Chantal Braziel, soprano
Music has always been in my heart for as long as I can remember. Without it, I don’t know where I’d be. Literally my name, Chantal, means “to sing.”
Originally from Pittsburgh, Chantal Braziel received her B.A. degree in Vocal Performance with a concentration in Opera from Saint Vincent College. She received her Advanced Music Studies Certificate in Vocal Performance from Carnegie Mellon University, and will receive her Master’s in Voice from Carnegie Mellon in December 2020. She has performed on various stages with opera companies, such as The Pittsburgh Opera and The Metropolitan Opera.
In April of 2019, I interviewed Chantal about her experience as a classical singer.
Beyond any interview, this was my first time connecting with another woman of color in classical music who knew exactly what I was struggling with. That spring, her dedication & her ownership of her art inspired me to continue in this field.
Here is an edited transcript of our conversation.
TA: First, I was wondering how you started, how you came to where you are today.
CB: Well, it’s been such a journey. I’ve been singing long before I could speak. When I was a baby, my mother used to sing me lullabies, and I hummed the lullabies right back to her.
It wasn’t until I first went off to school that I knew anything about classical music. I grew up singing in the church at the age of 3, when my late grandmother had me singing gospel songs and hymns. I sang in choirs, and I still sing in my church today.
When I was younger, I took piano lessons, which is how my piano teacher could tell that I could really sing, because he discovered I had perfect pitch. He encouraged my parents to put me in voice lessons at a later age, so that my voice could develop.
Later on, I was in a gospel choir, because gospel singing in the church was all I knew. I wanted to grow up to be a famous gospel singer. Classical music was just never in the picture for me. Even though I was unaware of classical singing, I often think of this as a blessing. It wasn’t meant for me to know until I went off to school in my undergrad at St. Vincent College.
My former voice teacher introduced me to a whole new world of classical music. She introduced me to The Marriage of Figaro, Porgy and Bess, and she told me to research such singers as Renée Fleming, Joan Sutherland, and Leontyne Price.
Ever since then, I had a total respect for classical singing. It is still a journey and I have so much to learn, but I'm glad I made it this far. My former teacher once worked with the teacher that I work with now, and she strongly encouraged me to attend Carnegie Mellon to continue pursuing Opera.
Pursuing opera has definitely been a long journey, because I’ve done competitions, auditions, and I was even in my first professional chorus, the Pittsburgh Opera, in the world premier production of The Summer King, the story of the baseball player, Josh Gibson. I was blessed to have these opportunities.
I didn’t know I had it in me to sing operatically. Before I went away to school, I thought opera singing was just really old singing. I had no idea what it was. I didn’t want to pursue it, because I didn't know anything about it. I wanted to be like the other kids who wanted to pursue a popular genre of music everyone knew.
But I find that Classical singing is a true art form, an art form that one must understand and have a respect for. This is what makes an artist. If it weren’t for my teachers telling me how to respect this art, I wouldn’t be where I am today. I find this to be a great passion of mine. It is certainly not easy. There are still things I am facing, but it is definitely worth it!
What does it mean to respect the art?
Respecting the art means learning how to respect your voice. Learning how to respect those who have paved the way. It is learning to respect and credit the composers who wrote for your voice. Not only the composers, but also the poets who wrote the text.
For you to be a true, smart artist, you have to know what you're singing about. It’s like any instrumentalist. Somebody wrote music just for them. If you have no idea who the composer is, or if you have no idea what the words you’re singing about mean, then that is a waste of your time and your talent. You could have a beautiful voice, but if you don't know how to use it and the voice has no meaning, it won't have anything to it.
Respecting the art means learning how to respect your voice. Learning how to respect those who have paved the way.
There are so many phenomenal composers, back in the day and today, who write music for your voice. This is called a fach, which is a repertoire that best fits your voice. For example, I am a soprano, but I don’t know what type of soprano or what my voice type will be in the future, because I’m still young, and I’m still working on my craft, such as technique. My voice could change instantly, and it will continue to change, the older I get. In the meantime, I sing pieces that best show off my voice.
