By Tom Lady
Alannah Garnier’s earliest opera memory was watching mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves sing to Elmo on Sesame Street [in January 1998]. "She was singing ‘La Habanera’ from Carmen," the soprano recalls, laughing. "It was a bedtime song for Elmo."
Among Alannah’s most recent opera memories? Working and singing side by side with—you guessed it—Denyce Graves in the Met’s 2019-20 production of Porgy and Bess. “What an experience!” she raves. “I’ve never had so much fun in a production. What you see on stage? That’s all real. It was such a fun process, really organic.”
If you missed that production, Alannah notes it will be airing on PBS in July 2020 as part of the Great Performances at the Met series (check local listings). LA Opera fans might be especially keen to tune in, as starring in the title roles are Young Artist alumna Angel Blue and LAO regular Eric Owens (Grendel, Madame Butterfly).
Alannah grew up steeped in music, with roots stretching back to the era of Louis Armstrong, for whom her great-grandfather was bandleader. Born in Minneapolis, raised in Los Angeles, Alannah’s mother was a professional dancer with a West African dance company who also modeled and acted in commercials. Her father is a minister for the Church of Christ who composes acapella arrangements and, now and then, “smuggles in” a band to provide instrumental accompaniment in melodic defiance of Church rules. He also plays electric bass and piano. Her father’s twin, incidentally, is a comedian. As for her siblings? Of her two brothers back in Minneapolis, one plays both electric and upright bass while the other plays percussion and viola. Her sister, who lives nearby in Los Angeles, plays viola and trombone. “And everyone sings,” she adds.
Alannah (back center) and her musical family: Mother (right), nephew (bottom), sister (front left), and family friend (back left)
Credit: Alannah Garnier
Fun fact about the brother who plays bass: He played in the band Chase Ovation, the only Prince tribute band that Prince himself blessed before he died.
So it should not be surprising to know that, as a child, and with a pedigree like that, Alannah as well as her three siblings attended the Ramsey International Fine Arts Center in Minnesota, which emphasized classical music, or that she dabbled in violin as soon as she was old enough to hold one, or that she wrote her first song, a jazz progression for piano, when she was eight. Entitled “The dreamer,” it was sampled by jazz and hip hop singer, and fellow Minneapolis native, Jose James.
While taking jazz and classical choir at Hawthorne High School in Los Angeles, Alannah’s choir teacher encouraged her to pursue private voice lessons. She gladly did, thinking she could use the lessons to brush up on pop, R&B, soul, that sort of more mainstream thing. Instead, she ended up with a voice coach who believed the greater merit lay with opera and classical. Cue the endless afternoons belting out Puccini arias.
After high school, Alannah stayed local and attended Cal State Long Beach (CSULB). Those first couple of years saw her switch teachers a few times. “It wasn’t until my junior year that I found a teacher I clicked with,” she says. “He was into musical theater as well as opera. And his style was more well-rounded, he was into music pedagogy [the study of how we learn music, and how that effects what is taught and how it is taught].”
The rewards started paying dividends in no time. While still at CSULB, Alannah landed a gig singing with none other than the Rolling Stones, as part of the choir for the classic “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” It was a sold-out show at the Staples Center. “One of the coolest choir gigs I ever did,” she says. “I even went back stage! It was great, the best seats in the house. Nicole Kidman was there!”
While it was gratifying to strike a strong rapport with a mentor and rack up such memorable experiences, the instruction was rigorous, Alannah says. “I was so burned out by the end of my senior year, I wrote pops sings instead of studying for finals.”
She rallied in time for summer when she took a voice class at the Aspen Music Festival and sang in Puccini’s Suor Angelica. That fall she enrolled at the Conservatory of Music and Dance at the University of Missouri-Kansas City (UMKC) on a full scholarship and stipend. UMKC was one of five distinguished schools offering Alannah a well-earned scholarship. The gravy? At UMKC she found a new mentor in Vinson Cole, renowned operatic tenor and Kansas City native who was a Professor of Voice at UMKC. As it happened, Alannah had just studied with him that summer in Aspen. They hit it off.
