Though known to a whole host of fans as Buckwheat Zydeco, his real name is Stanley Dural Jr. But feel free to call him Buckwheat, a nickname given to him as a youth because, with his braided hair, he looked like the character Buckwheat from “Our Gang/The Little Rascals” movies.
Born in Louisiana, Dural is one of the few zydeco artists to achieve mainstream success, and he’s ready to thrill happy audiences once again Friday when he performs at the Sellersville Theater, located off Route 309 between Quakertown and Montgomeryville.
“I was raised in a musical household. My mother sang spirituals and my father was an accomplished Creole accordion player who always urged me to listen to and play his kind of music,” Dural remembers. “But I preferred listening to and playing jazz and R&B.”
As time went on, Dural became proficient at the organ, forming his own band called Buckwheat & the Hitchhikers. And Dural says he still wasn’t interested in zydeco — until he got a chance to play with one of his father’s very best friends and a legendary zydeco performer, Clifton Chenier.
“Chenier offered me a chance to play with his band as an organist,” Dural says. “I was just going to play with him for one night and then go back to my own kind of music. I’d play the venue and then walk away. But something very strange happened that night. I heard zydeco music and wound up staying with the band for two years.”
The music, he explains, was so infectious and so energetic, that he switched to the accordion and eventually his own, new band was born.
Over the years, Buckwheat Zydeco has performed with a large number of famous musicians, from Eric Clapton (with whom Buckwheat has also recorded) and U2 to the Boston Pops. The band performed at the closing ceremonies of the 1996 Summer Olympics to a worldwide audience of three billion people.
Buckwheat has also performed for President Clinton twice, celebrating both his inaugurations. And the band has appeared on “The Late Show with David Letterman,” “CNN,” “The Today Show,” “CBS Morning News” and many more.
In 2010, Buckwheat Zydeco won the Grammy for Best Cajun and Zydeco album for “Lay Your Burden Down.” Dural is quick to thank his loyal fans for making the award possible. He says, “After five nominations in three different categories, we really appreciate wining it. Even if we never won a Grammy that would be OK too. We’d just keep doing what we do. But we’ve worked hard all these years, so winning it was a real blessing.”
Even though it’s hard to describe, zydeco music is easy to listen to. According to Dural it’s energetic and happy music that appeals to the young and the old alike. “It’s party music, and something the whole family can come to hear together and enjoy themselves. It’s feel good music, and I’ve seen kids as young as two in the audience having a good time listening to it.”
That’s the music. As far as describing himself, Dural says he’s just pretty much a hardcore musician who loves what he does. “I love seeing people having a smile on their faces and out there having a great time. That’s what is most rewarding to me. That’s the blessing I have received.”
Another blessing he says he received is the fact that his father lived long enough to see his son achieve success. “My father always wanted me to play this music and he lived long enough to see me do it. He also lived long enough for us to become best friends. And that, to me, is a true blessing.”
For times and ticket information, call (215) 257-5808.
Michael Blackson, a.k.a “The African King of Comedy,” has been entertaining audiences all across the country and around the globe for more than a decade.
Born in West Africa, Blackson came to America when he was 13 years old, and immediately met with some problems. “I was just a regular little boy who looked forward to coming to America to live the American dream. But I didn’t understand the other kids, and they certainly didn’t understand me,” says Blackson, whose comedy will be evident at the Keswick Theatre in Glenside on Nov. 11 as he appears with other comics in Shaquille O’Neal’s ”All-Star Comedy Jam.”
Blackson has lived in Philadelphia since 1989 and adds that the other children often made fun of him because he was different. “But when I got older I realized they didn’t mean any harm. They were just being kids. It took me a while to get confidence in myself, but once I did, everything began working out for me.”
