Hanako Yamaguchi: Hello, I'm Hanako Yamaguchi. Today we meet mezzo-soprano, Briana Hunter, another member of WQXR's Artist Propulsion Lab. She'll share a program of Baroque French and American songs on this edition of the McGraw Family's Young Artists Showcase.
It's a privilege and joy to have the opportunity to introduce to you artists who are establishing themselves as the next generation and who no doubt will occupy many of the world's distinguished stages. Since 1978, these gifted performers have been featured on The Young Artists Showcase thanks to the generous underwriting support of the Harold W McGraw Jr. Family Foundation.
If you joined us these past two weeks, you know that we've been focusing on members of this year's Artist Propulsion Lab since 2021, WQXR has been spotlighting a handful of young, accomplished New York-based performers, supporting them with a stipend and providing a place to create projects that they might not get to do anywhere else.
My name is Hanako Yamaguchi, and I'm here with you tonight as part of the team behind the Artist Propulsion Lab. Today I'm delighted to introduce another member of this year's Artist Propulsion Lab, the charismatic mezzo-soprano, Briana Hunter. She's here today with fellow New Yorker and pianist Juan Lazaro, who is a graduate of the Juilliard School and the Manhattan School of Music.
Briana grew up near Philadelphia and majored in Theater and French at Davidson College. She followed her passion for singing and got a Master's in vocal performance at the Manhattan School of Music. Briana has a long list of distinguished performances. A few recent highlights include her Metropolitan Opera debut in Terence Blanchard’s Fire Shut Up In My Bones, and her Los Angeles Opera debut in a work called Omar by Michael Abels and Rhiannon Giddens, who received the Pulitzer Prize for music this year. She also created the role of Mother in Jeanine Tesori and Tazewell Thompson’s opera entitled Blue, about a black mother and father whose son is killed by police.
It premiered at the Glimmer Glass Festival in 2019 to huge acclaim. Briana most recently performed the role at the long awaited Premier at the Washington National Opera just this past spring. We will meet Briana momentarily. But first, let's listen to a movement from Johann Sebastian Bach's Magnificat, entitled Esurientes Implevit.
MUSIC - Bach: Esurientes Implevit from the Magnificate
Hanako Yamaguchi: What a lovely way to begin the program. A movement from Bach's Magnificat, called Esurientes Implevit, performed by mezzo-soprano Briana Hunter. And pianist Juan Lazaro. Briana, it's been so much fun getting to know you. You're a tireless woman with a mission. You've mentioned wanting to expand classical music audiences, plus you're devoted to amplifying black women's perspectives, and you do all of this with joy and a sense of humor.
You have more Bach, some Harold Arlen, Handel, Massenet, Leslie Adams, and Ricky Ian Gordon. It really runs the gamut.
What does it say about you? Why did you choose these works?
Briana Hunter: Well, there is a fundamental element to each of these that spoke to my heart, and that's the inexplicable thing. But the other thing is these are all pieces that, as I've been and continue to develop vocally and evolve and practice, and they all kind of helped me figure out, unlock something in the other.
So like the Bach and the Arlen, I love. This is the first time I'm actually programming them together, but...
Hanako Yamaguchi: Well, I was gonna ask about that next.
Briana Hunter: I, I've never done it, but I've always mentally, like if I'm, if I'm feeling blocked about one, I'll go to the other.
Hanako Yamaguchi: Right.
Briana Hunter: There's something to me about the two, like Bach and like that jazz kind of era of music that each needs like elements of the other to like be successful. And, and so like when I did the Esurientes we did an online Bach Magnificat, the beginning of the pandemic, uh, with my friend Michael Sheetz conducting. Michael even noted, he was like, I love how you sing this Bach, like, it's almost like jazz, like you sing it the way...
And I was like, oh no, was that bad? And he's like, no, no. I love it. So I've enjoyed, as I've come out of, you know, young artists, academia, land, where I feel like things are very strict, people are very specific about what you should and shouldn't do.
Hanako Yamaguchi: Mm-hmm.
Briana Hunter: There's all these rules.
Hanako Yamaguchi: Mm-hmm.
Briana Hunter: And I feel like part of the joy of like getting out into the professional world is realizing you can break a lot of them.
