Grammy-winning soprano Leona Mitchelll visits Mason

Grammy-winning soprano and opera star, Leona Mitchell held a masterclass with Mason music students (photo by Hannah Kreider).
Grammy-winning soprano and opera star, Leona Mitchell held a masterclass with Mason music students (photo by Hannah Kreider).

As someone who has had a rather shaky introduction to opera, I have since fallen in love with it.  Not because I know how difficult it is to hit that C sharp in the middle of an aria, but because the stories wrapped within the music are reflective of the feelings humans go through each day. Instead of telling the audience through a monologue of a character’s emotions, they are sung with such empathy that  literally makes one quake in their seat. Without realizing it, you are swept up and all language barriers are forgotten.

To induce this type of feeling in the audience you need a truly talented singer. There is no better person to induce that emotion than singer Leona Mitchell.

Mitchell (left) with a Mason music student during as part of an ongoing master class series through the School of Music (photo by Hannah Kreider).

On Feb. 27, Grammy award-winning soprano Mitchell, visited George Mason University to speak and host a master class for future opera singers for Mason’s School of Music. In 1973, Mitchell debuted in the lead role in the opera “Carmen,” a role she played again two years later at the Metropolitan in New York City.  

She went on to work at the Metropolitan for 18 seasons. Since this debut, her career as an international opera star has been nothing short of incredible. She has performed in opera houses across Europe  including Covent Garden in London, Paris, Roma, Verona, Buenos Aires, Germany, Egypt, East Asia and 25 seasons in at the famed Sydney Opera House in Australia. 

Mitchell wasn’t born into her jet-setting life style.  Growing up in Enid, Oklahoma she was discovered by her choir director who was impressed by her talent. “She heard my voice and latched onto me and said, ‘You really need to go somewhere and let these people hear you,’” said Mitchell in an interview. At the age of 17, Mitchell auditioned at the Oklahoma City University for a resident professor, where she was soon spotted for her talent.

“After I finished singing, she [the professor] left the room and I thought, I guess I didn’t get anything.  I was waiting for a scholarship because I am from one of fifteen children so money was scarce to go to college. She came back with the whole music department and they created a vocal scholarship for me. I didn’t find that out until I was fifty years old,” Mitchell said.

Oklahoma City University is a small private school that allotted undergrads to perform operas.  It was here that Mitchell first got placed into an opera.

Mitchell’s husband, Elmer Bush, commented, “The first opera [Mitchell] saw, [she] was actually in it.”

It was over her four years at the university that Mitchell entered competitions and gained recognition within the opera community. 

“By the time I finished university, I had won maybe 30-35 contests,” Mitchell said.  In a national contest held in San Francisco, she won first place; a catalyst to her successful career.  She soon joined the Young Artists Program that helps continue to train and start the career of young opera singers. Eventually, Mitchell moved to New York City to audition for Julliard.

Two years after her audition, she was hailed by the New York Times when she performed that same audition piece from the opera “Carmen”, although this time at the age of 24 at the Metropolitan Opera House.

Mitchell performing "Je dis que rien ne m'epouvante" from her 1973 performance in "Carmen."

During her visit to Mason, Mitchell discussed her start and accomplishments in a discussion with Mason opera students. Many students wanted to know how to start their own career.  In response, Mitchell openly said that her start was very lucky.

“Everyone goes about it differently and I can just give my version, but everyone gets their careers started differently,” Mitchell said.

Often young opera singers go to Europe and try to join an opera house. There they are then heard by someone who fosters the growth off to start on a career path of an opera singer.

Before her start at the Metropolitan, Mitchell began her career traveling to Europe touring  different opera houses.  In Italy, she met Mason professor Patricia Miller who was beginning her study as a Fulbright scholar.  Since then, both have performed together and it is through this connection that Mitchell came to Mason.

“I am so proud of the department of music here, because they have them on a very high standard. I was just telling Professor Miller how well her students are doing,” Mitchell said.  “I am still singing, still concertizing and doing orchestral dates, so in between of those times I do some university [visits].”

Leona Mitchell performed some of her most haralded performances from a variety of operas including the famous soprano aria from "The Magic Flute" (photo by Hannah Kreider).

Visiting Mason, Mitchell participated in master classes as part of a series Mason offers where a master in a craft comes to the school for a two-part lecture.  Students perform in front of the visiting master and are critiqued by the visiting artists. These students are selected by their professors and showcase the best in the department.  

As part of the series, the second part is reserved for the visiting artist who talks about getting started in the career, answers questions from the students and in the case of Mitchell shows some of her performances while discussing the various aspects of opera life starting with how she began her career.

During the second part of the class, Mitchell showed clips from her performances and discussed them with the students.  Having traveled across the globe fulfilling many commitments, Michelle discussed time management.

“I was flying from Australia to Germany and Italy, I did that for several seasons and it was really difficult.  You just hope that the plane gets there on time,” Mitchell said.

This type of information and knowledge within the field is something students who study opera rarely consider.

Many of the students who came to hear Mitchell speak are also performing in Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s opera “The Magic Flute” which will be performed later on in the semester. Mitchell commented that this opera is a particularly good way to introduce the genre to someone who has not had a chance to enjoy opera yet.

Mitchell (center) and Mason music professor Patricia Miller (left) pictured with Mason students from the School of Music (photo by Katherine Morgenegg).

She also sang the praises of all the students who performed in the first part of the master class, many of whom are in “The Magic Flute.” Mitchell, during her time at Mason, continued her ongoing support of Mason’s growing School of Music and its opera students.

Hearing Mitchell comment on her life, her continuous work in opera and her career as a whole was inspiring and enlightening not only for those who chose to study such a challenging and historic art, but also those who fall in love with it.

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