His comedic bent also started working out. He says, “I was delivering pizza and one of my co-workers thought I was funny. He happened to be an acting coach at Philadelphia Community College, and told me he thought I was good enough to go on stage. In fact, he helped me write my first five minutes of comedy and off I went to the old Comedy Works in Philadelphia to try it out. It worked and I think it all started from there.”
Influenced by the stand-up comedy of Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock and Bernie Mac, among others, Blackson’s own comedic appeal grew from his involvement with BET’s “ComicView” series, HBO’s “Def Comedy Jam,” Showtime at Harlem and Live in Hollywood. However, he says, it was in a Los Angeles comedy club where he got his big break.
He was performing at the Comedy Store where actor/director Ice Cube was in attendance to see comedian Mike Epps perform. But after experiencing Blackson’s performance, Ice Cube invited the young comic for a reading and the rest, as they say, is history. Blackson’s performance in the hit comedy, “Next Friday,” drew praise and furthered his career.
In the beginning of his comedy act, Blackson decided to set himself apart from the others. “I had been here long enough to lose most of my accent so I talked and looked like any other Black comedian. There was nothing special about me. Until the day I went out on stage and started talking about my beginnings in Africa. I talked about my father and did it using his accent. Well, the crowd laughed at everything I said in that accent, so I thought maybe I should go the whole nine yards and bring out my own accent, put on my finest dashikis, and go from there.”
And that’s when Blackson became “The African King of Comedy,” and that’s when, he adds, his career really took off. “I’ve done that act for a long time, but this last year I’ve been trying to give my audience something different. Those who know me know everything about me so I want to give them something else. So I go on stage wearing the dashiki they’re familiar with but then I take it off on stage and I’m wearing a Michael Jackson-type outfit under it. Then I start talking about my new act as they see a new guy, the real me, come to life before their eyes.”
And then, he continues, they hear the real Blackson. “I’ve lost my accent. After all, I’m from Philly. And then the crowd really goes crazy because they can’t get over my Philadelphia accent. And that’s the way I close my show.”
All this, Blackson explains, because he doesn’t want to be typecast for the rest of his life. Over the years, Blackson released his sketch comedy CD titled “Modasucka, Welcome to America,” and appeared on the stage on P. Diddy’s “Bad Boys of Comedy” on HBO. He also starred in a commercial for the “Chappelle Show” on Comedy Central.
He has big plans for the future, including doing a sitcom and some more movies. “but I’ll always be doing stand-up,” he says. “Stand-up is what makes all us comedians and we can never get away from it.”
For times and ticket information, call (215) 572-7650.
Jeffrey Gaines to perform at Tin Angel
When he was a little boy, everyone loved his voice and encouraged him to keep on singing.
“My cousins and I would imitate the Jackson 5 and sing for the whole family,” says singer/songwriter Jeffrey Gaines, about to take the stage at the Tin Angel on June 29.
“I think that was the beauty of it. Because everybody was so encouraging, in some ways I feel that maybe I didn’t have to fight to make music my career. However, once I got into the music business I realized there was a lot of fight you have to have in order to make it.”
Born and raised in Harrisburg and now living in the Philadelphia area, Gaines said his musical interest was sparked at a very young age, owing largely in part to his parents’ collection of soul records — and the fact, he adds, that they gave him the freedom to seek his own identity.
But, he adds, it was his discovery of Ziggy Stardust-era David Bowie that truly sealed his fate, leading to his participation in local bands.
Mostly self-taught, Gaines explains that he took whatever music classes he could in public school because they were free. “But I never had strict lessons as such,” he explains. ”So what I do is natural in many ways.”
After high school, Gaines was offered the singer slot for a New York rock and roll band, but turned it down to move to Philadelphia, where he signed with Chrysalis Records, the thing that many young artists wait for.
“Things started happening so fast, and unfortunately, I had never learned why what I was involved in was called a business. Everyone around me got caught up in the excitement of it all. Even the people who were supposed to be helping me figure it all out didn’t always point out what was best for me.”