Hanako Yamaguchi: All right. So shall we listen?
Briana Hunter: Sure.
Hanako Yamaguchi: We have two bluesy songs by Harold Arlen. The first is I Never Has Seen Snow, and the other one is I Had Myself A True Love. And then in between those two, we'll hear Bach's Aria Erbarme dich from his Saint Matthew passion.
Arlen: I Never Has Seen Snow (House of Flowers)
Bach: Erbarme dich, mein Gott (“Have mercy Lord, My God, for the sake of my tears”)
Arlen: I Had Myself A True Love - H. Arlen/Johnny Mercer
Hanako Yamaguchi: That was so beautiful. I've heard a lot of things alongside Bach, but probably that was the first time I've heard Harold Arlen. Thank you, Briana. Thank you, Juan. That was, I Never Has Seen Snow and I Had Myself A True Love. Two songs by Harold Arlen and Bach's Erbarme dich, mein Gott from the St. Matthew Passion performed by Briana Hunter and Pianist, Juan Lazaro.
So Briana, you recently performed with San Francisco’s Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra in a rarely heard opera called Amadigi di Gaula about a medieval Spanish night. It's full of gorgeous arias, including the two you chose to sing today. You play a prince named Dardano, and I'm curious, how often do you get to play trouser roles?
Briana Hunter: Like never.
Hanako Yamaguchi: Tell us about the experience.
Briana Hunter: Oh, it was so fun. We didn't even do it like a strict trouser roll. You know, we allowed it to live in this kind of like androgynous space, which I really loved.
Hanako Yamaguchi: Mm.
Briana Hunter: Um, cause you already have a tenor, a countertenor singing in a, in a women's register. Right. So, and, and sometimes Dardano can be played by a countertenor as well.
So it, it can. You know, in a way, Handel is like the original genderfluid kind of opera,
Hanako Yamaguchi: Right
Briana Hunter: and we were paying homage to that and it's, you know, obviously has present themes that we're continuing to grapple with today. So I, I thought it was a real, it was a real joy and a pleasure to like, Just in, just see what it's like to not be like a hyper sexualized woman, which I usually play.
And I realized like, I was like, what else can I, like, how else can I live in this body? So that's just really interesting to explore for me.
Hanako Yamaguchi: Now, the first aria is no easy feat.
Briana Hunter: Mm-hmm.
Hanako Yamaguchi: So can you tell us about what's happening in the story and set it up for us?
Briana Hunter: This comes right at the top. The only thing before this is the intro.
We have a recit between myself and Amadigi, and in the recit we discover that Amadigi and Dardano have the same love interest. So that's, and this sparks this anger in him. And then on top of that, Amadigi says, you know, he asks, you know, and does she return your love? And he says, yes, she loves me. You know, she loves me madly.
And that ignites even more of a fire under him. And so then we have Pugnerò contro del fato come out of this. He's like, I'm gonna strike against fate. We all know how that goes. Does that work out ever? It does not.
Hanako Yamaguchi: Okay. So what happens in the second aria?
Briana Hunter: So the second aria is the absolute devastation of realizing she really doesn't love him.
Right? So now he's gone through the effort to team up with Melissa, who's the sorceress. He teams up with her trying to break the two up, the two lovers. She loves Amadigi, of course.
Hanako Yamaguchi: Mm-hmm.
Briana Hunter: So they're both fighting against fate, like, and there's like a perfectly happy couple that they're trying to break up.
You know, they, they try to get between them and then all of their efforts fail. And then we have Pena tiranna, which is literally like tyrannical pain.
Hanako Yamaguchi: Okay, let's listen to the two arias from Handel's Amadigi di Gaula. She’ll begin with the opening aria of the opera Pugnerò contro del fato, followed by the heartbreaking Pena tiranna.
Performed by mezzo-soprano, Briana Hunter, and Pianist Juan Lazaro.
MUSIC - Handel: “Pugnerò contro del fato” and “Pena tiranna” from Amadigi di Gaula
Hanako Yamaguchi: That was gorgeous. That was from Handel's opera Amadigi di Gaula, the first Pugnerò contro del fato, followed by Pena tiranna. Sung by Briana Hunter, and at the piano Juan Lazaro right here in the studio at WQXR.
