By Tom Lady
The Black History Month Recital is an annual event produced by the African Americans for LA Opera (AALAO), a chapter of the Opera League. In the beforetimes, the recital would usually be performed at the private residence of one of the AALAO board members. While the pandemic has forced us into the virtual world, that has not stopped us for keeping the tradition alive, nor from featuring performers who have been friends of the Opera League and AALAO for many years.
Bass-baritone Cedric Berry and accompanist Cathy Miller have performed for us many times, among the more recent times being the Black History Month Recital in February 2018. In 2021 they return to WOW us with a virtual performance that includes a rousing, fun and engaging mixture of classical, spiritual and more modern pieces, including the teaser for a new collection of songs called In the House.
The team from BRAVO, the Opera League's flagship publication, had a chance for a quick (virtual) sit-down with Cedric ahead of the recital to talk about adapting to the pandemic, more inclusive productions, what he's been streaming and the discreet charm of bass-baritone roles.
BRAVO: What is one hobby or routine that you initially started as a temporary hobby to tide you over during the pandemic, but that now you feel you'll continue doing even post pandemic?
Cedric Berry: Because I have a multifaceted career (vocal performance, administration and real estate/design), I have always had a very tight schedule with little time for additional hobbies. Although the pandemic has increased the time required to navigate my responsibilities, I have created time to get back into wood working and design. This was largely inspired by my desire to have custom outdoor spaces in order to safely entertain. The outcome rekindled a spark that will definitely persist beyond the current climate.
BRAVO: 2020 was a watershed year for exposing the critical need for more diversity and inclusion and equal rights. How do you hope that cascades down to the arts world and opera specifically??
CB: Media of all types has been and will always be at the forefront of influence on our society. What happened last summer is an opportunity for general directors and all programmers to seize the moment by instituting inclusive productions that represent the diversity of our community. I am confident that it will forever change the landscape of our industry for two reasons: inclusive programming will undoubtedly increase their bottom line and open their eyes to a treasure trove of talent that will be impossible to ignore going forward. Traditional casting is stodgy and antiquated. Embracing diversity is our best chance at revitalizing the art form.
BRAVO: Name a show or movie you’ve streamed during the pandemic that you would like to see adapted into an opera. Which part would you like to play?
CB: The ones that have resonated with me include Nurse Ratched and The Queen’s Gambit. They both are period pieces with great wardrobe and production design. Nurse Ratched lends itself best to opera adaptation since it is very dramatic and very over the top. The two characters who would be interesting to play are the narcissistic chief medical director of the asylum or the murderous psycho inmate who is the other central male character. Both personalities lend themselves squarely within the parameters of a typical bass/baritone role.
BRAVO: Since you’re a bass-baritone, are there any tenor roles out there that have made you go, “Oh I wish I was a tenor so I could play that part!”?
CB: Tenors typically play the lead love interest and/or heroes of the show. All of their roles should be rewritten for warmer, more masculine lower voices. And we baritones and bass/baritones should be paid more for improving the production.
BRAVO: What’s the most challenging role you’ve tackled to date and why? Is there a bass-baritone role you haven’t played yet that you’re dying to sink your teeth into?
CB: While I’ve enjoyed portraying many characters in traditional operas by Mozart, Rossini, Gounod etc., the most challenging roles have been in more contemporary productions by Adams, Britten, Wuorinen and the like. The complex rhythms and harmonies enhanced my musical agility. In recent years, I have premiered characters in new operas which has allowed me to draw upon my experience and personalize performances. I now view each new role as an opportunity to create something unique rather than portraying what has been done before.