Puccini is one of Michelle Bradley's favorite composers, and she's in San Diego to sing his Tosca for the San Diego Opera company. We were originally scheduled to talk in person, but a rehearsal change meant Zoom was going to work better for an hour discussion.
'I'm happy to be back, and I know that everyone's happy to have me back because I've been treated warmly as always. They check up on me making sure I'm okay, and Southern California feels like a working vacation. After rehearsal I can have a nice walk any time of day. The ocean's close, the mountains, beautiful views. I've made some great friends, and it's a wonderful relationship to have. They seem to think I'm a star.'
Maybe that's because she is. Her rising career will reach a special peak in April when she sings Verdi's Aida at the Met. It's her favorite role by her favorite composer. Bradley credits what she's achieved to the guidance and help of family, friends, teachers, and a good agent. I'd add, a lot of hard work.
As I watched one of her online interviews in preparation for our discussion, the praise and encouragement of the written comments rolling across the bottom of the screen was extraordinary, and more than half of them came from family and friends.
'I'm very blessed and lucky to come from a very good family. We love each other. I remember going home saying, 'I know what I want to do. I want to be an opera singer.' And they were like, we don't know what that is. But all right, you love singing, so let's do it. And now they fly to my performances. They'll come see me in Aida next month. The San Diego schedule didn't work out, but they heard me do Tosca in Chicago. And I think I've even sparked an interest in opera. They love to go even if I'm not singing. That's the best for me, bringing more people to it.
'My mother was in choir, my father was a deacon (and the third African-American police chief in the state of Kentucky). Second to the pastor, he called for the old-school hymns to open the service. And my parents sang at home a lot. My earliest memories are of my father gathering me and my brothers and my mom in the living room to teach us church hymns. If I have a bad day, I just start singing one of those I know, and it gets me going.'
It wasn't all hymns.
'Yeah, we listened to a lot of Motown. I still love my parents' favorites, the Temptations, the Supremes, and the soul music of James Brown. If I'm not listening to opera, I go to Motown and gospel first.'
Bradley has also been fortunate in her succession of teachers, each seemingly ideal for her stage of development.
'It's been a perfect progression, not only just for where I was in my career, but also life. Every time I got to another level, I'd get another teacher, and I'm thankful I still keep in touch with all of them, except for Andrew Smith who has passed away.'
She's posted a clip of her singing in Smith's honor. 'His funeral was a very emotional moment. He was like a father to me when I lost both of my parents early on. Mr Smith and Mrs Smith had me in their home for dinners, always encouraging me in a very difficult time. I was gonna quit college and everything. It was like losing another parent again. They kept me going.
'I've met other wonderful people that showed me how to do this. I guess I had the voice, but they knew how to mold it and show me what to do with it when I didn't know.'
It's not unusual for singers to learn piano, but Bradley largely taught herself to play both piano and organ. At eleven she was an organist at church services.
'I don't know how I picked it up. I thought it was something that everybody could do. The piano was just a really nice toy, and I kept begging my parents for one. My mom would be shopping at Kmart in Versailles, Kentucky, and they had all kinds of keyboards all plugged in. While she was shopping I would play the songs I heard on the radio and at church. My father had taken piano lessons very briefly as a young boy, and he showed how to add the chords. We didn't even know to call them chords. He just was like, "okay, you got this note, you can add this one". I heard the harmonies and just found them on the piano. With help from my grandmother, they finally scraped together enough money to buy a baby grand.
'Funny story, how I started playing in church. The pastor had a time when he gathered all us kids to tell us about the Bible. One day he went to my parents and said, "you know Tammie" [my name at home] "is a little too tall to be in the children's choir anymore". I was kind of a big girl and looked older than ten or eleven. So my dad was like, "oh okay, she can start teaching these kids". I ended up teaching the children's choir and playing for them. Then I started teaching the adults too, because I could. But my parents really had to support me because I was very shy, especially when it came to having to, you know, tell an adult what to do, and I'm a kid.
'I was so shy, I sang in the closet at home. I get home from school, and I'm singing all my Whitney Houston songs or gospel in there. And then I'd be quiet when my parents got home from work, do my chores.'
Her youngest brother squealed on her. But it turned out well because she no longer needed to hide her talent.
