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(Photo credit: Dario Acostahm)

Our guest on today’s SNAPSHOTS isn’t a stranger to the DC opera scene. As the most recent Mary Anderson Vocal Award winner, he’s featured in the recital at the Kennedy Center, presented by the Washington National Opera. He has appeared on concert and operatic stages across the globe since and now he will bring his talent with him to the Music Center at Strathmore as he and the Washington Performing Arts present Terence Blanchard: Fire Shut up in My Bones – opera suite in concert on Friday, April 26th 8pm.

Ladies and gentlemen, let’s welcome to our stage baritone with Justin Austin!

Justin, welcome to Snapshots.

Hello, thank you so much for having me.

It’s so great to have you here, especially since this program when I first heard about it by Terence Blanchard a few years ago, I was very excited. And now I get a chance to talk with you especially since back then it was in the process of getting off the ground and now it is in fruition. I want you to tell our audience, what is his operatic suite all about?

Well, it’s the opera Fire Shut Up in My Bones by Terence Blanchard. And it’s a concert version, where we can explore a little bit more of the beauty of the music & its intricacies Terence featured himself as someone who will be on stage with the singers performing on his beloved trumpet along with his E-Collective group ensemble. I’m very excited to not just be able to dig into Fire again, for I collaborated with him when we actually performed the full production in Chicago at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. I’m excited to be actually being able to perform with him once more. So this is a really special moment for me.

It’s funny how that world of jazz and classical music come together so well. I think that it’s serendipitous that the last time I was singing on the stage at the Strathmore, I was with another very acclaimed jazz trumpeter by the name of Wynton Marsalis. And we were performing his oratorio, All Rise. Now, I get to perform with another grant jazz legend in Terence Blanchard and performing one of his most famous operas, if not the most famous opera in the world right now. I’m just full of excitement and joy to be able to bring this to Maryland.

Well, that is sensational. How did you come across this amazing project in the first place?

I first came across Fire Shut Up in My Bones by reading the novel by Charles M. Blow. I felt like the writing was very dramatic in a very theatrical way. I thought it would be able to lend itself to the theater. When I received an opportunity to understudy the role of Charles Blow at the Metropolitan Opera, I jumped at it and studied it for some time. This experience was life changing for me. It was my first lead role at the Metropolitan Opera. It was the perfect situation for me as a young singer to be able to have that responsibility but also to sit there & watch and to not have all of the pressure on my shoulders.

I could actually see someone do it before me and see how they relate to everyone in the room. I had a prime example in Will Liverman, who is a renowned opera singer & artist, to be my guide through not just the role, but through that professional experience. I grew a lot from that. When I had my opportunity to lead my own production of Fire Shut Up My Bones at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, I remembered everything that I learned from Will and everything that I wanted to add to the pot. It was my first time getting to perform or sing the music for Terence himself. He was very encouraging and supportive. He came to my dressing room, and basically told me “we have to find more opportunities to work together. You’re really phenomenal.”

And that meant a lot to me because I have admired him my entire life with his work with Spike Lee and the Hollywood industry. Through our relationship, we decided that we would collaborate on his next opera at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, which actually was where his first opera that he ever wrote. We actually just wrapped up Champion: the story of Emile Griffith, a couple months ago. So it’s still fresh in my mind. I’m excited to be able to continue in the world of Terence Blanchard by revisiting Fire and the music of Fire. It’s going to be something special.

I’m excited to revisit some of the feelings and the positive emotions I experienced last time I did Fire. I know it’ll be new this time, especially with a different group of artists. We also have Adrienne Dandrich, who is singing all of the female parts in the opera for this suite. We worked together on another opera a few years ago. I’m excited to be working with her again. I feel it’s going to be absolutely phenomenal.

I happen to agree one time to set because when I first heard about the project from Terrence many years ago, I was hooked and I cannot wait to see it. I’m looking forward it. Now, you have come from a family of singers, and you started off at the tender age of four. I want you to take us back to your very first memory of performing and enjoying opera.

I have been enjoying in performing in opera since before I can remember.  I don’t even mention this because it seems even more ridiculous that I was four years old when I started performing consistently and getting paid for it. At the time, it was on the books. There were certain productions that I couldn’t perform in Germany because I had to wait until I was six years old  but there are other countries that at four years old, I was allowed to perform professionally. Even before for my first appearance on the opera stage was in the opera Porgy and Bess, and everyone knows the very famous song Summertime.

