Hollins University graduate Helena Brown imagined herself going into politics or neurosciences when she was growing up.
Instead, she became an opera singer.
A Brooklyn native now living in Connecticut, Brown has returned to the valley to sing in Opera Roanoke’s “South Pacific,” the kickoff to the opera’s season of all-American music.
“South Pacific” comes from the pens of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, the massively successful Broadway entrepreneurs behind such classics as “The Sound of Music” and “Oklahoma!”
Based on James Michener’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book “Tales of the South Pacific,” the musical follows two love stories that take place on a South Pacific island during World War II. Debuted in 1949, “South Pacific” used its storylines to confront issues of racism in a manner considered forward-thinking for its time. Many of its songs, such as “Some Enchanted Evening” and “I’m Going to Wash that Man Right Out of My Hair,” are instantly recognizable.
Singer Juanita Hall became the first black person to win a Tony Award for originating the role of Bloody Mary, a Vietnamese woman who trades goods with the U.S. Navy sailors stationed on the island. Brown, 28, plays Bloody Mary in Opera Roanoke’s production.
While Brown attended Hollins, she starred as Lucy Addison in the home-grown 2011 folk opera “Miss Lucy,” performed at the Community High School of Arts and Academics. After graduating from Hollins in 2012, Brown attended the Manhattan School of Music, where her singing in a school concert drew the praise of top New York Times music critic James Oestreich. She’s since performed in productions of “Porgy and Bess,” “The Crucible,” and many others.
She took time between rehearsals to answer some questions via email about her opera career.
What led you to pursue a career in opera?
It was a happy accident, a la the late Bob Ross! My original plans were to become a politician or a researcher in neuroscience. And I really intended on it! But, I fell into the tangled web of the arts and found myself feeling more fulfilled and effective in how I could create change, alter or inform perspectives, brighten someone’s day, and more.
Close to the completion of my undergraduate studies at Hollins, I decided to take the plunge, auditioning for conservatories to see if this “potential” everyone was talking about could be fostered into something much larger.
What made you decide to study at Hollins?
It was important for me to go to a women’s college and build an educational foundation based in the liberal arts. When I was a youngster, I already knew myself to be a Jane of all trades and saw no benefit in extinguishing my passions by studying just one thing plus the bare minimum of prerequisites. ... Hollins became an obvious choice. Assuredly, this was one of the best decisions I made in the course of my life and Hollins, plus the network of alumna is my second family.
Did you have to do any sort of research for the role of Bloody Mary? How would you describe the character?
I do research for every character that I aim to portray. I started with the novel, “Tales of the South Pacific” by James Michener, and branched out from there, reading accounts of the living conditions in Vietnam, looking at pictures whenever possible. Now… who is Bloody Mary? A survivor. A strong woman. A mother. An entrepreneur. A casual linguist. A self-made woman. Mary is much more complicated than thinking her to be a simple peddler of exotic tchotchke. She was brought to an island away from her native home and had to fend for herself however she could while also caring for a daughter. She has such high stakes and inner fire. I truly respect her.
Neither opera nor musical theater has a strong track record historically when it comes to creating roles for women of color; has this paucity of roles been a challenge you’ve come up against as you’ve pursued your career?
While the track record is not as strong as we would like it to be, some roles have been created for women of color in opera. One in particular is Margaret Garner in Richard Danielpour’s eponymous opera with the libretto written by Toni Morrison. ... I hope to sing that same role on stage some day. Others include Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess,” Philip Glass’ “Appomattox,” Scott Joplin’s “Treemonisha,” Blitzstein’s “Regina,” Robert Ward’s “The Crucible,” and more.
While we still have a long way to go in healing the racial divide in the United States of America, the paucity of roles has not severely limited me from working in opera. Singers of color now are less likely to be typecast or turned away. I don’t have to have fairer skin and hair to tell the stories of women such as Ariadne, Sieglinde (“Die Walküre”), and most recently Rebecca Nurse in “The Crucible,” which I performed at the Glimmerglass Festival this summer. The characters are just people.
How do you feel about working with Opera Roanoke?
We have SO much fun here! I really love working with my colleagues, the atmosphere, and how much the company cares for each individual artist. It makes it easier for us to take risks in rehearsal and create art. I would love to come back to do another show!