As of right now, I’m considered a lyric/full-lyric soprano and my fach would be Mozart. Once I’m older, let’s say 5-10 years from now, I would sing Strauss operas, or operas by Verdi. My dream role is Aida in Aida, and my favorite opera is Porgy and Bess. I really want to play Serena, and even Bess, in Porgy, but that’s not right now. I recently got done playing the role of the Countess in The Marriage of Figaro and that fits my voice quite perfectly.
So it’s all about finding the rep that is good for your voice, and finding the right teacher who knows what’s best for you and pushes you to your full potential. You have to be willing to pursue this path. That’s really how I ended up here. I worked with my teacher privately for about a year before she inspired me to attend Carnegie Mellon.
So when you went to St. Vincent College, that was your first time studying classical?
I didn’t even know it was classical. I just knew that when I went to school, I wanted to study music. Music has always been in my heart for as long as I can remember. Without it, I don’t know where I’d be. Literally my name, Chantal, means “to sing.”
Is there anything about your experience in classical music, that you think other people should know?
I would say that even though things have gotten better, there are still a lot of things that have to do with stereotypes and racism. The things I have experienced not only as a singer, but just as an African American. This is the reason why I strongly look up to so many African American Classical singers, who have paved the way for artists today. They didn’t even get the opportunity to sing at the Met or Carnegie Hall without being criticized for their race.
There are many unheard Black Classical artists back in the day, that artists today are now learning about. There are a lot of us out there that I have reached out to, that I have spoken with, some of which told me their experiences of racism.
This past week, I went up to New York to see the Metropolitan Opera. Even though the production I attended was absolutely stunning, there were only 5% of Black singers within that chorus. It is very challenging, but I believe that with action and change, many Black artists will be heard and given a chance.
I’m really glad that I look up to such Black classical singers, such as Leontyne Price, and even singers before her like Paul Robeson, Roland Hayes, Marian Anderson, who have gone through racism.
For me, however, and for any Black person, I have to prove myself worthy all the time. Practice more, study more, research more. That's just my reality.
To be completely transparent, I feel that as an African American singer, I have to work twice as hard as any non-person-of-color has to experience. For example, a non-person-of-color could work hard, have a magnificent voice, and have all of the opportunities without worrying about their skin color. No mistakes, nothing that will be taken away from them.
For me, however, and for any Black person, I have to work twice as hard to prove myself worthy of being in this field. We always had the pressure to strive for excellence, to be better than the average person.
The classical field is very competitive. Everybody wants a position, everybody wants to get ahead. Some people make it, some people don’t. Those who don’t make it, but they earned and deserve it, is what bothers me the most, particularly when they don't make it because of their skin color. This is what I have to face everyday as a Black individual. I feel like I have to prove myself worthy because there are things that I still have to learn myself, and not everybody is willing to give me that chance. That’s just my reality.
In the opera world, once I am fully in my career, chances are that no one is going to care. I have to prove myself worthy all the time. Practice more, study more, research more. Bottom line, I have to work tremendously hard, and having a career in classical music is not as simple as working a 9-5 job.
I’m proud to be a Black singer, but at the end of the day, I want others to see me, as Chantal.
Do you see being African American as affecting who you are as a musician?
I would say that I’m a singer, and you can either love me or hate me. You cannot just see what I look like on the outside. You have to listen to my voice and what I am capable of.
My skin color does not define who I am as a person, nor as an artist. In this brutal field, sometimes you will be judged just by how you enter a room, especially in an audition. Sometimes, they will not even listen to your voice.
Although the journey has not been easy, I am very proud to be African American. I have so much to be thankful for. My heritage has come a long way, and still has ways to go. I am proud the singers I see as role models have dedicated their art through racism and adversity. As a result, they have paved the way for me so that I, along with many other young artists, could have that same opportunity. They made me believe that if they overcame obstacles while staying committed to their art, then so can I.
I’m proud to be a Black singer, but at the end of the day, I want others to see me, as Chantal. I want others to see me for who I am, someone who is worthy of the requirements in this field. Even if I do not receive the acceptance, other people's opinions do not define me. There is so much criticism in this field, but only I can choose what I will and will not accept. What matters the most is what I think of myself, and what I believe I bring to the table.