In the original version of the opera, the character of Clara sings Summertime and what a lot of people don’t know it’s actually a lullaby to her baby. My first appearance on an opera stage was as Clara’s baby. Funnily enough, my kind of reintroduction to opera happened for when I was a young boy, I had a career for a while as a soprano. Then my voice changed. I had to learn how to sing all over again. I figured that out by the time I went to college.

At the age of 23, I reentered the world of opera as a baritone. My first role was the role of Jake in Porgy and Bess, who is the father of Clara’s baby.  I started out as one character, and was reintroduced to the opera world singing in the same play. It was very much a full circle moment singing the role of the baby’s father.

What is it about opera that speaks to you personally?

I think what speaks to me the most about specifically opera is how collaborative it is. I think that it’s very easy in the world of music, in general, to be caught up with yourself that you want to do a good job. Also, the wanting to impress people and the wanting to show people what you have to offer. But in opera, there are hundreds, sometimes thousands of people that are coming & working together for that production to be possible. I think that even when you are the star of the show, you’re center stage and the audience is focusing on you. It’s never about you, it’s always bigger than you. I think that’s a very humbling and beautiful thing where the only way opera can exist is when all of the art forms come together and the people involved in those art forms come together.

We have architects, makeup artists, the ballet, choral music, symphonic music. We have all these art forms that you can think of coming together to be able to put on one night of opera. Then we have to do it all over again for the second night, which will never be the same as the first. Even if you are able to capture it on film or on a camera, it’s not quite the same. You have to be there in order to experience it. Only the people that are there are able to witness it.

Then they can talk with each other about how incredible it was what they saw. And then they’ll be able to share with other people the stories of “I went to this thing last night and it was breathtaking.” It’s sort of an indescribable, even though they’ll try to describe it as much as they can. And then usually the conversation goes to “well, you just got to go see it.” Then, the next person gets to experience their own little magical night. I think that is the beauty of theater.

Now of all, think about all the characters you have played over the years, and think about the ones you would love to play, what is your dream role in opera? 

Wow, that’s a really good question. I fall in love with every role I do. I often get asked, “what’s my favorite role to play?” And that’s always really difficult to answer because I try to not have a hierarchy in my love and appreciation for the roles that I perform. For, I want to be able to give each one of them the attention & admiration and the love & respect that it deserves. I tried to find a way for my favorite piece and my favorite role to be what I’m working on at the moment. But now, having a lot of roles under my belt, there definitely are some roles that I haven’t done that I would love to do including within the Mozarteum canon, the role of Papageno in The Magic Flute.

Either he’s very silly or a very funny character and therefore very popular. I think there’s deep pain underneath his silliness and humor, that he’s masking this curse upon him. He has to live his days as a bird and knowing deep down in his heart that he is a man who just once knew the simple things in life, like love, compassion and understanding. I would love to be able to dig into that role and find some humanity to bring to that role.

Now, I read somewhere that you are among the artists in the New York Festival of Song Records, Singles Volume One, which just recently came out and I’d like to know, what was your contribution to the album?

One of the things it’s a really, really special album is the founder of New York Festival of Song and also the curator of this album & the pianist on the album, Steven Blier. He is nothing short of a genius. He is one of the smartest people I know as well as one of the most talented collaborative pianists on the piano on the planet. And for decades now, he has put on performances with the New York Festival of Song celebrating song in general, all kinds of songs, their motto is “no song is safe from us.” And they will perform anything from Schubert and Schumann to Bessie Smith, and W.C. Handy and Duke Ellington. I think that what’s special about it, it always has the same amount of integrity and research.

And this album is basically a collection of Steve Blier’s favorite performers, It’s some of the world’s leading singers and projects that they’ve done in the past.  The song that I’m featured in, it’s called It Makes My Love Comes Down. It’s sort of kind of like a bluesy soul song. I am embodying the spirit of a black woman in the 1940’s & 1950’s, if you will. It’s a very sensual and sexual song. When I was assigned that song, I didn’t know how to think about that because I was like, “I don’t know anything about being a black woman in the ’50s but it allowed me the opportunity to think and look outside myself and discover another perspective. Steve allow his singers to be to get outside of their comfort zone, but still explore something that they’re great at that they may not know. I had never ever sung a blues song in my life.

Be sure to catch Justin performing at the Music Center at Strathmore on Friday, April 26, 2024 at 8pm. Tickets can be purchased HERE

Here’s where to find Justin on the various social media platforms

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