Fortunately, Gaines came through it all in one piece. In fact, over the years he has been heralded for his soul-searching lyrics and his powerful live performances. He was once described as “the man who sounds like Otis Redding, Elvis Costello and David Bowie, wrapped up in one amazing package.”
His newly-released CD, titled “Live in Europe,” was recorded during his 25-day tour of Europe with Joe Jackson in the autumn of 2010. The CD features Gaines’ classics and fan favorites, including the hit ballad “Beyond the Beginning” and the powerful anthem “Headmasters of Mine.”
Gaines writes his own music, and bases much of it on his own experiences and what he sees around him. He says of the song “Fear,” the first song on his CD, “I can get very personal about things. The idea for ‘Fear’ came to me when I was looking at some file footage of integration in the school system in the l960s.”
The footage was in black and white and concentrated on the townspeople screaming at little kids being escorted by the military. “The kids just wanted to go to school to get an education. And with all the screaming, the kids had the calmest look on their faces when all around them there was nothing but anger. They didn’t want to ignite the situation anymore so they had to play possum in a sense, going against their natural instincts because they knew they could not react.”
While not facing such problems himself, Gaines does say that he often faces white audiences who are trying to figure him out. “The come to my shows with stereotypical thoughts of what they’re going to hear. Hopefully, by the time they leave, they’ve not only enjoyed my music, but I’ve managed to expand their conventional wisdom. I know I have to convince the crowd I’m good every time I go up on stage. But usually it works.”
For times and ticket information, call (215) 928-0770.
Growing up, Phyllis Johnson says she always loved story telling, but didn’t know how that would play out in her future.
“But in college I found that acting was the best way for me to do that,” says Johnson, now appearing in “Etched in Skin on a Sunlit Night” at InterAct Theatre through June 24.
Today, a graduate of the Yale School of Drama, Johnson explains that as a girl she was read to a lot, feeling herself wrapped in a kind of visual communication and desperately wanting to participate. And although she danced for some years, she soon discovered that acting was the best medium by which to express herself.
“I have a twin sister who is also an actress and a filmmaker, and one day I watched her in a production of ‘For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When The Rainbow is Enuf.’ I think every woman of color discovered acting through that play, and I was no exception. For me, it was a pivotal moment in my life, and that piece and the theater itself became something I aspired to,” Johnson explained.
And so began her personal theatrical journey. Appearing in feature films, she also appeared on Broadway in such productions as “A Naked Girl On The Appian Way.” Off-
Broadway credits include “Yokastas” and “Blue Before Morning,” for which she received the New York Innovative Theatre Award Nomination for Best Featured Actress, Best Ensemble. Johnson also appeared on television in “Law & Order,” “As The World Turns” and more.
Today, in her current role as Jules, Johnson portrays an African-American painter who has fled the U.S. under mysterious circumstances and embraced a whole new life and family in Iceland — the whitest place on earth. But several years into her idyllic reinvented life, a confluence of extraordinary events threaten to unravel her psyche: Barack Obama’s meteoric presidential campaign makes Jules more homesick than ever.
Then, her recently out-of-work banker husband, Olafur, presents their biracial daughter with a shocking present, and an inscrutable African-American visitor shows up at Jules’ studio. The collision of events provokes her conflicted sense of racial and personal identity, and brings the secrets of her past out into the open.
“This is a very challenging role,” Johnson says. “My character is a very complex woman and I’ve got to bring that out to the audience. She has secrets. And it’s almost as if there are three difference conversations that she’s involved in. The big challenge is to personalize each one and, in doing so, see how that works out with this woman in each emotional state so that her final experience makes sense.”
Although this role does call for an African-American actress, Johnson herself feels she’s been very lucky over the years and appeared in many roles that have not pigeonholed her.
“Every African-American actor will tell you how frustrating it is that often our talents are based on the way we look and not necessarily our real abilities or our life experiences,” Johnson reveals. “Often times, we are so pigeonholed, that a role is based even on the tone of our skin color. It hasn’t happened often to me, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen.”