'Once my brother told on me, I was singing and playing piano in the living room every night after school. It was my training. They'd have friends from church over, and they'd have me sing. I'd be so scared, but I'd get out there and do it. Even now I can hear my parents telling me: "you sing for the Lord. You get out there and give it everything you got". It hurts that they're not in the audience anymore, but growing up they were. They were right there every time.
'My first solo was in church at fifteen, and I was so nervous. But my parents said "get on up there, girl, just like in the living room".
'Yeah, my younger brother, I have to thank him for exposing me. It's what led me to being on stages around the United States and the world, having people looking at me with their own thoughts about my singing.'
Did it get easier?
'Yes, and no, it can be stressful at times, but that hasn't stopped me. Now, have I cried on my way to the stage? Yeah, I'm like, I'm not sure I can do this anymore. I've had those moments, but I still get out there and rest well that night, because I give the best of what I have at the time.
'This is making me think of things. My parents were so supportive. They never told me, "oh go get a real job", never said "singing isn't always going to be something that's solid - you don't have a pension". They just said "Go for it". I really miss that about them.'
Growing up, Whitney Houston was a hero. 'Her sound was just so beautiful, but at the same time, in your face and overpowering. I mean, full chest voice. She could take it all the way up. Then I discovered Leontyne Price. And with Leontyne it was just the beauty. I didn't know opera. When I discovered her, Mr Smith taught me about opera and her voice. I didn't understand vibrato, but I fell in love with how her vocal cords vibrated. Just the sheer beauty of it.
'Whitney and Leontyne had a confidence about them without being arrogant. They just walked out there every time and said, "You know what? I'm gonna give you something so good." You just knew what wonderful people they were through their singing. I never met either one of them. I didn't have to, to know.'
With early exposure to Motown, church and gospel music, and Price, how did she choose opera?
'I never thought I'd be a pop singer. I'd love to sing pop and I have my favorite pop songs, Whitney, Mariah Carey, but I never saw myself doing that. At best, I felt that I would just sing in church the rest of my life and get a job teaching music. Pop singers, you gotta dance. I can't, and I never felt my voice really fit pop. In gospel they do a lot of runs and are very emotional. A lot of growling and hollering classically trained singers believe can damage a voice. I didn't see myself doing that either.
'But at seventeen when I heard Leontyne Price for the first time, I remember saying to myself, that's something I could do. I don't know where that came from. But it was like this just seems to be where my voice fits.'
How does a singer maintain their voice and prepare for a performance? Bradley once said rehearsals are easy, practice is hard.
'Yeah, practice. My mom always told me, "girl, you got a one-track mind". It's kind of hard for me when I gotta multitask. But when I got something that needs to be done, I zoom in and do it. And yes, I do like to be alone when it comes to learning a role. The preparation, the translating and figuring out who this character is. I take what I've learned from my teachers and decide where this note is going to be placed.
'But I also love the rehearsals like I'm doing now, being in production, figuring out the staging, and how I will act so the audience believes. Tosca is one of those roles where I feel like I'm in the Actor's Studio. It's not just singing. She is a very emotional character. I did Tosca in Chicago, and I'm happy to be revisiting her. I have to be honest. She doesn't challenge me vocally, despite her deserved reputation. I have to be an actress, and I never thought of myself as an actress. I need to master her swift mood changes, one minute all loving, the next she's ready to choke him.
'It's also figuring out together what the director wants, what the conductor is trying to convey. It can be a lot sometimes, and I have to be alone to think through everything and visualize it. But still, you know, it's fun. My daddy once said "find something you love to do. You'll never work a day in your life." I used to do a lot of difficult jobs when I was young, especially working my way through college, getting up to go somewhere I don't want to go. But I found something I love, and he was right. I don't have to work anymore.'
Andrew Smith became her first voice teacher when she was a freshman at the University of Kentucky. 'He said I had the voice for opera and told me all about the lifestyle and all the singers he knew. I just fell in love with it.'
Training continued with a master's degree in voice from Bowling Green State University, then as a member of the Houston Grand Opera Chorus. It continued when the Met chose Bradley for its prestigious Lindemann program in 2017. While there she appeared in Bellini's Norma with Joyce DiDonato and Sondra Radvanovsky. 'It was a live broadcast to theaters across the United States. I didn't know it went worldwide. I remember getting social media messages from people in Russia. I think that broadcast was why my first engagement contract after the Lindemann program was Aida in Nancy, France about six years ago. So at the beginning of my career, I was in France, especially Germany. One thing I enjoy about Europe, is that the opera houses are much smaller and artistically designed, the woodwork so detailed. It was a great experience, and I can't wait to get back over there, especially Italy. It's just such a beautiful place: Milan, Florence and Rome. The food was amazing.
