By Tom Lady
Bass-baritone Derrell Acon and pianist Lenny Hayes will be our featured performers at the Father’s Day 2021 Virtual Recital presented African Americans for LA Opera (AALAO), a chapter of the Opera League.
BRAVO: Lenny, when did you know the piano was your future? Which pianists did you admire growing up?
Lenny Hayes: I began formal piano study at the age of ten, a somewhat late start for the serious classical pianist. However, with a lot of consistency and tenacity, I accepted a full scholarship to attend Interlochen Arts Academy for my senior year in high school. During that year, I realized that the piano would be my lifelong musical partner. As for role models, John Tatum and Eva Flowers, my first co-private teachers, continually inspire me to reach the highest expression of myself in pedagogy, performance and mentorship. My favorite performing pianist is Andre Watts. His unmatched ability to communicate the range of emotional, technical and musical expression in Mendelssohn and Liszt leaves me speechless.
BRAVO: How do each of you think opera in particular, and maybe arts in general, can change for the better after the events of the past year?
Derrell Acon: My biggest hope is that opera will not attempt to “return to normal.” There have been so many important conversations catalyzed by the pandemic, including those around racial justice, the importance of digital media, the sustainability (or lack thereof) of certain structures in the performing arts, etc. We all do well to transition into a refreshed industry that seeks to incorporate these many learnings into how we move forward as an art form.
LH: The global pandemic forced the world to suspend its daily operations and to reckon with the bleeding wounds of social, economic and health injustices. The arts have always been the immediate reflection or expression of the human condition and social consciousness. However, last year will force the arts organizations, specifically in America, to produce new operas, new musicals and community programs that grapple with the bleeding injustices between cultural groups in America.
BRAVO: Lenny, you could accompany any opera singer you want, alive or dead, who would that be?
LH: Jessye Norman, hands down. Ms. Norman has the uncanny ability to connect two or more musical phrases with an endless amount of breath support, almost like sustained pedaling at the piano. Though Ms. Norman’s voice produces an enormous amount of sound, her careful attention to the nuance of color and tone within any phrase length lures me. Please listen to her audio recording of “Die Nachtigall” [“The Nightingale”] from Sieben frühe Lieder [Seven Early Songs] with Pierre Boulez and the London Symphony Orchestra. I played the complete cycle during my college days.
BRAVO: How do each of you unplug from the world? Have you developed such a habit, initially to get you through the pandemic, that you’ll keep doing long term?
DA: I have found my reprieve in long, relaxing walks through surrounding neighborhoods. This is definitely a habit I'll continue post pandemic. It's been wonderful to discover new environments and playlists.
LH: Last year, I relocated to L.A., soon after the pandemic began, to begin doctoral studies at USC [University of Southern California]. This presented challenges on many levels. However, I constantly nurtured my mind by reading authors such as Ta-Nehisi Coates, T.D. Jakes, Trevor Noah and Jay Shetty. I love how these authors explore the human condition and social interaction by using specific parables, personal anecdotes, humor and wisdom. These authors are God’s gift to society, and I will continue reading their literature. I also invest daily time in solo workouts and group classes at my favorite gym in downtown L.A. It has become a second home of peace, community and support.
BRAVO: Derrell, how do you plan to harness your experience with Verdi, Blacktivism and the power of performative education in your new role as Associate Artistic Director and Chief Impact Officer at Long Beach Opera?
DA: I will continue to combine the many aspects of my artistry and advocacy into my work. I recently taught a seminar entitled "Viva VERDI: Why Giuseppe and Gang Would be BLM [Black Lives Matter] Activists." I will also continue iterations of our Community Conversations initiative, which tackles the most pressing social issues through an artistic lens, such as "Till the Fat Lady Sings: Body Image in Opera" and "Black Lives, the Arts and Mattering." I am excited to continue to identity new and exciting ways to cultivate artistic spaces and projects that are inclusive, relevant and compelling.
BRAVO: Favorite opera?
LH: La Bohème by Puccini is my favorite opera. The genuine attraction between Rodolfo and Mimi is peculiar, and yet it intrigues me - a poet and a seamstress! The opera is well written and artfully incorporates themes of love, death and belonging. I wish a penultimate act was added and solely devoted to exploring the intimacy between Rodolfo and Mimi. The orchestral writing is gorgeous, and I love how Puccini employs melodic doubling in Rodolfo’s aria, “Che gelida manina,” and Mimi’s aria, “Si. Mi chiamano Mimi.” The doubling between the orchestra and Rodolfo and Mimi strongly emphasizes the emotional bond between the two lovers.
DA: I have many favorite operas, but if I had to land on just one, it would be La Traviata. Having studied and lectured on the French courtesan Marie Duplessis, on whom Alexandre Dumas’ fils 1848 novel, La Dame aux Camélias, and Giuseppe Verdi and Francesco Maria Piave's 1853 opera are based, I have become intimately attached to and critical of the circumstances that led to Violetta's fate. The music suits the drama perfectly, and even after dozens of viewings, I ever yearn for the heroine's survival.