Helena Brown: Authenticity and Advocacy

Helena Brown: Authenticity and Advocacy

Helena Brown as Carmen: “I wanted a couture, steelier Carmen that owns her confidence and is in charge of the gaze. I’ve always asserted that you don’t need a traditionally revealing outfit to seduce or show sexual charisma. I played this up with my silky byVINNIK opera robe and some serious black heels.”

“I specialize in uncomfortable discourse.” Soprano and artist advocate Helena Brown has led the charge for important shifts in the opera industry. Read on to learn about her path to a life and career that is built on community, authenticity, and owning the narrative—and showing up for the tough conversations that are changing the face of opera.

Helena Brown does not do anything by half. A fiercely committed artist, she has stunned audiences nationwide with her “steely, velvety” soprano, most recently as Mrs. Dickson in Ricky Ian Gordon and Lynn Nottage’s Intimate Apparel at Lincoln Center Theater; as Sieglinde in Die Walküre, she gave an “extravagant display of tragic ferocity.” As a member of the Metropolitan Opera Chorus since 2019, Brown dove into the busy and ever-changing musical life of the chorus, but has also drawn on her background in political science to represent her colleagues as a representative for American Guild of Musical Artists (AGMA). She also sits on the Board of Governors, and is the Vice-President Elect for Choristers, Actors, and Staff Performers. These advocacy activities have led to other successful initiatives to shift the landscape of the opera industry in significant ways, particularly for opera artists who belong to marginalized communities. 

I caught up with Brown during the rehearsal process for Lohengrin at the Met. Between entrances and over chai lattes and vegan food, our discussion ranged widely, from heady issues of representation, gender, race, and class to our shared love of niche social theorists and the tunes of Oscar Brown, Jr. In our conversations, I experienced her generosity, humor, and warmth, even in discussing the most serious and complex of topics. A self-assured, grounded person, Brown brings an expansive desire to connect to all of her interactions, be they artistic or political.


How did it all begin?

I went to a women’s liberal arts college, Hollins University, in Roanoke, VA. I’d decided I wanted to be a politician, so I first studied political science and took music as an elective, where I was essentially “voluntold” to pursue opera. Politics is about connecting with people, creating and changing structures, trying to heal systemic inequities. One thing I believe helps to bridge the gap is the arts. I thought, why not be part of it in that way? 

At first, though, I was resistant: there weren’t really people who looked like me doing this. There were so few of us Black singers, you could count us on your hands. I was going into a more privileged space; I “wasn’t supposed to be there.” But I don’t believe that I need to make myself less-than—I decided then that I am valid and have something to say. And I was encouraged by people who felt invigorated and validated by my version of these stories. 

This thing we do is an otherworldly sort of expression. There’s something about it that seems to transcend a little bit and allow us suspension of disbelief, and of our biases, even for a moment. I realized, for me, it won’t be just about writing policy proposals; through singing, I have the ability to get in the trenches. 

Helena Brown as Aida: “One thing I love about my kinky, curly hair is its versatility. Hair is very much a part of who I am and how I express myself; I lend that to my characters. In this portion of the shoot we show Aida’s stature and power, emphasized by slicked hair and big braided buns that reach to the heavens. The golden arm cuffs and necklace serve as armor and a symbolic expression of liberation.”

What fueled your decision to pursue graduate studies?

I knew I should give performance a shot before I decided to go on for a doctorate or something. I didn’t go to conservatory for undergrad, like a lot of my peers. That was one of many cards stacked against me. Juilliard didn’t even let me audition. But Manhattan School of Music [MSM] did, and they saw that I was serious.

I don’t fit into a box, and I was easily misunderstood. It was always about something: my hair, the makeup, the type and cut of my dress, whether I was thin—the fact that I was not thin, always. I was told, “No one really likes a smart singer” multiple times. I had questions, and they were valid questions. I looked for answers in a lot of places. I even looked for voice teachers outside of MSM. Thankfully, I found Badiene Magaziner. She understood my big voice and helped coach my soul; she saw it and said, yes, that’s valid. I was able to go back to my lessons at MSM and make my grad school experience serve me.


How did you find your way through the challenges you perceived? 

Finishing grad school wasn’t just about the return on investment for that expensive degree translated into this linear, magical career that people keep talking about. It was about making good on this investment to myself. I love myself when I am singing and performing, engaging in the idiosyncrasies and depths of art and music, in spite of a world that says I shouldn’t. I love people more fluidly and deeply when I offer my gift to others through art. 