Women, especially, Johnson continues, can even be judged on their looks alone. “Sometimes the projects I am interested in can be unavailable to me because the people producing the show want someone with a more commercial look or less of one than what they see in me. But, if you’re lucky, you can sometimes jump over the hurdles. I know I’m always looking for the next role I can do where I can express myself.”
For times and ticket information, call (215) 568-8079.
On Sunday, Nov. 20, the legendary Pee Wee Ellis and an ensemble of international music greats will kick of the 11/12 Annenberg Center African Roots series with “Still Black, Still Proud: An African Tribute to James Brown.”
Joining Ellis on stage to celebrate the points at which African and American music strike sparks off each other in a rhythm-fueled tribute to Afro-funk, will be Maceo Parker, Vusi Mahlasela and Cheikh Lo.
Known as “The Man Who Invented Funk,” Ellis first joined forced with James Brown in 1965, and has been touring with this tribute show since 2008, playing to sold-out audiences around the globe. Says Ellis of the show, “Since the beat came from Africa, we wanted to bring it back by way of combing funk with some African rhythms.”
And the audience keeps coming back to see the show, he adds, “because of the fact that it is a tribute to James Brown, an incredible artist. And they keep coming to see us play this tribute to the ‘Godfather of Soul.’ because it’s obvious we love what we’re doing.”
Ellis explains that he doesn’t do this tribute show constantly, but rather goes on small tours when he can. “We do about ten shows a year. This is a big project to put together and lots of details to sort out to make it all work. But being on stage with all these good people and seeing the appreciation on the faces of the audiences makes it a real blessing to be able to do it.”
As a young boy, Ellis began studying the piano in his hometown of Bradenton, Fla. After the family moved to Lubbock, Texas, he started playing clarinet and saxophone in junior high. By the time the family moved again, this time to Rochester, N.Y., Ellis was already a skilled musician.
“I first began playing music as a fun thing to do, something I just enjoyed doing. I also found out it was fascinating because the more you got into it, the more you wanted to put into it, and then, of course, the more you put in, the more you got out. When I finally realized you could make money doing it, I thought this might be a great way to make a living.”
Not only was Ellis able to make a living, but he was fortunate enough to join the James Brown band. “I joined the band after a friend of mine who was in the band called to say James needed a saxophone player. He asked me if I need a job and if I was interested,” Ellis remembers. “At the time, I barely knew who James Brown was, but I said sure. I thought I might be able to earn enough money to finally afford to play jazz.”
And so, joining the James Brown Revue, Ellis became an extremely important asset, beginning to arrange music with Brown almost immediately, becoming band leader within six months. He was soon co-writing with Brown, penning his first hit, “Cold Sweat,” in 1967, defining what we think of as Funk to this day, and followed by many other hits, including “Say It Loud,” “I’m Black and I’m Proud,” “Mother Popcorn,” “Lickin’ Stick” and others.
“James Brown had a lot to do with making these songs hits,” Ellis says. “As for me, I just wrote the songs. It’s always the guys in the band who make the music.”
But soon, Ellis longed to grow beyond the confines of James Brown and left the revue in 1969 to work as an arranger and musical director for CTI-Kudu records. He later wrote arrangements for Van Morrison and became Van’s musical director for a few years. He also worked with others to produce several albums and go on tour.
In fact, he says, “Even today I tour quite a bit. I have several bands of my own, like the Pee Wee Ellis Assembly, a combination of funk and jazz. I also have a jazz quartet, which is bebop. I very much like playing with other people’s bands, and I like being a guest artist. I also like recording. And when I’m not busy doing all that, I teach. So, as you can see, I’m quite busy.”
For times and ticket information, call (215) 898-3900.
The 2009 Tony Award Winning Musical Revival “Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical,” will play the Academy of Music Jan. 3–8.