It's time now for a short break, and then we'll be back to listen to works by Jules Massenet and settings of Langston Hughes on the McGraw Family's Young Artist Showcase.
Hanako Yamaguchi: Welcome back. I'm Hanako Yamaguchi, and you're listening to the McGraw Family's Young Artist Showcase. I'm here tonight in the studio with mezzo-soprano, Briana Hunter, a member of WQXR's Artist Propulsion Lab and pianist Juan Lazaro from the Metropolitan Opera's Lindemann Young Artist Program. Next up, we have two absolutely luxurious works by the French composer Jules Massenet.
Massenet is known for his many operas such as Manon and Werther. However, he was also an expert at creating intimate melodies that capture moments rich in light and color. So Briana, can you set us up for what we're going to hear?
Briana Hunter: Sure. Uh, so the first piece is Élègie. This is such a beautiful and like, just perfectly succinct way to express, um, layered themes. Okay, so we're talking about spring leaving. And of course, equating that to, to love and, and loved ones that, uh, the element of yearning for days gone by and how things were. And then the next is J’ai versé le poison, and this. Sorry, le poison. Poison, not fish. It's a very important diction, uh, point. And this is from his, uh, seldom, seldom performed piece, Cleopatre, which is the traditional Cleopatra story.
He wrote it, he wrote it just before he died, and this was one of three operas that were performed after his death, and it's just never done. It's just incredible, uh, melodies and, and mood that he sets in here. As she's saying, I've poured the, the poison in this golden cup. Uh, whoever touches its edges emptying it drinks death, and whoever takes my kiss will come to answer its kiss.
You know, it's just like, I will, I will offer my sweet gaze to you. So she's literally just like lavishing, like surrounded by her, you know, her man servants, her slaves. That's how I, I picture it.
Hanako Yamaguchi: Mm-hmm.
Briana Hunter: Just like the well-oiled, like men surrounding her, uh, seducing them. And of course this gets, uh, Antony very jealous.
So that's, that's this, that aria.
Hanako Yamaguchi: Perfect.
Briana Hunter: And it's gorgeous and I hope you enjoy it.
Hanako Yamaguchi: Let's hear it. Two works by Jules Massenet. First, Élègie, followed by the aria J’ai versé le poison from the opera Cleopatre. Performed in the studio by mezzo-soprano, Briana Hunter and pianist Juan Lazaro.
MUSIC - Massenet: Élègie and J’ai versé le poison
Hanako Yamaguchi: Absolutely beautiful. That was Briana Hunter singing Élègie, followed by J’ai versé le poison from Massenet's opera, Cleopatre. Our guest on piano today is Juan Lazaro. Thank you so much, Briana. As I said earlier, you have quite a busy schedule, but you must make time for other things. And when you do grab a moment, what do you do? What do you gravitate towards?
Briana Hunter: Well, I love art, like every single discipline of art. So if I can, I really love to paint and draw. That's my secret thing. Like I don't sell my works or anything. Like it's not for display. That's my favorite, like luxurious activity. And you know, happy, happy trees like, like Bob Ross or like
Hanako Yamaguchi: Right.
Briana Hunter: Even mistakes are okay and you can just kind of cover 'em up and or make it into something else. So that's definitely one of my favorite things.
Hanako Yamaguchi: Oh, that's very nice.
Briana Hunter: Mm-hmm.
Hanako Yamaguchi: That's, that's harder to do on the road, I assume.
Briana Hunter: Yeah. It's hard to pack on the plane.
Hanako Yamaguchi: For your final set of songs you chose works by American composers, H Leslie Adams and Ricky Ian Gordon. Can you tell us about the next two pieces?
Briana Hunter: Okay, so the first selection of these two will be Prayer by Leslie Adams, who has so many really beautiful works. But this has always stood out as my favorite. It's again like simple, but like packs a punch, you know, like I love composers like that. Like the Massenet, the Élègie like simple, but like, unh, gets the point and to the core.
And I think that this one does as well. And as did Langston Hughes's poetry, you know. I think that's part of why composers are often drawn to him, to his words, because it does, it's not like too wordy or like, it doesn't take too much time to like, say, to get to the core of something.