There is so much criticism in this field, but what matters most is what I think of myself, and what I believe I bring to the table.
It shouldn’t matter what color you are, it shouldn’t matter what size you are, but it is a sad reality that certain people only see race, size, gender, etc. Sometimes as soon as you go into an audition, they’ll make up their mind right then and there that you are not going to get that particular role. It is important to be aware, and most of all, to be prepared for those who are like this in the field.
There are also some people who will give you that chance and help you in this business. It is not always what you know, it’s who you know. It’s who will help you get to where you are, who will guide you, who will push you, and will be supportive.
Unfortunately, there are going to be individuals who don't have that same attitude, nor have your best interest at heart. They can be very mean. You can be strong enough to take it, but if it is to the point where they are insulting and they harass you, stay away from them.
As a classical musician, I've sometimes felt like my race was an obstacle, like “people like me aren’t supposed to be in this field.” Have you ever felt like that?
Absolutely. Many artists today that I know of feel like that. The opera field was not originally meant for Black artists and other people of color to be in. It is a predominantly white field, but I am very happy to see that many more Black singers are emerging in opera.
It can be very disappointing, very discouraging. Although I’m thrilled that so many Black singers are developing in this field, we’re still going to go through a lot of discouragement and racism that requires us to work hard, so that our voices can be heard.
I can only speak from my own personal experience, but I know the Black voice is much different than any other voice. We have a unique, rich and soulful sound, which makes others want to listen to it. However, others may view the Black voice as somewhat inferior, rather than seeing it as very special.
You talked about singing gospel music as you grew up. Do you feel like singing gospel has allowed you to connect being a musician with being Black?
I honestly say that it does. I am someone who holds on to my faith — a lot. Faith and my relationship with God are the main reasons why I am pursuing this path now. Gospel really comes from singing spirituals.
Back in the times of slavery, Blacks who worked in and out the field sang songs of sorrow, hope, and joy that give me joy to this day. Singing spirituals and hymns always puts a smile on my face, knowing that there’s a greater tomorrow, and I can always hold on to hope.
Singing spirituals are what the slaves depended on. It was their songs of hope and change that made them believe God will always provide for them, and that one day they’ll all be free. This is why I will always hold on to Gospel and hymns, not only because they go back to my roots, but they help me rely on my faith. So I'm very much affiliated with singing spirituals.
It doesn’t even matter what I sing. It doesn’t matter if I sing in Italian, French, German, or any other language. When people hear me sing, they will hear me. They will know who I am. They will know the God in me! They will say, “This is Chantal.” This is me. You don’t know what soul you’re going to touch. For me, singing is ministering to a soul, and in the same way, it ministers to me.
I have often received so many compliments about how my voice touched somebody else. This is one of the reasons why I hold on to my faith. I still sing gospel. I love singing spirituals, oratorios, and perhaps I'll make a career out of singing sacred pieces, because they hold very dear to my heart.
When people hear me sing, they will hear me. They will know who I am.
No matter what, I know that God has a plan. He opened so many doors for me on this path He put me on. That is something I will always hold on to. Yes, I have faced many things, but with my faith and love for this art form, I have persevered. That’s why I hold on to singing these spirituals. Two of my favorite spirituals are “Ride on King Jesus” and “Give me Jesus.”
Chantal sings the spiritual, "Ride On King Jesus."
Spirituals are all about singing the joy, the hope, the pain, and your belief in God. I hope anybody who does listen to me sing will know that. It does not matter which opera I am in, or what stage I am on. When I sing, I am returning that gift to God. Nobody can take that away from me.
You sing a lot of pieces that require your voice to have strength. So you have to have strength, inside of you.
As a vocalist, your voice is inside of you, it’s a part of you, and in order for you to take care of your voice, you have to take care of yourself. You have to make sure you’re hydrated, you’re singing the right rep, that you’re not sick and even quiet your voice sometimes. You have to learn which technique suits your voice. Singing can be very nerve-wracking. You sing a lot of pieces that require your voice to have strength. So you have to have strength, inside of you.