The score features such enduring musical numbers as “Let the Sun Shine In,” “Good Morning, Starshine,” and “Aquarius,” sung in this production by Michigan native Phyre Hawkins, who has appeared in “Hair” before. She says she’s absolutely thrilled to be appearing in the show again, and especially opening the show in one of the best-selling and most-remembered songs of all time.
“This is a magical, never-to-be-forgotten show,” says Hawkins. “I began listening to the music as a young girl, and it was always one of my favorites. I knew every song and the entire plot, although I never did see any productions. And now here I am, actually in the show, actually singing ‘Aquarius.’ And when the lights come on and I open the show, it’s all like a dream come true.”
Set in an East Village park in 1967, “Hair” is the musical story of a group of hippies who celebrate peace and love in the shadow of the Vietnam War. The revival of “Hair” began in Central Park, and continues to maintain the looseness and joyfulness that’s made it a must-see event.
“And even though the show is set over forty years ago, and has had changes made to it over the years, the music remains the same, the characters remain the same, and I think it remains as relevant today as when it was first produced,” says Hawkins.
Growing up with the real name of Tiffany, Hawkins says she acquired the nickname of Phyre (pronounced “Fire”) because two other neighborhood girls happened to share the name she was born with.
“I’m a Sagittarius, a fire sign, so that’s how I got my nickname,” Hawkins explains.
As a youngster, she admits she never thought about going into the theater. In fact, she decided to become an accountant — until she had friends who were into the arts when she was in college and got caught up with it as well.
“Actually,” she explains, “I’ve been singing since I was eleven. I grew up in the church singing in the choir, but I never really thought I had a good voice and could sing until people told me I could. I was very insecure about it. I also started dancing and was cast in a play in high school, but all that was just for fun. But then, in college at Michigan State, a friend cast me in ‘The Colored Museum.’ I think that’s what really did it for me.
“In fact,” she continues, “I got so caught up in the theater that I eventually moved to New York City to attend the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, where a lot of big stars like Robert Redford and Grace Kelly had studied.”
And, she admits, she’s never looked back. Over the years, she’s appeared in many notable productions, including a stint in “Avenue Q” in Las Vegas, and national tours of “The Color Purple” and, of course, “Hair.”
Hawkins admits to achieving some of her long-held goals, including traveling. She says, “I always wanted to travel, and so far I’ve been to London in ‘Hair,’ India in the play ‘My Soul is a Witness,’ and all over the Untied States. And now this tour, where some people in some cities are crazy about it, and some in other cities just don’t really get it. But most people who see it absolutely love it.”
When the show ends its tour in a few more weeks, Hawkins says she looks forward to getting some film and television work under her belt. “I just want to do it all!”
For times and ticket information, call (215) 893-1999.
Pastor, gospel singer enjoys both worlds
Pastor Shirley Caesar never envisioned herself a successful and award-winning singer. She was a true believer in God, not in big record sales.
But with a strong religious as well as musical background, Caesar has been able to enjoy both.
“I was a very young adult when I noticed God’s calling on my life, and I praise God for that. But I’ve been singing since I was about three years old and enjoying every minute of it. Truthfully, if not for that love, I don’t know where I’d have ended up,” says Caesar, about to show off her musical skills at The Grand in Wilmington on Saturday.
Beginning recording at the age of 13, Caesar has released more than 40 albums over the years, exploring her gift and spreading messages of faith. She has participated in over l6 compilations and three gospel musicals, “Mama I Want to Sing,” “Sing: Mama 2” and “Born to Sing: Mama 3.”
Born and raised in Durham, N.C., and becoming a student at Shaw University, Caesar’s first big professional singing career began when she decided to approach the legendary “Queen of Gospel,” Albertina Walker, founder and leader of the world-famous gospel singing group The Caravans in the 1950s.
