Singer Raven McMillon’s road to opera was paved by the piano | Arts

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The Philadelphia Opera returns to the Academy of Music stage at the Kimmel Cultural Campus for the first time since September 2019 with four performances of “Rigoletto” from April 29 through May 8.

One of the most popular works in the lyrical canon, Verdi’s unforgettable tragedy hasn’t been performed by the Philadelphia Opera for 15 years, though it remains a favorite of devoted opera-goers.

“Rigoletto” is a court jester of the Duke of Mantua, a notorious sexual aggressor. After the Duke injures a young woman, Rigoletto mocks the victim’s father, who then curses the jester for being so cruel. Later, the Duke attacks Rigoletto’s own daughter, Gilda, and the cruel joke falls on Rigoletto.

Baltimore native Raven McMillon takes on the role of Gilda and makes her Philadelphia Opera debut. Recently named the winner of the 2021 Grand Final of the Metropolitan Opera’s Eric and Dominique Laffont Competition, the talented soprano has performed with numerous opera companies over the years.

“I’m thrilled to sing this role,” McMillon said. “I have always loved Verdi, this story and the music. He’s always been one of my favorites.

With an MM in vocal performance from the University of Cincinnati College – Conservatory of Music, as well as a bachelor’s degree in vocal performance from Carnegie Mellon University, McMillon reveals that she wasn’t always interested in a opera career.

“Ever since I was little, I’ve always loved singing — in my church and at my school,” she says. “But I was never really exposed to classical music until I started taking piano lessons. And I was even more exposed to it when I hit high school.

By the time she got to college and auditioned for the musical theater program, someone recognized her true talent and suggested she switch to the opera program instead.

McMillon accepted the suggestion and, with inspirations like Leontyne Price, Jessye Norman and a few others, was compelled to forge ahead and progress in the world of opera.

“But it hasn’t always been easy,” reports McMillon. “As a woman of color, one of the biggest challenges I’ve faced has been finding someone who can do my hair and makeup. Many who work in the field don’t know not the differences it takes to deal with a black woman versus a white woman.

Another issue that has been around for a long time is the appeal to the African-American community. She says, “African Americans have a hard time identifying with opera. I don’t think a lot of people grew up with music or the people who sing it. And they don’t see a lot of people they can identify with on stage.

“And then, she continues, people often see operas as stuffy and a place where only the rich go. Some of this may be true, so we must do our best to change this image.

And according to McMillon, things are definitely looking up. “Today there are a handful of black opera singers whose names are now well known. And our community is now playing an advocacy role, which is definitely a step forward.

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