“Hit it, Baby!” With those encouraging words from her mother, five-year-old Nicole Joy Mitchell embarked on her path to a career as a classical singer. She will soon perform the contralto solo part in excerpts from John Knowles Paine’s Mass in D minor as well as Jorge Martín’s One Hour to Madness and Joy with The Cecilia Chorus of New York on Saturday, March 2.
“It was Christmastime, and I was out shopping with my mother. The day before, I had been sitting in our apartment in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, watching television when Pavarotti came on a PBS program with a little boy soprano. They started singing Gesù Bambino together, and the moment they started, everything else went silent around me. I was transfixed. And on the train to downtown Brooklyn I just opened my mouth and started singing the song in front of everybody. Since then, my mother’s support for my musical career has never wavered.”
Although not from a musical family—Nicole’s mother loves music but does not play an instrument or sing herself—Nicole knew instinctively that this was the path she was meant to follow. In junior high school in Bedford-Stuyvesant, there was a “career day” when the students were asked to state their professional ambitions. All the other kids were listening to Michael Jackson, rap, and early hip-hop, and while Nicole enjoyed those genres as well, she blurted out her true wish. “I want to be a classical musician,” she said, receiving sidelong glances and raised eyebrows from the other students. She sang in church and was especially encouraged to perform by a local preacher called Sister Blake, who had a church in her own home. As an after-school activity, she started attending the Brooklyn Music School and Playhouse, and later the Harlem School of the Arts, whose president emeritus was the operatic mezzo-soprano Betty Allen. Allen, who also taught at the Manhattan School of Music, would prove to be a great mentor to Nicole in her musical studies. But in high school, she says, she felt isolated. “Who do you talk to, when no one else feels like you do?”
One thing Nicole knew was that she wasn’t ready for a conservatory. Although her voice had already developed into a rich contralto, she wasn’t yet able to handle the demand for professional perfection nor the competition that conservatories are known for. She decided that a liberal arts education would be best for her, and she enrolled in Buffalo State College, where she joined the choir as a freshman. When the music professor and choir leader, Thomas Witakowski, heard her sing, he started giving her solo parts and encouraged her to join the music department.
“That’s when I turned into a sponge. There was so much to learn, so much to listen to! I was introduced to Verdi, Schumann, Shubert. I studied Mozart and I adored him, but I also learned that he didn’t really write for me and my voice part. Bach became my favorite composer then and he still is today. An entire world opened up to me.”
Nicole graduated as a music major and, now feeling ready for conservatory, wanted to continue her studies in graduate school. But she couldn’t afford the tuition. She worked as a substitute teacher in the New York City schools and got a job in a coffee house. Betty Allen invited her to attend her Saturday morning master classes and then helped prepare her for auditions to the Manhattan School of Music, where she received a fellowship and went on to earn a Masters in Opera and Vocal Performance. This led to an apprenticeship with the Sarasota Opera in 2007 and a continued relationship with the company until 2011. To learn what Nicole has done since then, read her biography at the end of this article.
Many of the parts Nicole has been offered in the past ten years have been in contemporary operas and other modern works. “I love new music, but this hasn’t been a conscious choice on my part. There is just so much new opera being written these days, there’s a huge demand for singers! And I’m happy to oblige! But I find that my heart is moving towards the more traditional.”
This is where John Knowles Paine’s Mass in D minor comes in. First performed in 1867, twelve years after the publication of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, it represents the musical conventions of the era, against which Whitman’s poetry stood out in great contrast.
“I love Whitman’s poetry, and I am thrilled to be singing in a concert commemorating the bicentennial of his birth,” says Nicole. “But there is something so familiar, so comforting in the Paine piece. It suits me, and it suits my voice.”
BIOGRAPHY: Nicole Joy Mitchell, Contralto
Nicole Joy Mitchell (Contralto) is a proud native of Brooklyn, New York. She performs regularly in the New York area with American Opera Projects (AOP), which promotes the works of new composers. Nicole has performed at Carnegie Hall's Zankel Hall, Lincoln Center Festival, New York City Opera, Sarasota Opera, and overseas at the Semperoper in Dresden, Teatro di San Carlo, Landestheater in Austria, and the Festival de Wiltz. In 2017, Nicole made her debut with Portland Opera in a double-bill of David Lang operas The Difficulty of Crossing a Field (her voice is on the recording released in 2015), and the Pulitzer Prize-winning opera The Little Match Girl Passion. This winter Nicole will head to Boston, MA, to sing the rarely performed work of Julia Perry’s Stabat Mater with the chamber orchestra A Far Cry at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. In May Ms. Mitchell will appear as the Empress in the world premiere of the opera The Nightingale and The Tower (music by Jason Treuting and Beth Myers, libretto by Rebecca Comerford) with Ojai Youth Opera, where she has shared her love of opera and art songs with Ojai Youth Opera Workshop students for the past several summers. Nicole can be reached at 347-451-3450. For more about Nicole Joy Mitchell, click here.