“I went to see a concert they were doing in North Carolina, and I wrote my own request asking they please call on Shirley Caesar to sing a solo,” Caesar recalls. “I felt as though it they heard me they would want me. And sure enough I got to sing with them on a Sunday evening. On Monday, they called my mother and asked if I could continue to sing with them.”
When her mother said yes, Caesar, who was in college at the time, sold her biology book, bought a ticket, and caught a bus to meet the group in Washington, D.C. And the rest, she acknowledges, is history.
And the young Caesar continued to make history. Inducted into the Gospel Hall of Fame, Caesar’s credits include a series of commercials for MCI Communications and several awards for her recordings. She has won or received eleven Gammy Awards, thirteen Stellar Awards, eighteen Doves, one RIAA gold certification, and an Essence Award. Also she’s received a NAACP Achievement Award, SESAC Lifetime Achievement Award and McDonald’s Golden Circle Lifetime Achievement Award.
Caesar, who says gospel music has changed over the years, describes herself as a “traditional gospel singer with a contemporary flavor.” In the business for many decades, she goes on to say that traveling is probably the most difficult thing she has to do, and doesn’t do too much of it if she can help it.
Her latest CD, titled “A City Called Heaven,” is available and she’s working on another. And her book, “The Lady and the Melody and The Word,” a book about her life story, is about to get an update one of these days as well.
“For years I would write little spurts about my life in the liner notes on the back of my albums. But now that we don’t have the big albums anymore, I had no space to do that on the CDs or cassettes. So another book is in the works.
Infusing her music with a blend of artistry and faith, Caesar has successfully paired and performed duets with such luminaries as Patti LaBelle, Gladys Knight, Faith Evans and Destiny’s Child. That has enabled her to effectively bridge the gap between R&B and contemporary gospel music.
Having appeared in films and on television, Caesar says she’d like to do more theater, television and film, even more sitcoms in the coming years, as well as continue as the pastor at the Mount Calvary Holy Church Word of Faith Church in Raleigh, North Carolina.
“I really never dreamed the Lord would bring my ministry to where it is,” she says, “and I feel that I have not yet reached the zenith because we’ve got such wonderful things planned.”
For times and ticket information, call (800) 37-GRAND.
11th Hour Theatre Company has kicked off its season with the remounting of “The Bomb-itty of Errors,” a hip-hop adaptation of William Shakespeare’s “The Comedy of Errors,” running now through Sept. 25 at the Skybox at the Adrienne on Sansom Street.
The play is a musical that infuses Elizabethan times with a hip-hop flavor, and is performed with a live DJ and features four actors who play all the characters.
Turning actors into believable hip-hop dancers is the role of choreographer Samuel Antonio Reyes. Raised in the West Chester area of Pennsylvania, Reyes moved to Philadelphia to become an art teacher, but soon learned that he loved dancing and acting too.
“I remember auditioning for a spot at the University of the Arts for the acting department and being told that I wasn’t talented enough,” Reyes says. “But in my family, being shot down only gives you more ambition to make it. So I re-auditioned and they finally let me in with the hope that I would get better.”
And get better he did, going on to the dance department where he fell in love with ballet, modern dance, jazz and tap. “I had been an acting major but soon realized I wasn’t being challenged enough, so I asked to cross over to the dance department. And once they took me in, I think my career was born.”
Reyes went on to receive his B.F.A. in Performing Arts from the University, and was the recipient of the Cushman Acting Award and The Theater Ensemble Award. He then went on to study dance under the training of Ronen Koresh (Koresh Dance Company) and Renni Harris (RenniHarrisPuremovment).
Reyes performed locally in such productions as “St. Louie Woman” and “Pal Joey,” and was nominated for a 2002 Barrymore Award for best Choreography and Movement in a musical.
He also toured and created for Disney’s radio and television star Raven-Symone from 2004-2006, and continued to collaborate and work with various theater and dance companies.