And then the next piece will be by Ricky Ian Gordon, Joy, which it's a favorite of mine and of Hanako's as well.
Hanako Yamaguchi: Yes, it's, it is. So let's listen. The first song called Prayer is from Leslie Adams's Night Songs collection from 1961, followed by a truly joyful work by Ricky Ian Gordon entitled Joy. Both are settings of texts by Langston Hughes, performed here by mezzo-soprano, Briana Hunter, and pianist Juan Lazaro.
Hanako Yamaguchi: That was Briana Hunter singing Prayer by H Leslie Adams and Joy by Ricky Ian Gordon. Juan Lazaro was at the piano. That was so great. Thank you so much. So you have a busy season ahead in New York, you'll be returning to the Metropolitan Opera in Carmen, Madama Butterfly, Fire Shut Up in My Bones, and Dead Man Walking.
But you'll also be working on some interesting projects, and important projects for the Artist Propulsion Lab. I know the ideas are still hatching, but what can you share about it with us today?
Briana Hunter: So the, the first is a series of, um, we're, we're, uh, ironing out a series of discussions. Um, and I wanna investigate kind of how we are approaching outreach and education, uh, and speak to some amazing women that are on the front lines of that, more so in the trenches than I am from, from the stage. They are very accomplished musicians themselves in their own rights. And, um, we're just really passionate about making sure we're connecting, um, younger and new audiences to, to classical music. And then the other, uh, a ge- a generational discussion with people that span multiple generations.
Um, I wanted to get a group of black women together to specifically address like, you know, how far we've come and what we still have, where we still have to go. And also how each generation has approached kind of the struggle, if you will, the battle, the, the, the climb, uh, that it has been, the inequity faced within specifically the opera world over generations.
Cause I think we all have very different kind of, approaches and, and maybe philosophies, but I think we're all trying to get at the same thing. And then another big project that I'm looking forward to is a commission, a brand new commission with a very amazing up and coming composer, Jasmine Barnes, who we actually met singing together in a production of Porgy and Bess, we were both in the chorus, um, years ago. It's just been such a delight watching her, her branch out and, and really become this incredible composer.
Hanako Yamaguchi: Right.
Briana Hunter: Um, and I just, I've always wanted, we've always wanted to work together, so we're, we're gonna make it happen. Yeah. And we just want, our goal with this song cycle is just to view, we want to see black women at ease and at peace, rested, cared for.
All of those things that I feel like we seldom see talked about in the story
Hanako Yamaguchi: in the story, in the narrative, right.
Briana Hunter: Yes. In the narrative. So that's huge, hugely important for the both of us.
Hanako Yamaguchi: Right, right.
Briana Hunter: Mm-hmm.
Hanako Yamaguchi: So wonderful. I cannot wait to hear experience all of this. So exciting. It's been a pleasure talking to you today, Briana.
Briana Hunter: I'm always delighted to speak to you, Hanako.
Hanako Yamaguchi: That completes another edition of the McGraw Family's Young Artist Showcase, which is generously underwritten by the Harold W McGraw Jr. Family Foundation. Here's Terry McGraw with more.
Terry McGraw: Good evening everyone. It's great to be with you and it's always great being with the Young Artists Showcase and to hear these really wonderful and inspiring musicians as they continue to share their incredible gifts with us every week. I can't wait to hear the fabulous talent coming up on the Showcase. And I am so pleased to be able to support the series all through its well over four decades on WQXR and there's so much more to come.
Hanako Yamaguchi: Thank you, Terry. It's really been a pleasure speaking with mezzo-soprano Briana Hunter, a member of the 2023 class of WQXR's Artist Propulsion Lab here on the Young Artists Showcase. This year’s members are cellist Zlatomir Fung, violinist Alexi Kenney, mezzo-soprano Briana Hunter, violinist Curtis Stewart, and composer Shelley Washington. You can keep an eye on what they're up to on wqxr.org and you can also subscribe to the Artist Propulsion Lab podcast feed wherever you get your podcasts.
Our WQXR program producers are Eileen Delahanty, Max Fine, and Laura Boyman with additional production assistance from Jade Jiang. Our session engineer this evening is Irene Trudell. I'm Hanako Yamaguchi, thank you for joining us tonight.
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