As Broadway begins to reopen its theatres, Playbill is reaching out to artists to see how they are physically and creatively responding to a changed world.
The series continues with soprano Janinah Burnett, who appears in the ensemble and covers the role of Carlotta in the Broadway production of The Phantom of the Opera, which will resume performances at the Majestic Theatre October 22. The artist made her Broadway debut in Baz Lurhmann’s La Bohème and subsequently joined the Metropolitan Opera, where she has appeared in productions of Carmen, La Bohème, Parsifal, Le Nozze di Figaro, La Rondine, The Enchanted Island, Iphigénie en Tauride, Elektra, and Manon. Burnett's other roles in over 25 cities around the world include Bess in Porgy and Bess, Violetta in La Traviata, Donna Anna and Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni, Norina in Don Pasquale, Sophie in Der Rosenkavalier, Marguerite in Faust, Leïla in Les Pêcheurs de Perles, Pamina in Die Zauberflöte, and Micaëla in Carmen.
What is your typical day like now?
On a typical day, I rise early, do some sort of work out involving a HIIT training followed by a long walk in the park. When I return, I work at the computer sending emails, business marketing, research, etc. When that’s finished, it’s usually evening and time to wind down by cooking something wonderful in my air fryer given to me by my great friend and badass stagehand Kristina Miller. While I eat my delicious meal, I usually watch one of my favorite Avengers movies or a great series like Godfather of Harlem.
What book/TV show/podcast/film should everyone take the time to consume during this period?
I wholeheartedly recommend Eartha Kitt’s autobiography Alone with Me. While this book is out of print and one may have to search to find this gem, it is so worth the search! In this book, Ms. Kitt candidly speaks of coming of age in life and in the entertainment business. She also chronicles her experience of being blacklisted and placed on the CIA watch list for speaking out for those in need. I was not only educated by her words in this book but motivated by her sacrifice as an artist activist in whose faithful footsteps I walk.
How, if at all, are you keeping your creative juices flowing? Has that been helpful to you?
My creative juices have been gushing! When the shutdown first began, I started a Balcony Concert Series, in which I sang songs from my balcony once or twice a week for my neighbors and in honor of first responders. I included a potpourri of music that inspired me and that I believed would inspire my audiences. The concerts truly lifted me and reignited the fire of my artist spirit. I posted the concerts online to share with the world with the hopes of inspiring and uplifting everyone who watched.
In addition, I finished my ultimate passion project: the release of my debut music recording, entitled Love the Color of Your Butterfly. A seamless fusion of jazz and classical music genres, Love the Color of Your Butterfly is truly an enormous gift that I lovingly embraced with the abundance of time given us.
Are you working on any theatrical projects during this time?
In 2014 I created a multimedia theatrical production entitled I, Too Sing America: An Artistic Lament for the Fallen, featuring imagery, art song, spirituals, jazz, and spoken word. I, Too Sing America begins with a recitation of names of African Americans who have fallen due to social injustice that unfortunately increased each time we presented the production. The show was scheduled to be presented at Hampton University in the fall of 2020; however, given the circumstances of the pandemic, we had to pivot and create a virtual presentation. Additionally, due to the mournful deaths of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd, we added their names to the recitation of those lamented. The virtual platform allowed for my colleagues Kenneth Overton, Rashad Raymond Moore, James Davis Jr., and I to not only enhance multimedia elements of the presentation, but offer further context to how and why we created the project through an intimate engagement with the audience and students. With the help of some awesome new colleagues, video designer Kris Kirkwood and sound designer Jonathan Robertson, the show evolved into a compelling “virtual” theatrical presentation.
What advice would you give to someone who may be struggling with the isolation and/or the current unrest?
To anyone struggling during this time, I encourage you to find ways to be of service. We can do so much for others in creative and beautiful ways, and this gets us out of our own heads and into the heart of the community that needs us. Simple things like a phone call to someone you care about or a grocery store run for a neighbor in need can make so much of a difference.
During this time of reflection and re-education regarding BIPOC artists and artistry, particularly in the theatre, what do you want people (those in power, fellow actors, audiences) to be aware of?
This world is more open and connected than we think, and we all win by being inclusive. Our beloved arts evolve through storytelling. The more we embrace those with cultures, hues, desires, and passions different than our own, we allow for groundbreaking stories to animate and contribute to the fullness and evolution of the world of art! The truth is that there is a plethora of BIPOC people available and more than qualified to do jobs in theatre, and our inclusion allows for the whole of society to benefit from the beauty of visionary storytelling. We must shed our collective cloaks of that which seems comfortable or traditional and step into the garden of possibility and abundance.
What do you want them to consider further?
We are currently witnessing an explosion of cross pollination between varying disciplines in the arts. I am thrilled that doors are opening for artists to stretch and create works beyond where we’ve been allowed to go before. It is now welcomed universally for artists of varying disciplines and mediums to cross barriers of separation artistically to create works that are unified. I believe that this artistic revolution can be just the process we look toward to find and discover ways to be more inclusive and break barriers of separation among us.
How are you feeling about returning to live performances?
I long to be on the stage sharing the gift of storytelling through song, and I cannot wait to light up the stage once more! To that end, I’d like us all to do so carefully and compassionately while embracing necessary precautions to observe the utmost safety for performers, theatre and venue personnel, and audiences alike.