“I think the primary job of a choreographer is to inspire the cast, all your dancers,” Reyes volunteers. “They have to trust that the work coming out of you will be OK and honor the fact that they are then honoring your work with their bodies. That’s important. And that’s what I try to convey to them in rehearsal.”
The timeline in this show, he continues, is the late ’80s and into the early ’90s. In his collaborations with the show’s director, Megan Nicole O’Brien, Reyes says they work off each other, trading ideas and trusting they are moving in the right direction.
“Megan is very smart as a director. She knows what she wants to see and then gives me the freedom to create the movement to support that vision. Since she realizes I know more about the hip-hop era than she does, she trusts me and gives me lots of creative freedom.”
This is not the first time the play has been mounted in Philadelphia. In its first Philadelphia run, the show earned seven Barrymore nominations and two wins. “The creativity behind the show is what appealed to us in the first place and that appeal is still there today,” says O’Brien. “This show was also the first show that really garnered us a large amount of creative and critical recognition, but because of many factors, not many people go to see the show. We wanted to bring it back to give more people an opportunity to see this show that we all feel so passionately about.”
In addition to his dancing skills displayed in many capacities throughout the area, Reyes is a professor of dance and theater all over the tri-state region, and is currently an adjunct professor at Temple University with his own introductory class on hip-hop theater.
Knowing first-hand what it’s like to be turned away from one of your goals, Reyes says first and foremost you must believe in yourself. “And then you can overcome anything. If people say you’re not good enough, you must then just get smarter, work harder and get more and more persistent.”
For times and ticket information, call (267) 987-9865.
Musical history will be made when The Academy of Vocal Arts presents the Philadelphia premiere of Giuseppe Verdi’s first opera, “Oberto,” Jan. 26 and 27, in the Kimmel Center’s Perelman Theater, and Jan. 31 at The Haverford School. Featured in the role of Leonora will be 2011 Metropolitan Opera Competition winner and fourth year AVA resident artist Michelle Johnson.
Written over a 4-year period, “Oberto” had its first performance in Milan in 1839 and did not have its American premiere until 1978. It takes place in Northern Italy in 1228. Riccardo, the Count of Salinguerra, is about to wed Cuniza, the sister of Ezzelino da Romano, but has seduced and abandoned Leonora, daughter of Oberto, Count of San Bonafacio, who was recently defeated in battle by the Salinguerra.
Oberto and Leonora travel to Bassano, where the wedding is to take place to tell Cuniza. Unwilling to accept her future husband’s infidelity, Cuniza calls off the wedding — but Oberto demands revenge. He challenges Riccardo to a duel and is mortally wounded. Riccardo goes into self-imposed exile, and Leonora enters a convent.
Johnson, who along the way has captured additional awards such as top prize from the William Matheus Sullivan Foundation, and second prize, audience favorite, and WRTI broadcast radio audience favorite in the 2011 Giargiari Bel Canto Competition, among others, says she particularly enjoys her role in this opera since Verdi is her favorite composer.
“I’ve been born with a voice that’s just perfect for Verdi. It’s a larger, colorful instrument that can have flexibility to have long lines, be rhythmic and dramatic. I also enjoy the combination of music and acting. It hits on so many of my senses, and I think that’s what really draws me in.”
Born in Texas, Johnson says she never really pictured herself an opera singer. “I always wanted to be a singer, and loved being on the stage where I felt comfortable. But I thought it would all turn out to be a hobby of mine, and I’d eventually wind up being some kind of teacher. But one of my college teachers encouraged me to major in voice performance, and I’ve been on this track — the right track — ever since.”
After graduating from the New England Conservatory of Music, Johnson says she auditioned for AVA but didn’t make it. “I’d always heard of AVA as an undergraduate. It’s viewed as a finishing school for opera singers. So I auditioned but didn’t get it, although I never gave up. I went on to get an Opera Training Certificate from the Boston University Opera Institute before trying out again.”
