Soprano Brandie Sutton may have come to professional voice training late in life — she started serious voice lessons in college — but the Huntsville, Alabama, native is making up for lost time.
In 2017, The New York Times praised her “radiant, agile voice and tender, expressive touches to Rautendelein” at New York City Opera, calling it a “ravishing performance.” Opera News had similar accolades. Meanwhile, one of her many upcoming performances includes singing the role of the Fairy Godmother in Cinderella, an abridged version of Massenet’s Cendrillon, at the Metropolitan Opera during the 2021 holiday season.
Sutton will be joining Norfolk Chamber Music Festival for the world premiere on July 9 of Daniel Bernard Roumain’s Twin Stars: Diamond Variations for Dae’Anna. The piece is inspired by the killing of Philando Castile in Minneapolis-Saint Paul in 2016, and will be live-streamed from the Festival website.
She is no stranger to using music for social justice. In 2018, she performed in a concert at the opening weekend for the National Memorial for Peace and Justice (formerly the National Lynching Memorial). A hologram of Sutton portraying an enslaved person and singing the spiritual Lord, How Come Me Here is part of the museum’s permanent exhibit. In 2019, she also performed as part of the 30th anniversary celebration of the Equal Justice Initiative in New York City.
Sutton credits her grandmother for her interest in social justice. “My grandmother would go every Sabbath after church to jail,” she says, noting she often would bring 6-8 people with her. “She would take prisoners letters, paper, and envelopes. She would make cakes. She would bring people to pray with them, talk with them. She would bring love to people who normally didn’t get it. That influenced me.”
I know music brings people together,” she continues. “Music can change and unite us. It can touch people. But those people need to be able to hear it first. How do we get them in there? That’s my biggest thing.”
Her grandmother was a musical mentor, too. A pianist and organist, she was chair of the music department at Oakwood University and taught music there for 44 years. Raised as a 7th Day Adventist, Sutton says her grandmother taught her piano and the church helped make her the musician she is today. “The community was so close-knit,” she says. “Little Richard came to my grandmother’s house every Friday night when he was at Oakwood. [Soprano] Angela Brown mentored me while I was in school. I did a concert recently with [award-winning a cappella group] Take Six recently. The support I get from that, the musical ear that I have from being in church — there’s a way Adventists play; it’s a certain style that’s consistent.”
Sutton grew up singing gospel, but it wasn’t until she was a pre-med major at Oakwood University and a voice instructor heard her singing with the choir that her life took a 90-degree turn. “My mother made me join the choir. She threatened to take my car away if I didn’t,” she says, noting she initially didn’t pass the audition.
She joined the Aeolians after she started taking voice lessons. From there, she began entering competitions — and winning. “It was so scary,” Sutton says of the competitions her voice teacher took her to. But they were a turning point. “Every time I would win,” she says. “That’s when I was like maybe I have a career doing this.”
Today, Sutton performs everything from gospel and opera to jazz and symphonic works. “Any emotion I’m feeling I go to music,” she says. “It can boost my mood, make me feel better. For me it’s a release, a retreat, a refuge. It doesn’t feel like work for me.”
Brandie Sutton will be joined by tenor Terrence Chin-Loy, pianist Melvin Chen and the Abeo Quartet in the premier performance of Daniel Bernard Roumain's Twin Stars: Diamond Variations for Dae’Anna at the Norfolk Festival on Friday, July 9 at 7:30 p.m. The concert will be live-streamed on the Festival website and Facebook page. After the premiere it may also be viewed on the Festival’s YouTube channel.
Daniel Bernard Roumain's Twin Stars: Diamond Variations for Dae’Anna is part of the Festival's Musical Bridges project made possible through the generous support of the Desai Family Foundation.