Latonia Moore: “I Love, Live, and Breathe Music”

Latonia Moore is an artist with great depth and stylistic variety. She shares her background in jazz, what makes her voice smile, and the lessons learned from taking breaks vocally. Read on for more on Moore, including her advice about specific intentions as you build your career. 

 

Soprano Latonia Moore is acclaimed throughout the world for her extraordinarily beautiful, distinctive voice, exceptional musicianship, and profound interpretations. She is about to sing the role of Sister Rose in Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking as the opera premieres at the Metropolitan Opera, opening the 2023–24 season. After her brilliant performances as Emelda Griffith in Terence Blanchard’s Champion, Ms. Moore generously took time out of her busy schedule to do this interview, on a break from rehearsing the role of Musetta in the Met’s La bohème

Last season, you starred in Terence Blanchard’s Champion at the Met. Please tell us about this experience.

Champion is Terence Blanchard’s first opera. I actually first performed in his second opera, Fire Shut Up in My Bones, which I was so thrilled about because I had started out as a jazz singer, and as an opera singer I wasn’t using my jazz background much. With Fire Shut Up in My Bones, not only did I get a great opportunity to show these other skills, but we won a Grammy for it! 

So, when it came to doing Champion, of course I was ready to jump right on board because I was already obsessed with Terence’s sensibility and his choice of stories. It was a huge honor to be asked to do something like this. However, I approached it with a little bit of trepidation because the role of Emelda wasn’t really knit for my voice type. Terence often writes his female voices lower, like mezzo-sopranos and contraltos. For me, he had to do a lot of rewriting. I was just so excited that I could be a part of it, because Emelda ended up being one of the most amazing roles I’ve gotten to perform in years. It’s because of the music and also because of how sassy and fun the character is! I had the time of my life!

And how wonderful to be able to work with the composer!

Absolutely! When you have the composer there and you say, “I don’t know if this fits perfectly,” and he just writes something brand new right in front of you—it’s a luxury we’re very rarely afforded. I mean, how lucky we were to have that!

Latonia Moore as Cio-Cio in the Metropolitan Opera’s Production of Madama Butterfly, 2016.

How do you think that your training in jazz and gospel enriched your study of opera and operatic singing? 

When I’m doing an opera, I always approach it first in my native tongue as far as the character. No matter the role or the language, I speak it in the way Latonia would speak. Even with English—like for Emelda in Champion, when I was doing character study, I would just make up my own way of saying the words. By doing that, no matter what words come out of my mouth, my actions and the feeling of what the audience will see will be authentic rather than me forcing myself to create some character that may seem artificial or robotic. That would look staged. If you take everything that you see and you put your own stamp on it and translate it into the way you would say it, you’ll get a much more authentic reading. You’ll give a humanity to your character that seems so organic that they can’t tell if you’re playing a character at all. 

As far as the other genres of music, I had to take the style of gospel very much out of the way that I sing opera, with some exceptions. For instance, there are a couple of scenes in Porgy and Bess and in Fire Shut Up in My Bones that involve more of a gospel way of singing, so I’ve been able to use my skills to my advantage. 

Most certainly with jazz, aside from the style, I learned a lot of music theory in high school and as a jazz major. That has helped me in immense ways. I remember when, years ago, I would have to jump into opera productions quickly. Once, I was asked to learn this very rare Verdi opera, I due Foscari, and the opening was in 10 days. I went right into my theory skills and everything that I learned from jazz and applied it to learning it really fast.

You are about to sing the role of Sister Rose in Dead Man Walking, opening the season at the Met…

Yes, it’s so exciting! I’m really enjoying just how gorgeous these melodies are. You know, Terence composes in a very verismo-like style, very real life, and the way you sing it is the way you would speak it, almost. Whereas, with Jake Heggie, it’s much more like bel canto, a little more like the Italian style as far as my part specifically. I’m in heaven, and vocally it sits where my voice likes to live, so I have been smiling ever since the season announcement.

Latonia Moore as Emelda Griffith in the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Terence Blanchard’s Champion, 2023.