I thought: I have a wonderful opportunity to connect with people, to tap into our vulnerabilities, challenge beliefs and biases, see the beauty, and build understanding and consensus. Isn’t that what I set out to do, even if I originally imagined it through the lens of politics? I knew that I could end up standing alone in my convictions, with my big, unwieldy, and misunderstood voice and big hair. That couldn’t bar me from continuing to show up, existing in my skin, and interpreting and telling these amazing stories that cross all perceived barriers. I found comfort in the idea that, in spite of the high and dangerous stakes for a woman of color in a competitive and primarily white art form, failure to “make it” is not as scary as hiding and perpetuating others’ belief that I didn’t belong. I learned that it was okay to sometimes be “certainly uncertain” on my path, as long as I was continuing to step forward in my authenticity. I also knew that it was essential to show up and be seen. It was worth it—not just for me, but for others. 


How did you begin your journey into professional singing? 

I worked throughout my studies. I did a lot of things that spoke to me and the community I was in: concerts, lots of church music—not because I was attracted to the church aspect, but the community aspect.

I didn’t make all my money by singing; I did other things out of necessity. I was led to believe that there was this prescribed, linear path and told I wasn’t devoted enough because I wouldn’t quit my jobs in order to sing full time. And I’m like, where are they trying to have me sing full time? “Well, you have to go to Germany.” You mean, what the other Black singers had to do in order to be acknowledged in this country? 


Was that something you did think about, though?

I made a conscious decision not to go to Europe. Later in my career, I had momentum, the time and, finally, the money to go to Europe—but something suddenly came up with my father, whom I hadn’t seen since 8th grade. It was Europe or family. I chose family and I’m really glad that I did, because that was the last time I saw him before he died of COVID-19. 

I’m not going to compromise just to go on this linear path that people say is the key to success. I found success, because I put myself in a position to heal, and then more opportunities opened up. I think that’s really important to know. Would I still go to Europe and do some things? I would love to. If it feels like it fits the vibration and it makes sense.


Now you’re a member of the chorus at the Metropolitan Opera. 

I came to the Met in 2019, for Porgy and Bess. A jury of my peers randomly elected me to be a delegate while I was out of the room, and I came back and they said, “Hey! We held a vote and would really like you to be a delegate!” I said, “Uh…what’s involved?!” 


So that was also the start of your advocacy work! What did you have to do as a delegate? 

I am on the Met–AGMA Negotiating Committee and helped negotiate the current collective bargaining agreement between the union and the Met. I was part of forming the Met’s first DEI agreement, which came into effect in 2021, which we view as an important step and industry-standardizing measure. As a delegate for Porgy and later for Fire Shut Up In My Bones, I got to see how we were implementing items from that DEI agreement; sit in on auditions as a supportive presence; talk to people about their contract concerns, work issues; help communication between the artists and directors or supervisors; address hair and makeup issues—a lot of those. I liaised for HR meetings, grievance hearings…there’s a lot that goes into it. 

The best advice I can give to anyone in a position like that is to be holistic, not prescriptive, because every situation is individual.

Helena Brown as Ariadne: “When I think of Ariadne, I envision billowy fabric (the dress is by Oyemwen), softness, and diffuse light which gives us the feeling of emerging from a labyrinth into the golden light of love. I think we achieved that here.”

What have been your big projects with AGMA and the Met? 

Being a delegate made me want to advocate for every BIPOC artist in the industry—and at the Met, to ensure that they are not just ornamental figures or a “pop of color.” In order for DEI to not be performative, marginalized artists need to constantly be centered and embraced as part of the conversation—not as spectators or passive recipients. We can’t expect people—with good intent—to innately know and do things the way that will make us feel valued and safe. 

I had been thinking these thoughts since starting at the Met in 2019, and in 2020 I became a founding facilitator of the AGMA Black Caucus. We are an intentionally nonhierarchical group with a mission to empower marginalized voices and bodies to combat systemic racism throughout the opera, dance, and choral music industries and the larger performing arts community. 

As a facilitator, I spearheaded a big project, AGMA’s first demographic census, which launched in 2022. I worked alongside a marketing firm and the AGMA Board of Governors’ Census Working Group to produce a qualitative and quantitative survey, [and the] results are now available as primary research for AGMA, as well as the industry. 


That wasn’t your first union position, though.

I’ve been on the AGMA Board of Governors and its Executive Council, and I serve on the AGMA Board’s Administration and Policy committee, where we deal with policy making, review the language of the constitution and bylaws, hear hardship requests, administer the election process, and so on. I was also on the AGMA bargaining priorities workgroup, which helps determine these priorities nationally; whenever we negotiate a new contract, that document is referred to. 

