Five years ago, Angel Blue was ready to give up opera. “In 2014, I was living in London [England] and I couldn’t pay my rent,” confesses the 34-year-old soprano, who has been hailed as a rising star on the international opera scene. She is seated in the Four Seasons Opera House in Toronto, where she made her Canadian Opera Company debut on Wednesday night as Mimi in Puccini’s La Bohème. This follows a whirlwind of critically acclaimed debuts at major opera houses in the past three years.
Hers is a story of faith, talent and luck – and a reminder it is a struggle to achieve stardom even when your start is promising.
Since she was 4, she has loved opera. Her late father, Sylvester Blue, a classically trained tenor and evangelist, gave her voice lessons and exposed her to a range of music at a young age. He named her for a vision of angels he had in his dreams and in their house weeks before her birth, she tells me. During childhood and adolescence, she and her four siblings travelled with their parents around the United States and Canada in their 22-foot Jamboree motor home, singing gospel songs as part of their father’s ministry. (The family often appeared on Canada’s 100 Huntley Street.)
She had her first solo at age 8, in a children’s version of Handel’s Messiah – the moment she realized “I had a power, and it was cool.” As a student at the University of California, Los Angeles, studying for her masters of music in opera performance, she auditioned for Placido Domingo, the great Spanish tenor, to gain a spot in his young artists program at the Los Angeles Opera. She has been called Domingo’s protégé and won several awards over the years.
Still, she confounds the stereotype of the opera diva. A majestic presence at 5 foot 11 1/2 inches, dressed in casual black clothes, she laughs at full throttle. “I have been around singers who are really careful with their voices. They’re all, ‘Oh, hello, so nice to see you,’ she says, mocking the high, feathery voice. “I sort of slap my vocal cords together when I speak,” she says, leaning in across the space between us and laughing. To pay for university, she entered beauty pageants. She was crowned Miss Hollywood in 2005, and rose to first runner-up for Miss California in 2006 and Miss Nevada in 2007.
Most unexpectedly, she seems eager to counter the official script about her career. She is quick to point out the low points and add real-life context to her accomplishments. The Juilliard School, the famed performing arts conservatory in New York, rejected her twice. And that bit about being a protégé of Domingo? The first time she auditioned for his program, she was merely accepted as an intern. Her beloved father had died two months earlier and she wasn’t at her best, she says. Later, she sang for Domingo and was accepted into his mentoring program. “Maestro Domingo puts you in a position so people can see you, but ultimately it is up to those people to hire you or not,” she says.
For several years after that, she floundered. She entered competitions, including the Operalia, the one Domingo founded, in which she was a finalist in 2009. But in others, she “didn’t even make the final cut or go to the next level,” she confides. She left the United States. “I was just bouncing around Europe, wanting somebody to pay attention to me. And meanwhile, I am watching people I went to school with soar. Somebody is making their Met debut and meanwhile I am singing at [festivals] that no one has ever heard of with a dog as my audience.”
But at the end of 2014 – the year of her nadir – she met Marcus Spreitzer of Merlin Artists Management in London. “I was this close" – she measures less than half an inch between her thumb and index finger – “to quitting opera.” He came to see her in La Bohème at the English National Opera – the last booked job she had. Afterward, she cried to the emptiness of her apartment: “‘Lord, if you want me to sing, you have got to open a door.’” A few months later, Spreitzer had secured auditions for her at The Royal Opera House in London; La Scala in Milan, Italy; and the Metropolitan in New York. She has made stunning debuts at all three.
She also had good fortune in love. In the spring of 2015, her college sweetheart contacted her through LinkedIn. “I hadn’t talked to the guy in eight years,” she says. They married in June, 2016.
There is a fresh mix of humility and forcefulness about Blue. She is close to tears several times when she talks about her father, her faith and her moments of doubt. But she is also unapologetically defiant. “I really want to just be myself. I am not Renée Fleming. I am not Ailyn Perez. I am Angel Blue.”