For Johnson, the second time turned out to be a charm. Now completing her fourth year at AVA, she’ll then have to set out in the professional world of opera to make her mark.
“Having studied at AVA I know I’ve had one of the best educations possible. I think they make sure you dot all your I’s and cross all your T’s, and that makes us all good artists.”
Today, as a result of changing demands on opera singers, Johnson says these days being picked for an opera is not so much based on color — although that‘s still a factor — as much as it is the way you look.
“You have to be thin as a rail, good looking, and more. So prepare yourself to fit in and study languages, know your voice, and be true to yourself. If you have the confidence, nobody can deny your talent.”
For times and ticket information, call (215) 735-1685.
Just returned from his tour of Japan, American funk bassist, signer and songwriter William Earl “Bootsy” Collins takes the stage at the Keswick Theater in Glenside on June 15.
After years of struggling, Collins is now a proven commodity, explaining that his music appeals to a worldwide audience. He says, “Audiences in Japan were so into my music, it was amazing. They knew every word and often sang along with us.”
Today, Collins is embarking on a U.S. tour, and hopes American audiences will prove as devoted as those in the Orient.
“And I think they will,” he says. “I’ve always tried to think outside the box when it comes to making music. I’ve never looked at the normal way of doing things. I’ve never tried to have a formula for how to put music together like everybody else. I’ve tried to have an original way of doing things, another point of view as opposed to what the commercial market would think or even want. And after all these years, it seems to have worked.”
Rising to prominence with James Brown in the late 1960s, and with Parliament-Funkadelic in the ’70s, Collins’ driving bass guitar and humorous vocals established him as one of the leading names in funk. With his elder brother Phelps “Catfish” Collins, and Kash Waddy and Philippe Wynne, Collins formed a funk band called The Pacemakers in 1968.
The Pacemakers were hired as Brown’s backing band and became known as The J.B.’s. And although they only worked for Brown for 11 months, they played on some of Brown’s most intense funk recordings, including “Super Bad,” “Soul Power” and “Talkin’ Loud and Sayin’ Nothin,” among others. And the sound of funk would never be the same.
“Coming up, ‘funk’ was a bad word, and we simply had to learn to deal with that,” Collins explains. “We didn’t have a lot of money, so we dressed any way mother could afford to dress us. We got used to being laughed at early in life. Even with our music, we got used to that, too. We learned to do what we thought we needed to do. We got over criticism and laughter early in life. I think that’s a major setback for a lot of artists today. They can never get past that.”
Today, Collins says in making music he likes to think beyond what’s in it for him.
“My music is not so much about me as it is about giving people more of what they need in music and entertainment. And love. I come to give people hope as opposed just to seeing what I can get out of the deal. I know I’m in this to give back to people, so now I’m on a mission.”
And it’s a mission borne out of his own beginnings.
“I want my shows to be not only about that Bootsy but about those who influenced my life. In making music, I want to honor the people I grew up on. That’s what my newest CD, ‘Funk Capitol of the World’ is all about,” he says.
Collins also learned to conquer his own demons.
“Once I got delivered from the drug thing, my whole life took on meaning. I had to go through the desert to find that out. Now, I don’t like to tell people what to do, Id rather show them I’m still that brother who had all that rap on the corner. I just had to learn to put in the time and stay focused on what I needed to do.”
Additionally, Collins wants the younger generation who would like to follow in his footsteps to learn from his example, even learning how to take rejection.
He says, “I think that might be the most important thing to learn in life because we got so rejected coming up it began to be a joke to us. We said ‘funk it’ and that became a concept.”
But because they wouldn’t — or couldn’t — fit into the accepted norm — Collins says many radio stations wouldn’t talk about them or play their music.
“But we were just regular people trying to do what we knew how to do. We never wanted to be anything else. And you know what? I’m still that long-haired sucker from down the street.”
For times and ticket information, call (215) 572-7650.