Jarrod Lee tells his story of finding his voice as a singer and as a librettist.
Jarrod Lee tells his story of finding his voice as a singer and as a librettist.
How does a kid from Alabama, with no formal musical training prior to college, end up singing and writing for some of the world’s biggest stages? Talking to Jarrod Lee, you’ll quickly believe it’s possible. A bass baritone who has performed as a chorister and soloist with The Metropolitan Opera, Atlanta Opera, and Washington National Opera, Lee is also quickly becoming an in-demand librettist.
“I was in a children’s choir at my grandmother’s church,” he shares fondly. “My grandmother and my mother gave me permission to organize a community choir that was made up of multiple churches within the community. I had all these big ideas about community uniting. I’ve always been one that wants to unite.”
Lee didn’t have access to choir or music classes in his high school. His only music enrichment outside of church was through Upward Bound, a federally funded pre-college program, founded to help students prepare for higher education. “I knew I wanted to do music, because I loved music. I didn’t know what was involved in music for me to do. I thought I could be a music teacher because of the music enrichment courses we had with Upward Bound. The primary goal was to get you in school and learn those core classes as cheaply as possible, and then you could make a decision about what you wanted to do with those classes.”
Lee is a testament to the fact that the gatekeeping that often happens within traditional music education channels—requiring students to have access to often expensive experiences such as youth ensembles, private lessons, and owning personal instruments—is limiting and unnecessary.
He went to Jacksonville State University where an aural skills teacher suggested he audition for a colleague who was the chorus master for Opera Birmingham. He auditioned and immediately began working in his first professional opera chorus. “I drove my mom’s car [to rehearsals]. There were people who assisted me. I didn’t do it by myself. Mom kept providing food for the dorm room. I worked on the weekends to keep money in my pocket. I wanted something more than what I saw.”
“Being a tutor with Upward Bound, making a trip to D.C. with students—we were touring the Kennedy Center—walking in front of the opera house and seeing somebody with a red jacket on and me having the audacity to say, ‘One day I would like to perform on that stage.’ And then to have that full-circle come-around moment. That happened to me at the Met as well. I said, ‘One day I would like to perform in there,’ and my dad said, ‘One day you will—it’s in your language and it’s how you say it—you will perform in that space.’’’
Opera Birmingham was not only his first professional opera gig, it was his first full-scale opera experience, having previously performed only musical theater and operetta in school. “I saw those soloists singing the principal characters and thought, ‘Hmm, I wonder what it takes to do that.’ If I was curious about something and someone was in that space, I just went to them and asked them questions. I have not had any fear in walking up to somebody and asking, ‘What do you do?’”
One of the principal artists, who was a former student of Lee’s voice teacher, introduced him to a summer program in Washington, D.C. He spent the next two summers working with this company and singing roles. He explored the Smithsonian museums, purposefully getting lost on the metro to familiarize himself with D.C., and getting familiar with the University of Maryland at College Park. “[I’d] go to the Kennedy Center just to be sitting up there and be like, ‘God, I want this. Truly. I hope you hear me. I want this. Help me get this.’”
He decided to return to the D.C. area and attended the University of Maryland for graduate school. At this point, his sights were still set only on a singing career. Adjusting to the subjective aspects of the industry was difficult. It was a struggle not to internalize the criticism, no matter how constructive. “I thought they were talking about me. But they were not talking about me. They were actually giving me notes, the same notes I see other people get in this professional world.”
After finishing graduate school, he moved to Baltimore and took a job for a local nonprofit. He continued to audition, perform, and compete and began doing comprimario and chorus work for companies in Baltimore and D.C. During a summer at Aspen Music Festival, an encounter with acclaimed soprano Renée Fleming led to another opportunity.
He approached Fleming, introduced himself, and gave her his card. Seeing where he lived, she informed him that she would be doing a masterclass at Washington National Opera (WNO) called “American Voices” and asked if he’d be interested in participating. “In my head I’m like, ‘What? Renée Fleming? You’re asking me?’ he laughs. “She held true to her word—they called me and said, ‘Renée Fleming highly recommended that you be a part of this vocal masterclass that we’re doing.’”
Lee has a way of moving on a whim, but with a freedom and spontaneity that serves him well. Writing was no different. In 2013 he began writing a libretto. “I just felt inspired. Sitting in Aspen late at night after you learn the music and all that stuff—I’m sitting, looking at the stars, and just thinking.” He refined the project, with input from seasoned writers, sometimes leaving it alone for over a year at a time.
Although he wasn’t actively writing, in 2015 he applied to the American Opera Initiative with Washington National Opera as a writer, using the one libretto he had completed. He wasn’t accepted, but based on the potential of the work, he was invited to observe. He took advantage of that opportunity.
