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From gospel to opera, soprano Latonia Moore makes the world her stage

Latonia Moore at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. on Oct. 18, 2022.
Catie Dull
/
NPR
Latonia Moore at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. on Oct. 18, 2022.

Latonia Moore remembers clearly the moment she fell in love with opera. She had entered the University of North Texas as a jazz performance major, but a classical music study requirement led her to sing in the chorus for Ruggero Leoncavallo's Pagliacci ("Clowns").

"I was just in the chorus, lowly little chorus girl, but I fell in love with being someone else," Moore said in an interview with NPR's Leila Fadel. "Like me, Latonia from Houston, Texas, could be an Italian villager watching this comedia dell'arte troop come through town. I felt just so alive and at home." She compares it to being a "chameleon."

Moore didn't grow up on a steady diet of opera. In fact, "my family's not into opera. That's not their thing." But other types of music were a big part of her childhood, during which she sang gospel music — including in her pastor grandfather's own church — R&B and jazz. Her older sister Yolanda introduced her to art songs, and she joined the choir.

Today, Moore has graced opera stages around the world, with the title role in Verdi's Aida being her most performed and recognized one. But it's also one that comes with its fair share of controversy, since non-Black singers often perform in blackface or have their bodies painted to portray the enslaved Ethiopian princess — long after such practices have been shunned in other performing arts. Moore said the tradition doesn't bother her "so long as they haven't gone "over the line for most people." She herself has been painted darker in some cases for the role.

"When I started into opera, I didn't really think about the fact that I was black... So for me, it didn't matter what my skin was, because this is an art form that's based on suspension of disbelief," Moore explained.

"Anyone should be able to go up in any brand of skin and be able to convince you that they're an Ethiopian princess. So the makeup is not necessary... but if most people are offended, then drop it. You don't need to do it. Convince them with your acting, with your voice. That's our job."

She pointed to other Black opera singers who have come before her, like Leontyne Price, Shirley Verrett and Marian Anderson.

Moore spoke with NPR as she readied her performance as Leonora, who with Manrico forms a pair of star-crossed lovers in Verdi's "Il Trovatore," for a Washington National Opera production at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington. She's quick to admit the notoriously difficult role was one she long avoided. "Vocally, whew baby, this is a big mama to sing!" she said.

But as she studied for the role, she uncovered more layers about the character. "This is a chick that's kind of more like Juliette than people give her credit for... She sees this guy. She falls for him immediately, and she's like, I don't care about anything else in the world," Moore explained. "So she gets to be young and youthful, but at the same time, kind of like this strong warrior-like chick, which you're going to see reflected in the staging and the costuming and definitely in the way I sing it."

Latonia Moore gets ready for the dress rehearsal of Il Trovatore on Oct. 19, 2022.
Catie Dull / NPR
/
NPR
Latonia Moore gets ready for the dress rehearsal of Il Trovatore on Oct. 19, 2022.
Latonia Moore gets ready for the dress rehearsal of Il Trovatore on Oct. 19, 2022. (Catie Dull/NPR)
Catie Dull / NPR
/
NPR
Latonia Moore gets ready for the dress rehearsal of Il Trovatore on Oct. 19, 2022. (Catie Dull/NPR)
Latonia Moore gets ready for the dress rehearsal of Il Trovatore on Oct. 19, 2022.
Catie Dull / NPR
/
NPR
Latonia Moore gets ready for the dress rehearsal of Il Trovatore on Oct. 19, 2022.

The audio version of this story was produced by Marc Rivers. Morning Edition host Leila Fadel conducted the interview.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Olivia Hampton