On Tuesday, February 2, TU’s Lorton Performance Center had the privilege of hosting the famous soprano Leona Mitchell in a concert that was free and open to the public.
An Oklahoma native, Mitchell received her BA in music from Oklahoma City University and studied at Julliard. She went on to become a Grammy Award Winner who sang with the Metropolitan Opera for 18 seasons. Mitchell also sang internationally, appeared on television, collaborated with The Three Tenors Pavarotti and Domingo and Carreras, and performed for several US presidents.
Mitchell has been honored with induction into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame, the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame, the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame, the Oklahoma Women’s Hall of Fame and the Oklahoma African-American Hall of Fame. She was appointed Oklahoma’s State Cultural Ambassador in 2003.
The first half of the concert was mostly classical music. The songs were thematically unified: they were about love. Marsha Lines accompanied on piano.
Throughout, Mitchell’s technical prowess and vocal beauty were on full display. Mitchell maintained a resonant, focused, beautiful sound throughout each piece, projecting so that her voice filled the auditorium, even when she was singing quietly.
Her dynamics were excellent throughout, lending much expression and emotion. This, combined with her impressive enunciation, helped Mitchell to convey clearly what each song was about even though her selections were mostly non-English.
“Habanera” from Bizet’s Carmen was a crowd favorite. Mitchell’s voice sailed effortlessly through the French, conveying the fickle and unpredictable nature of love. Following “Habanera,” Mitchell gave a stunning rendition of “Vissi d’arte, vissi d’amore” from Pucinni’s Tosca. The rich, emotional piece seemed made for Mitchell’s voice.
Mitchell ended the first half of the program with a delightful rendition of the spiritual “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.”
She received such a long standing ovation following that song that she sang an additional piece: “I Could Have Danced All Night” from My Fair Lady. Though she gave a beautiful rendition of this well-liked song, it was somewhat of a letdown following “Habanera” and “Vissi d’arte, vise d’amore.” Mitchell’s voice felt confined within the repetitive melody, and it wasn’t until the final few bars when she was allowed to really soar that the song flowed as freely as her other pieces.
During the second half of the program, Mitchell switched musical directions completely, though the pieces were still unified thematically by love. She has come to a turning point in her career, and she has begun to move more into the world of jazz. She collaborated with pianist Spencer Sutton on a series of jazz renditions of modern classics.
Mitchell’s operatic training promises great things for this new direction in her vocal career. She brought the same precision and control seen in the earlier classical pieces into the jazz pieces. This gave her exceptional range in her dynamics and expression in her performance while still allowing her the fluidity necessary in jazz. She also brought the wisdom and experience of her extensive career and long life into her performance, a necessary requirement for a successful jazz singer.
In true jazz style, these pieces were improvised. Mitchell and Sutton were focused and in-tune with each other throughout, following each other’s lead and making the improvisation seem effortless and natural.
“It’s Always You” by Kris Allen and “A Taste of Honey” by Bobby Scott and Rick Marlow were particularly delightful. For her finale, Mitchell was joined by Bruce Guthrie for a rendition of the well-known “Summertime.” Mitchell and Guthrie each sang the melody in their own styles before collaborating in a finale that allowed Mitchell to improvise more, showing off her remarkable range and control.
Leona Mitchell’s concert was delightful, and TU was lucky to host her. There are many concerts through the music school throughout the rest of the semester that are free and open to the public, and students, faculty and staff are encouraged to attend.