'But the travel can take a toll. I was singing Aida in Finland this summer, and I also had to sing Bohème at Tanglewood, so I was flying between Finland and Boston like four times in a couple of weeks. It was tough because it was an eight-hour flight, and I don't like flying. When the turbulence gets scary, I start texting my older brother and say, "hey, it's kind of bumpy. I don't like this." And he'll talk to me about anything, NFL football, I don't care. He is a retired police officer, so he knows about keeping calm in tense situations.'
Six years out of the Met's training program with two missing thanks to the pandemic, yet Bradley is already offered leading roles. 'I just never saw myself doing this at all, much less being in a title role. So I feel like I'm still working my way to something. I don't think I've arrived at all.'
But she is enjoying the ride, even coasting through rare bad moments such as 'tripping on my dresses. In the roles I play, the dresses are always long, and I love that. But no matter how much I practice in them, there'll be times I trip. I was doing Tosca at Chicago Lyric and had to run up the steps. I tripped on my dress, and had to kneel down on the steps and finish singing. The show must go on, so I stayed in character. But when I got offstage, I was like, oh, my gosh! Thankfully, nothing harmful has happened, just silly little things.'
Aida remains Bradley's favorite role. Tosca is generally viewed as more difficult. But now that she's sung it, 'Tosca has become something of a favorite to me as well. When I was first asked, I was like, Oh, wow, can I really do this? I gave it a shot and it seems to be working. I think right now I'm in a good place for Puccini. Maybe later on I will move into even heavier rep. I would love to sing Wagner.'
Given her fast rise, it's obvious that reviewers are generally positive, but she tries to ignore reviews.
'One of the many things Mr Smith taught me was to consider the source when somebody is giving you advice or criticizing you. I don't think anybody can really talk to me about singing or my job unless they've actually done it. Of course, I'm open to advice and opinions, but I do consider the source, and that piece of advice has kept me sane in tough times.'
Her teachers and family do read the reviews. 'My teachers will call me to read them to me. I sometimes just have to tell them I don't want to know.'
The San Diego Opera runs a docent program and encourages class visits. Since Bradley taught in the Houston school system after obtaining her Master's degree and was singing in Houston Grand Opera's chorus, I was interested in her thoughts on music education.
'I taught elementary middle school levels, a different age group every hour. I'd start with three-year-olds, and by the end of the day I'd have the thirteen-year-olds. It was quite a challenge. I taught piano lessons and voice lessons, but did introduce them to opera on some days. I started with The Magic Flute. The kids had never seen opera before. I thought that would be a fun story for them, and they did get excited about it when I played a YouTube version on a tiny TV in my room.
'I ended up taking one of my schools to a live performance of Fledermaus at Houston Grand Opera. The school and parents were very supportive. It was a great experience, and I like to think that those students didn't forget what they had never experienced before.
'In Europe there's an opera house in almost every town. The young people grow up going to operas. I see a lot more of them in the audience in Europe, and that is very promising.'
Bradley recently sang Tosca for Chicago Lyric Opera. I wondered how she approached another production.
'I hope to dig deeper, to do an even better job than I did in Chicago. Maybe there is something else that I can bring to it to improve. Can my Italian be better in this spot? Some places irked me, things that would always be a challenge. How do I make them less challenging this time? And a new director and a new conductor offer a new challenge in a good way. I have truly enjoyed working with conductor Valerio Galli. He's from Italy. I feel quite privileged to learn it from someone like this.'
In each new production, 'conductors will have different tempos, directors a different view. In one Aida that I did, the conductor wanted me to be more afraid and agitated all the time. That took me a while to get used to because I don't see her that way. I see her as strong. You know, I have to be prepared for stuff like that.'
'I've had to learn how to pace myself. I give a lot when I sing, and I'm still learning how not to give everything right away. I am a woman that sings the big roles, but it's because I can do it.'
Copyright © 24 March 2023
San Diego, USA