Then, in April 2024, you will return to the role of Billie in Fire Shut Up in My Bones…

Yes! Being in Fire Shut Up in My Bones was one the greatest and most memorable experiences of my entire career. I really wanted my mom to see it because my mom is basically this woman. She had five children too, and the situation was so close to home, including some of the names in the show. There was so much connection, and it felt more personal than any role that I’ve ever done. 

For my mom, it was hard to watch her child playing out her suffering in front of an audience; I think it was unnerving albeit her being proud. For me it was very important to live out that story, because there were a lot of things that happened in our family where I wished my mom would have made different choices. This woman in the opera makes different choices, and I wanted my mom to see that, even still, she has options. No matter what you’ve been through, you can still make something happen in your life. I am thrilled to be doing the role again. Every time I do it, it’s going to have more and more layers. 

What other roles do you love?

Butterfly. If this is possible to visualize: it makes my voice smile. It’s almost like therapy to sing it, like a balm. It’s not an easy role but it fits me like a glove. I do sing the opera in a lot of places but here, not so much. I only got to sing one performance of it at the Met, but I left a big impression with it, luckily. We’ll see what happens, with the way things are more open with casting these days and companies don’t always have to cast somebody that looks more like Cio-Cio-San than me. 

How do you keep your voice in such incredible shape? 

Stress…don’t eat a lot…take care of the kids! That keeps you pretty active! One thing that gets very hard the further you get into the career is making sure you really keep up with all of your coachings and lessons. When you’re young, they’re kind of forced upon you by whatever program you’re in—but as you get older it’s up to you to keep everything fresh and going. 

I try to sing every day, even if just a bit, and give my voice a little workout. Of course, there have been times when I needed rest, and rest has been forced upon me. For instance, at the beginning of last season I did Il trovatore in Washington, and when I came to the Met to do Aida, I was not well vocally and physically because I did a very bad thing. I did not take a break. I had gone straight from January to December and my voice said, “No, you won’t!” So, I sang one performance of Aida, and it was just so hard—I was already sick and feeling so run down that I withdrew. The Met management said: “Please take care of yourself; come back fresh for Champion.” I’m so grateful that they understood. Peter Gelb couldn’t have been more supportive; he’s been extremely supportive of me since I’ve been here. 

Although it was a hard decision to have to withdraw from something at the Metropolitan Opera, it was necessary and I’m so glad I did, because now I feel good again and I know to remind myself: Latonia, take breaks when you know you need them. Lesson learned.

Walter Russell III as Char’es Baby, Latonia Moore as Billie, and Will Liverman as Charles in The Metropolitan Opera’s production of Terence Blanchard’s Fire Shut Up in My Bones, 2022.

Are there any challenges that you encounter in your impressive career?

For me the biggest challenge is always just me, and the issue is can I control my nerves? And the real big issue is can I handle the pressure? At the beginning of my career, it was a lot easier. I was usually second cast or a cover or third cast in some cases or I just got to jump in for somebody because they canceled at the last minute. There was an entirely different kind of pressure than what I face now when there’s much more expectation than ever. 

As I get older, the pressure gets harder, and I’m more nervous than I used to be. Sometimes it’s difficult to deal with it. But I’m still here. This is something that young singers do need to be prepared for because right now they sing with absolute abandon. 

It’s different when you’re thrust into the opening night of one of the biggest opera companies and everything’s being recorded: all eyes are on you, and everyone is expecting it to be perfect. When you’re second cast or an understudy and you’re jumping in, no one is expecting perfection. In fact, they consider you an underdog and they root for the underdog—whereas for established singers, when it’s less than perfection, we’re the ones who have to bear the brunt of that, not the opera company. 

So that’s a hard weight to carry, and I have struggled with it. I think what keeps me going is reminding myself how many other people have to deal with it too. When I realize that I’m not alone and others can relate to what I’m going through, suddenly it eases a little bit. Even just the past year when I’ve been working with people, I find myself leaning on their energy a little. When someone else is very calm, I try to stick close to them and make myself calm. That has helped me deal with the pressure better than I would have otherwise.