In 2019, he joined the Metropolitan Opera Chorus for their historic production of Porgy and Bess. While in New York, he shared his story with composer Damien Geter, who shared an idea he had for a story about Blues artist Robert Johnson. No formal plans came out of the conversation, but Lee revisited the idea months later during the pandemic shutdown.
Gathering friends to read the roles, he had the reading via Zoom. He again applied to the American Opera Initiative, this time with Geter. Although Geter was accepted, he wasn’t. Lee also shared his work with IN Series Opera, a company he was working with as a part of a fellowship for Black classical artists. IN Series requested that he write a translation for a reimagined version of Mozart’s The Magic Flute written for Black artists, called Black Flute.
“From Black Flute, I had another meeting [with the director] and he said, ‘Where do you see yourself in this program…what about your final big program?’” Lee immediately pitched the Robert Johnson piece. “I went back to Damien and I said, ‘I have a company that wants to commission the work.’ He said, “‘You have to speak with my agent.’ His agent says, ‘We have to have a collaboration agreement between you and Damien.’”
Lee enjoys sharing these details about the process. He doesn’t tell a story without vivid detail and instruction, instinctually sharing with the listener how they too can build relationships and create pathways.
Next came a commission from the Alliance for New Music–Theater in D.C., for a partnership between the Alliance and The Phillips Collection, a D.C. art museum. With composer Timothy Amukele, they created Journey to You, a song cycle for voice and body percussion. “They wanted us to write something that was influenced by the murder of George Floyd, but I didn’t see it as that. I saw Journey to You as—in the midst of all the stuff that is happening in this world, we’re in this together. How can you and I communicate so that we can face whatever is out here together?”
He pushed back against visuals related to the death of George Floyd. It was one of his first experiences fighting for his own vision. “This was the first time that I felt my voice becoming stronger in standing up for Black artists, including myself. Because it started with me. I had gotten to a point where I was tired of seeing a Black person’s head and neck under a white person’s knee. And it got me. And it bothers me, even to this day, when I see a police officer and all of that ….” Lee’s voice trails off, and he takes a deep breath before continuing, “I don’t want to tell traumatic Black stories. Historical stories, OK, we need those—yes, let’s do that. Let’s share the history. Let’s also share the joy.”
He kept his writing true to his vision, which was about an interpersonal conflict between two Black people, not police violence. During this process, Lee was commissioned for another piece by the Alliance for New Music–Theater in collaboration with the Mount Zion–Female Union Band Historic Memorial Park, Inc., called Voices of Zion, for the Black Georgetown Cemeteries Project. It is an immersive musical theatre piece, with music by composer Ronald “Trey” Walton, commemorating the two adjacent historic Black cemeteries in Georgetown.
IN Series commissioned his next piece, Spirit Moves. He again collaborated with Amukele to write this family piece, with audience engagement, honoring Black storytelling traditions. But even as opportunities as a librettist and curator flowed in, Lee continued working as a performer. In 2022, while working on the Chicago Lyric Opera production of Fire Shut Up In My Bones, Lee received a phone call from WNO asking him if he was still interested in being a part of the American Opera Initiative. Having been rejected twice before, the program wasn’t on his radar, but at that point he already saw himself as a writer. The opportunity was just further confirmation. “I was just open. I was excited. I was flattered. I was affirmed.”
Through this project, he collaborated with composer B.E. Boykin to write a 10-minute opera. Composers are introduced to multiple librettists in the Initiative and choose who they work with. Lee and Boykin hit it off immediately. In a surprising twist, after she chose him as her collaborative partner, they found out they were cousins!
The pair chose to write about Oshun, a goddess from the Yoruba tradition of West Africa. While talking through potential treatments for the story, Lee got the idea to explore fantasy and afro-futurism. This was another opportunity to not only be involved in an artistic process as a writer, but to write content that allowed more Black artists to be on stage. Oshun premiered in January 2023 at The Kennedy Center. Another collaboration with Boykin, Two Corners, is being workshopped at Finger Lakes Opera this summer and will premiere in 2024.
Lee is sure that if not for the pandemic, he would not have journeyed into writing in the way that he did. With a talent and an interest, he’s willing to move. “I try not to think of what other people think of me. I just have to go after what I want and what brings me joy.”
Like other artists, there are times when he feels boxed in or overlooked, but he keeps pressing. “Nothing’s wrong with validation. I don’t want to become crippled when I don’t have the validation, because I have to believe I’m worth it. I just choose to believe that I’m worth it. I choose me.”
Jarrod Lee quite literally writes his own story.
For more information, visit www.jarrodlee.com.