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Self-Doubt? Soprano Nicole Heaston Is Done With That

Nicole Heaston

But like so many artists, her contracts disappeared as the pandemic emptied theaters. Heaston had been especially excited to perform her first production of Thaïs. She had spent a year preparing for her role. And yet, that too evaporated, like so many other opportunities.

A few months into the pandemic, Heaston was officially bored. She needed an outlet. And that’s when she stumbled across a friend’s Facebook post. It was one of those viral challenges: Sing a song each day for an entire month. Heaston was ready to pick up the gauntlet.

That challenge turned into a full-fledged digital series for Heaston, one that continues over a year later: the Purple Robe Song Series. Why the purple robe? “Because I refuse to get dressed every day,” Heaston offers with a laugh.

It’s a relatively new look for the world-renowned soprano, who has performed everywhere from New York’s Metropolitan Opera to England’s Glyndebourne Festival. But being casual was part of the challenge. After years of being primped and preened for the stage, Heaston was ready to try a new tactic: being herself.

“There's so many artists out there who give very manicured versions of themselves to the public. And I was like, ‘That's just not me,’” she explained in a recent interview.

“I gave myself permission to just be me and do whatever. And it is what it is. I didn't care what I looked like or what I did. It was so freeing for me as an artist.”

Before the Purple Robe Song Series, Heaston admits her online footprint was minimal. Rarely would she post recordings of herself. “I'd be too nervous. I'd be like, ‘Oh, I think I look too fat in this video. Oh, I don't think I sang that note really great.’ I overanalyzed everything.”

But early in the series, she arrived at a turning point. Her next song was “Summertime” from Porgy and Bess—an aria performed by a new mother in the opera. Heaston had planned to flat-iron and curl her hair for the video, but then she wondered: Would her character do that?

“She's a new mother. There's no way she's doing her hair,” Heaston realized. She prepared to record, with her own hair looking like “a hot mess.”

“My husband looked at me. He said, ‘You're going to film yourself and put yourself out there like that?’ And I was like, ‘Yep, I don't care.’ And I did it. And it was so freeing,” Heaston recalls.

The series also allowed Heaston to expand her horizons beyond what she was ordinarily cast as. She could sing what she wanted to sing, play who she wanted to play. If she wanted to try her hand an aria like “Nessun Dorma”—traditionally sung by a tenor—she could. If she wanted to collaborate with a colleague she rarely encountered on stage, she had but to ask.

One of her most popular videos, featuring dozens of Black artists performing “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” has since racked up over 30,000 views on YouTube alone.

“There were so many friends of mine who always think of me like, ‘Oh, you're an opera singer.’ They put me in a box,” Heaston says. “I wanted to show that opera singers can sing jazz. They can sing Broadway. They can rap. They can do R&B.”

Heaston has always drawn from a broad range of musical influences, stretching back to her childhood in Chicago. Now—ahead of her starring role as the maid Despina in Mozart’s comedy Così fan tutte—Heaston takes us on a journey to the past, to explore how she arrived at the career she has today.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: Can you tell me about growing up in Chicago with a pianist mother?

HEASTON: Well, she wanted my sister and I to play. Neither one of us were very good at it. But it was the thing that got me into singing because my piano teacher told her that I sang the melody when I played.

I preferred that much more than piano playing. And then finally, my mother just was like, “Okay, this is not your natural ministry, so let's move on to something else.”

She was a music teacher for quite a long time before she became a counselor and then a principal. But my biggest music influences really did come from my father. He wasn't a musician, but he had such a music collection of albums that he played all the time. So I had all types of music around me growing up as a child.

I listened to Chicago and the Bee Gees as well as Earth, Wind, and Fire, and Smokey Robinson. He played everything. Bob Marley. So I grew up listening to everything, and it really gave me a passion for all types of music.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: Did you grab onto his likes or did you have different tastes growing up?

HEASTON: I just listened to whatever he played. I love listening to R&B, to pop, to Broadway tunes. Whenever The Sound of Music came on, I was jumping on furniture during the gazebo scene. I was following Liesl every step of the way.

I loved music because I loved the way it made me feel. And he hated it because I would always play his records when he was gone. And he was very particular about his needle, his diamond needle. [Heaston laughs.] Music, it was just very integral to everything I wanted to do. In fact, once I got hooked on it, I was hooked on it.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: When you talk about how you were singing the melodies as you were playing the piano in those early days, were you aware of what you were doing?

HEASTON: No, not at all.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: What was that like, transitioning from piano to singing? I feel like singing is a more denuding experience, a more exposed experience. Maybe I’m wrong.

HEASTON: No, you're right. It was very frightening.

Every time I sang the high notes, my eyes would roll to the top of my head because I was afraid, like I was looking for them at the top of my brain or something.

When my mother had me go to audition for the Chicago Children’s Choir, the senior tour—which was their upper-level choir—was singing and rehearsing. They sounded just incredible to me.