Do you have any advice for a young person in classical music?
No matter what, love what you do. Value what you do. Respect what you do. If you want it so badly, know that you have to work for it, just like anybody else. Don’t let anybody tell you what you cannot do. Never let anyone limit your gift.
There are mistakes that I made, and as a result, I dealt with rejection that often got the best of me. If you had a bad audition or performance, don’t let that define who you are as a person or as an artist. Only God gave you your gift. Nobody can take it away from you.
You could go to one of the greatest schools and enhance your talent, and I know it can be tough. We often don't think so, but sometimes it's good to face rejection, and take it with a grain of salt.
It is okay to get discouraged, as long as you don't stay in that discouragement.
No matter the circumstances or how people view you, always keep going. You have to know who you are before you step onstage, and then show who you are while onstage. This goes for any performance you have. Know what you bring to the stage before performing onstage.
There’s this huge diversity and inclusion initiative within the classical music world. Do you feel like it is helping you in any way, or is it kind of just parading itself as, “Look we’re doing better”?
I feel like there are moments where they’re good, but it could be better. But it’s okay. I do understand that things aren't going to change overnight. If you want things to change, be the change.
If you want something badly enough, you have to learn how to embrace the good and the bad. Everything that I’ve experienced only made me who I am today. It makes me stronger. It makes me more aware. Even though there are rejections that I still face, there are so many things that I’ve done, that I now can look back on, and I can be proud of.
If I am afraid, it’s okay to be afraid, as long as I don’t give into that fear. You just have to accept the good, the bad, and the ugly. If you can’t accept that, then be that person who makes a difference. When I sing onstage, I feel like I'm making a difference every day. You make a difference while playing your instrument. I can make a difference by singing.
Make the world a better place by sharing your art. It’s not going to be the same without you. It’s not going to be the same if you just quit right there.
It's easier said than done, I know. I also know that whenever you're feeling down, you have no place to go but up. You have a choice in this. You have a responsibility. Love what you do. Work hard. Don’t give up just because people view you differently. You have to know who you are.
It can be very tough, especially when you’re dealing with life outside of the classical field. Before you quit what you love, consider why you started in the first place.
My love for singing is too strong for me to quit, despite how difficult this field can be. I have to make my art my own, and not to be like anybody else. I learn to create my own opportunities, and to make my own table, while sharing it with the world.
For me, my favorite singer is Leontyne Price, the Prima donna. She is superb. Magnifique. Beautiful. She’s my idol, and her voice is golden and untouchable. As much as I love Leontyne Price, I can’t be her. People loved her because she was herself, and no one else. She paved the way so that I can be Chantal. I can never be her, I don’t even want to be her. I only want to be the person I was yesterday. I want to be and sing like me. Leontyne Price, and other past and emerging singers, gave me the courage to create my own path. I hope to make that same path for someone else in return.
Love your art. Take care of your art. Have faith that people will see your art.
From Chantal, in August of 2020:
So much has changed since you and I last talked. This last semester, I took the Fall term off so that I could sing in the ensemble of Porgy and Bess at the Metropolitan Opera in the 2019/2020 season. It was never ideal, but singing at my dream opera house was an incredible journey that changed my life. I was encouraged by a Met chorister, whom I’ve been friends with on social media, to audition for Porgy and Bess last spring.
When I went up to New York to audition, it went very well, however, I was not accepted as there were already enough singers in the chorus. Although I was a bit sad, I felt good that I had the chance to even audition for the Met.
It was not until school was out for the summer that I received the position to sing in the chorus. This was a dream come true! With the support of my teachers and family, I went up to New York in August to start rehearsals.
I was in my moment the entire time when I sang at the Met. I learned so much about myself as an artist that I could not learn anyplace else.
When I rehearsed on the Met stage the very first time, I knew that very moment that this was exactly where I needed to be. Every rehearsal we’ve had with the chorus and cast has been superb, because we sang and acted like a huge family.
Opening night until the end of the performances was something I will never forget. Every night, we had a successful performance, and the night of opening night, I cried tears of joy. This was the moment I dreamed, and with prayer, faith, diligence, and preparation, my dream finally came true!