Latonia Moore as Billie and Will Liverman as Charles in The Metropolitan Opera’s production of Terence Blanchard’s Fire Shut Up in My Bones, 2022.

Also, young singers today are facing an increasingly complex path to building a career. What advice do you have for them?

Think about what you actually want in life, and don’t say some broad thing like “I want to be an opera singer and a star.” Get specific with it! I want to sing in Munich, in Vienna, in New York. Be very specific with your intentions is one big advice. 

Another is to be patient. The business of opera is about artistic longevity. It’s never been about the quick fix or making a quick buck. So, if you’re going to do this, jump in but pace yourself. You don’t have to sing everything today. What we hope for as mentors and educators is to see young singers realize that it’s important to have a nice long career rather than the short and fast career. What happens with a short and fast career is that you can make a lot of money, then the money is gone and you’re waiting tables because your voice is gone. 

It’s very hard to resist temptation because when singers are young, their voices are fresh and opera companies and artistic directors exploit that like crazy, however unintentional. Try to resist temptation. If somebody’s offering you five figures for a role, of course you want to say yes, because you want that money—but you need to ask yourself, “Where is the end point? How am I going to plan this out and take my time the way I need to?” 

You have to keep your blinders on and have no peripheral vision when it comes to a career. It’s very easy to get sidetracked and start looking at what everyone else is doing and getting. That’s a waste of energy that you’re giving to everyone else and not keeping for yourself. Instead of worrying about everybody else, think “How can I be better?” If you see somebody else get a great gig, and you want to do something like that one day, take the steps for yourself to get there rather than sit there envious and jealous, trying to compete with somebody else. If you keep that energy for yourself, streamline it, and really focus on what you want with absolute intent, you’ll make your mark every time. It might take forever, but you’ll make it. 

Latonia Moore as Billie in the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Terence Blanchard’s Fire Shut Up in My Bones, 2022.

I remember when I was 17, I was one of 16 people selected for a young artists jazz choir at the Grammy Awards. They brought us out on stage, everybody clapped, and I said to someone: “I’m going to win a Grammy one day.” I did several recordings over the years, and none got nominated, but I never stopped believing. Twenty-five years to almost the exact date that I said I was going to win a Grammy, I won it! If I’m not a testament to the fact that if you believe in something you can get it, I don’t know what is! I want young singers to think like I do and to believe in getting what they want. 

And it’s very important that established singers realize that this art doesn’t stop with them—they need to pass on their knowledge and support the next generation. It is our duty to teach the younger singers, to root for them, and cheer them on, and lift them up. When it comes to a career, yes, focus on yourself in doing as much as you can. Then when you’re set and secure in who you are and your career is going, help others! Don’t just think, “Oh, I’m secure so I’m not going to help anyone.” This is not the way to live, and this is not the way to keep our art alive. 

I am also very interested in one day being the artistic director here at the Met or maybe at Washington National Opera. A nice dream would be Houston, because that’s where I’m from. That’s my next step, and I’m doing everything I can to learn the ropes. Many artistic directors have been so kind and encouraging to me. It’s really important to have more Black people and more Black women in the administrative part of opera. I want other people who look like me to see me and think, “I can do something like that!” 

I’ve got big dreams and I’m always very gung-ho about passing them on to others. At the same time, I just love singing and being on stage—I’m such a ham, and I love the career to death! Even when I’m not singing, I will stay in this career in whatever capacity. I love, live, and breathe music!

For more information about Latonia Moore, visit her website: www.latoniamooresoprano.com.

Maria-Cristina Necula

Maria-Cristina Necula is a New York-based writer whose published work includes the books “The Don Carlos Enigma,” “Life in Opera: Truth, Tempo, and Soul” and articles in “Das Opernglas,” “Studies in European Cinema,” and “Opera News.” A classically-trained singer, she has presented on opera at Baruch College, the Graduate Center, the City College of New York, UCLA, and others. She holds a doctoral degree in Comparative Literature from The Graduate Center. Maria-Cristina also writes for the culture and society website “Woman Around Town.”