I think I was 10 years old and I literally looked at my mother and I started walking out the door. I was like, “I can't do this.” And she grabbed me and she said, “Yes, you can. You go in that room. You sing for [choir founder] Christopher Moore and show him what you can do.”

And I got in at the base level, at the junior tour, and I kept working my way up.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: When did you first experience opera?

HEASTON: The first time I experienced opera—to be told I was an opera singer—was  Dr. Lena McLin, my choir teacher at Kenwood Academy.

My sophomore year in high school, she said, “You're an opera singer.” I was like, “Black people don't sing that.” She said, “Yes they do.” And she had posters of Leontyne Price and William Warfield on the back wall. And she's like, “That is who you are. You have to own that.”

She had me enter into the Marian Anderson Competition, which is with the NAACP. I won. And once I won, I was like, “Oh, that was cool.” I won a thousand dollars nationally. And my mom said, “If you can do it again next year, you can buy a car.” So I went back specifically to win so I could get a car. And I did.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: You gotta tell me about the car.

HEASTON: I brought a red Cavalier. I loved that car. I loved it because I got it myself. I earned it. I’ll never forget that.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: And red—was that the color for you or did that just happen by accident?

HEASTON: Oh no, no, no. Red was my signature. It's still my signature color. I would still have a red car day if I didn't need to get a minivan when I had children. And a red minivan is just screaming for a ticket.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: Can I ask you about the stereotypes and the preconceptions you had at that age about opera? You felt that there are no Black people in opera, which is a very common perception even to this day, even among adults.

HEASTON: If I had seen someone that was Black on stage, I would have been like, “Ooh! Okay. Maybe this is something I could do.” But I never saw that.

What was interesting is that, when I was in middle school, Leontyne Price had a commercial that used to come on during Soul Train. It was for the United Negro College Fund. And she sang. She sang like Leontyne Price sang. I used to mimic it because it was an iconic commercial.

But I never thought of it as opera because she is Black. As far as I knew, opera was seeing Luciano Pavarotti or seeing Beverly Sills. I would see them if I stayed up to see The Tonight Show. But I never saw her do that.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: When did you start to see yourself in opera?

HEASTON: The more I performed it, the more I really found my voice in it. I really started to enjoy it. There were some people who knew so much more about opera and classical music when we got to school, but that's what school is for: to learn. And that's what I did.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: I read somewhere that you wanted to go to law school originally when you were in high school. When did that change?

HEASTON: When I won those competitions and got money. [Heaston laughs.] I mean, my dad's a lawyer. My sister's a lawyer. My cousin was a judge. So I grew up around that.

I thought that was what I was going to do. I just didn't think I'd make money singing. And when that happened and I was able to buy a car, I said, “Well, let me give it a try and see what happens.”

I had no safety net. My father was like, “At least get an education degree.” I was like, “Nah, I'm just going to try it. We're just going to go all in and see if it works out.” And it was working out. So I just stayed the course.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: Did he ever needle you for that education degree again?

HEASTON: Every year until my junior year in college. I did a matinee performance of The Magic Flute, and that was the first time he came and saw me on stage.

He looked at my mother and he's like, “She's good.” And my mother looked at him very angrily and said, “Yes. I know.” She was like, “Welcome to the party, buster.”

And at that point, he never, ever said to me anything about getting another degree. All that conversation came to a screeching halt.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: In the Purple Robe Song Series, you called Così a reality show waiting to happen. I made a special note of that. Do you see kind of modern-day analogs when we're thinking of reality TV?

[The opera Così fan tutte centers around a harebrained bet: Two men test their fiancées’ love by attempting to seduce the women while in disguise.]

HEASTON: Oh gosh, yes. Every reality show is still scripted drama. A lot of times they still make the woman look crazy and manipulate them. You think about The Bachelorette, all that type of stuff. So most definitely, I think it connects very easily.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: If you had somebody who was completely new to this opera, what would you tell them to look out for?

HEASTON: I’d tell them it's going to be funny. Right now, we’re laughing in rehearsals. The people around us are laughing in rehearsals. Michael [Cavanagh, the director] is really, really good at humor.

He has such a great wit about him and he knows what he wants, but he also listens to his singers and actors to make sure that it fits who they are and what they're doing. And he's very supportive of what we're doing.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: How are you making Despina your own? [Despina is the sharp-witted maid in Così fan tutte.]

HEASTON: I kind of see her as a little bit of Florence from The Jeffersons [a TV sitcom from the 1970s and ‘80s]. She likes Weezy, but she doesn't like George. There’s that dual side of her, where she can be nice, where she can be smart, where she can be crafty and she doesn't suffer any fools, but she also has a good heart up under all of that armor that she has as well.

To learn more about Nicole Heaston and the Purple Robe Song Series, follow her on social media or visit her website, nicoleheaston.com. Heaston stars in San Francisco Opera’s Così fan tutte, opening November 21, 2021.