

I am so glad to hear it, especially knowing that this is not your very first rodeo at the Kennedy Center, you performed in numerous projects. In fact, the most recent one was the DC premiere of the Washington National Opera’s production of “Blue”. What is it about this wonderful venue that keeps you coming back repeatedly?

Oh, my goodness. I feel so proud to have been a part of the Kennedy Center, because I grew up in Ocean City, Maryland. If you are familiar with the area, we do not really have opera houses. So ironically, the very first professional production of any opera that I ever saw was at Washington National Opera in 2013. It was the production of “La Boheme” and it changed my life. I have always considered Washington National Opera and the Kennedy Center my home. So, on top of it being an honor, I keep coming back, it feels like I am coming home time and time again.

Well, I am so glad to hear. And I am glad that you mentioned your DMV roots. Since you went to high school in Berlin, MD. Then you went on to Towson University, Go Tigers! How has growing up in Maryland help you perfect the craft of singing opera?

I think I really have been so lucky in the mentors that I have had in my life, even in Ocean City. I just happen to end up with a teacher who just really believed in me, and she had a career in the DMV herself. She really encouraged me to go to college, and I found a wonderful teacher at Towson University. From there, I been fortunate to find these people and being surrounded with a community that believes in the arts and believes in me.

Now growing up, what were some of your favorite operas that you listen to? 

Oh, that is a great question. So, my mother was a professional competitive figure skater. Because of that, I grew up watching her do shows. She and the other skaters would skate to things like “Tosca” and “Carmen”. And so, I couple that in my ear. Ironically, “Tosca” and “Carmen” are among my favorites. I also like newer works especially being able to create a new character. I love it all.

Since you mentioned earlier that you will be performing pieces of eight poems by Robert Frost, of all of them, do you have a personal favorite?

I think my favorite would be “Acquainted with the Night”. It is just the mood of it is so raw. That is what draws me to all this poetry but there is just something about “Acquainted with the Night” that just resonates with me.

You are an alumni of Cafritz Young Artist program. For those who have not heard about the program, tell us what it is all about.

So, it is a finishing school. Ideally, once you finish your studies, then it is just a matter of polishing. You have most of the tools, but it really is about refining them. I was fortunate to be able to join the artists with my home company. We participated in the productions. It is something that makes the program stand out, which other programs in the country do not do. You do get the chance to perform a principal role in a mainstage production. The program and the mentors there are just providing you with the best-rounded education that you can ask for. It is what really gets you to develop into a professional artist.

Why do you feel that Kennedy’s last speech still resonates six decades on?

Oh, for so many reasons, but what I tend to claim to be his focus on how we must take responsibility that is really aimed at institutions. I think, he mentioned that colleges and even Congress, these big institutions that we have in our society have a responsibility to this generation to the next generation and to every generation that comes along because without the liberal arts, music, compassion, understanding, what are we and how do we evolve as a society. It was so relevant in the ‘sixties, and especially is relevant now, with all the turmoil and the hard things that we face on a day-to-day basis.

I agree with that, 100%. I normally ask this question of actors and producers, but this is the first time I get to ask an opera singer. What is your ultimate dream role? 

That is so difficult. I feel like this changes every week. Now, in this moment, Ellen Orford in “Peter Grimes” is the character that I would want to play most just because she is such a complex, compassionate woman who goes through so much in a short period. I love being able to delve into characters that have that complexity to them, and to just be in their shoes for those a moment.

See Katerina performing at JFK: The Last Speech at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall for TWO NIGHTS ONLY – October 26th at 7pm and October 28th at 8pm. Click HERE for tickets!

To see where Katerina will be performing next, go to 

https://www.katerinaburtonsoprano.com/

 

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