Since completing her masters at UMKC and moving back to Los Angeles in 2015, Alannah has built up the foundations of a robust singing career. She applied for the LA Opera Chorus in 2016, was rejected, applied again the following year and got in. At the same time, thanks to her CSULB alumni network, she was able to land an audition with the LA Master Chorale. Several of her friends from CSULB were singing with LAMC. “I never dreamed I was good enough for Master Chorale,” she says. “And the audition was intense! They make you do solo, quartet, atonal.” Alannah started as an auxiliary in 2016, then advanced to full time the following year.
In just a few short years Alannah has amassed an impressive array of credits. In addition to her chorus work for Porgy and Bess at the Met, she sang in the chorus for Otello for the LA Phil, sang Musetta in La bohème at the Pasadena Opera Guild, and gave recitals for the likes of the California Chamber Orchestra, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Korean Cultural Society and Golden West College. As for LA Opera, she performed in their Universe of Stories concert at the Broad in Santa Monica, and in their groundbreaking main stage production of Philip Glass's Satyagraha.
Satyagraha had some of the hardest music to sing, Alannah says. “We probably sang forty high A’s in one of those numbers. But it was definitely the most rewarding experience. It made me work hard and make sure I was always on point.”
Alannah performs at the Father's Day 2017 Recital for African Americans for LA Opera
Credit: Alma Guzman
So what does she love most about singing opera versus other genres?
“Really good question!” she says. “I’m still trying to figure that out. I mean, for me, it’s about mastering my voice in a way to make the mechanism work the way it’s supposed to work. I love the color of the sounds, I love the music, especially the Romantic and late 19th and early 20th century. And then there’s the orchestra. Playing with a live band is really cool, but there’s nothing like playing with an orchestra. It’s a living, breathing organism that works together to support you. And I would say that about choral music as well.” Then she laughs. “It’s also fun to play dress-up for a living!”
Does she have a favorite opera to be in? Alannah does not hesitate: Porgy and Bess.
How about a favorite opera to kick back and listen to? And here her answer is a bit more nuanced. For a great listening experience and just an overall interesting experience, she recommends Alban Berg's 1925 atonal masterwork Wozzeck. “When veganism goes wrong!” she says. “I saw it my freshman year at CSULB and have loved it ever since. There’s so much going on musically, tonal and atonal.” For something she could watch over and over again? Carmen and La bohème.
For an opera she’s been in but would love to watch with a live audience? Satyagraha.
Favorite composers? Verdi and Puccini.
When I ask Alannah who her favorite singers are, she gushes like the fountain in Music Center Plaza.
“For opera sopranos? Leyontine Price, Renee Fleming lists her as one of her favorites. Eileen Farrell is amazing because she sings jazz and opera, and when she sings jazz, she doesn’t not seem like an opera singer…Joan Sutherland for coloratura. Growing up, Mariah Carey was my favorite singer, followed by Norah Jones. My first two albums were Billie Holiday’s Lady Sings the Blues and Delight Within. Lauren Hill, Whitney Huston, Chakha Khan, Stevie Nicks, Sarah Vaughn are also up there. Prince was a singer I wish I could’ve met. This band from Australia, Hiatus Coyote, I’m listening to them.”
What about something she enjoys doing that has nothing to do with opera or singing?
“Cooking is my favorite thing to do,” Alannah says. “I’m very creative with it. I love trying new things. I love to make lemon poppy seed muffins. My kitchen is like America’s Test Kitchen. One time I used my available provisions to improvise a curry lentil soup with dill.”
Through it all, even with her credits and accomplishments, Alannah strives to learn and grow. “I’m still learning, still figuring out stuff with my voice,” she says. “Even if I feel I have something mastered, it’s still a good idea to back and check in.”
Her current voice teacher is Reid Bruton, a veteran LA Opera chorister who has sung in nearly 100 LAO productions. He also went to college with Denyce Graves.
Speaking of Denyce Graves, what was it like working with her on Porgy and Bess? “Denyce is very humble and very kind and also very encouraging,” Alannah says. “The younger performers called her Auntie. She even baked cookies! She was just the epitome of grace and humility and beauty, especially inward beauty….It’s nice to know that in a business that can be so cut-throat, there are people still like that.”
Cover photo credit: Alannah Garnier