As of last season, I’m also an advisory director on the Met Board of Directors, and I’ll just say that I’m excited about major developments coming down the pipeline and I look forward to collaborating with the Met. I don’t think of the company we bargain with as the enemy. We are on an important mission to preserve, protect, showcase art, and connect with people—and one thing we realized during the pandemic is that we need that connection. As we reinvent ourselves, we have this awesome opportunity to connect in ways that we were shut off to. 

No fight is without obstacles. I try to keep that in mind. When one of our artists comes to me, I hear the concerns and I also see the bigger picture. 

Helena Brown as Carmen

How do you feel your advocacy work informs your artistry, or vice versa?

In order to be an effective advocate, I have to do my own personal work and keep showing up for myself. And, yes, I mean therapy, shadow work, radical honesty, meditation, etc. This reciprocally makes me a better artist, a better citizen, Some will say, “That’s not really dealing with the music or the text,” but they miss that our inner workings are an important part of the subtext and inner monologue of what we do as performers.  

In graduate school, “only the music” was professed, but it wasn’t ever that. It was, “Oh, your dress! Your hair is distracting! Lose 100 pounds!” Allegedly, these were “distractions” from the music, but we know what that’s really about: boxes, assimilation, adhering to some neutral palette that does not exist. 


How is characterization reflected in your musical interpretations?

It’s not just you and this character, as separate entities; you have two overlapping circles, like a Venn diagram. In the middle is you plus the character, in order to make compelling interpretations. So, my lived experience and who I am helps to make the character that ends up onstage, and that’s helping to make art relevant. 


Is this a good time to ask about the photo series? It feels like a project in which you took matters into your own hands.

I’ve always wanted Black women to tell these stories too. Why can’t we determine what we’re going to wear and how we are going to be portrayed? How many Black women costume designers do you know of? How many Black women directors? I wanted to finally have some agency in that process. I had a photographer, Melody Smith, with whom I connected really well. We developed this idea together. 


Tell me about some of the characters you chose.

I have some things to say as an Aida. She is Black beauty on full display—fierce and vulnerable, adored, envied, and imitated. Aida was a controversial choice; there is one way people see you being Aida, what it means to be Ethiopian/Egyptian in this time period. 

So many people want me to play Aida, but it feels so much like Black exploitation: Are you fascinated with Black culture, but you can’t quite put your finger on it? That’s valid. Cultures are beautiful. But, are you also aware that what you’re fascinated by is white people’s telling of that culture? Are you also seeking different ways of representing that culture, perhaps from people of color? 

I’m not against people telling stories based on race, gender, or class. Curiosity about diverse cultures and perspectives is part of the work of transcending performative displays of diversity. Being inclusive of different storytellers is a part of this as well. 

Brünnhilde is controversial too. There aren’t that many Black women singing Wagner in the public sphere. Some would say that it’s inappropriate because Brünnhilde is described a certain way in the text. Why do we need to adhere to that? 

Helena Brown as Brunnhilde: “I was hyped about getting this really amazing blonde wig made for the shoot, but there was a time crunch and it didn’t quite align. But I don’t think this is a loss; this is a reckoning. I like the dark hair, that it is so contrary to popular expectations. Valkyries are often likened to birds and like our winged brethren, we come in many colors, shapes, and sizes. Brünnhilde’s interpretation needn’t be governed by the biases and select beauty standards from hundreds of years ago—and we still nailed the character, didn’t we?“

If you have people who are their authentic selves, embodying those characters with their full experience, that’s representation. 

Yes! And not trying to get them to fit into comfortable boxes that cater to other people’s fragility and egos. It is not our job to fit. We need to ask if it is our job to have the conversations in order to move the needle. I say, yes, that is part of our job. 


What’s on the horizon for you artistically? 

My work here at the Met is busy and quite fulfilling. I’ll be singing the role of Lucia Paret in Champion, and I’m so thrilled that we are doing another Blanchard opera, especially given that I grew up with jazz. 

Beyond that, I am commissioning a song cycle. It’s a slow process but it’s intentional, and we’re excited about it. The composer is a Black woman; the poetry is written by me and another Black woman, on the unexplored topic of Black fertility. I am hoping to get this on an album in the near future, and commission other song cycles about the joy of the BIPOC experience—not just the suffering, which is what we always see. I want to see the joy. 


Visit www.helena-brown.com to learn more.

Danielle Buonaiuto

Danielle Buonaiuto’s work is driven by community, compassion, and access. She is a cofounder of ChamberQUEER, a teaching artist with the Met Guild, and a PhD candidate at CUNY Graduate Center. An impassioned performer and advocate of new music, Buonaiuto can be seen on stages all over NYC from the Met to a porch in Ditmas Park, and as one half of the cello/soprano project Duo Calisto. Her album Marfa Songs is out on Starkland. Visit www.daniellebuonaiuto.com.