As Visiting Assistant Professor of Voice Janinah Burnett teaches a lesson with a first-year vocal performance major, it almost looks like a workout routine. She takes her student not just through a vocal warmup, but a physical warmup as well.
“I have discovered in my teaching that more than anything, we must release unnecessary tension in order to find the freedom to allow the sound to come through our bodies,” says Burnett. “What I want my students to discover is the naturalness of breath and therefore the naturalness of making sound.”
“We have to be fluid on stage and do a myriad of things,” she says. “I have had to walk on treadmills, jump off tables, and walk on chairs in spiked heels! We have to be able to move freely and the moment that we’re not free, the sounds we want to make are inhibited, which in turn inhibits the way we share the emotions we want to share and the story we want to tell.”
LA VIE BOHÈME
Burnett is visiting UNC Greensboro as an assistant professor of voice for the 2023-24 school year, sharing her music and stage experience to help UNCG students find their voice.
After earning a master’s in music with a focus in vocal performance, Burnett was not aiming for Broadway, especially with her training in classical music. But an opportunity arose to star as Mimí in Baz Luhrmann’s 2002 Broadway presentation of Puccini’s “La bohème.”
I have discovered in my teaching more than anything, we must release unnecessary tension in order to find the freedom to allow the sound to come through our bodies. What I want my students to discover is the naturalness of breath and therefore the naturalness of making sound.
“La bohème” is an opera set in Paris that tells the story of a seamstress and her experience finding love. It also inspired the hit Broadway musical “Rent” which was adapted into a film as well. Luhrmann, who is now best-known for his film directing work including “Moulin Rouge,” “The Great Gatsby,” and “Elvis,” modernized La Bohème by setting it in the 1950s rather than 1800s and emphasizing the characters’ youth by casting young opera singers. Puccini’s score was presented as written to allow the story to be preserved. The show won two Tony Awards for “Best Scenic Design” and “Best Lighting Design.” Given the vocal demands of operatic singing and the eight show a week schedule, the production utilized alternating casts to play the leads Mimí and Rodolfo.
“It was different to do an opera on Broadway,” reflects Burnett. “The opera world asked ‘Are you doing that? You can’t do that? Eight shows a week? Those kids will ruin their voices.’ It was a really big deal, and we faced a lot of pushback, but the experience was so magnificent and ahead of its time.” she says. “That launching pad shaped the broadness and the varying elements of my career because it was there that I learned how many opportunities I could have as a singing actor.”
Burnett’s work in “La bohème” on Broadway was the first big gig on her journey of being an opera singer. After that show, she began traveling and working all over the world before landing at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Shortly thereafter, Burnett went back to Broadway, where her journey began so many years ago. She joined the cast of “Phantom of the Opera” on Broadway, making appearances as Carlotta Giudicelli for five years.
For Burnett, coming into a well-established show like “Phantom of the Opera” was even more challenging than the demands of “La bohème” on Broadway.
“With ‘La bohème’ we built it from the bottom up. When you originate a Broadway show, you originate the actor’s choices and path onstage. When you go into a Broadway show that has already been going, you must do everything that’s already been established exactly as it is,” she says.
Her appearance in “Phantom of the Opera” was even more significant as it was the show’s final run. The production ended in April of 2023 after 35 years, making it the longest running Broadway show in history.
“It was very emotional,” says Burnett. “Some people backstage had been with the show since the beginning. “’Phantom’ was a way of life for people. We witnessed and experienced so many stages of grief.”
LET YOUR BUTTERFLY SOAR
In 2021, during the pandemic shutdown, Burnett independently released her debut album “Love the Color of Your Butterfly” from her own label Clazz Records.
“’Love the Color of Your Butterfly’ is a phrase that guides us to love all the elements of ourselves, no matter what they may be, even if the world says, ‘We’re not ready for that.’” she says. “Who cares if they’re ready for it? They’re within you, you are worthy, and your various colors are truly what make the world a better place. You should let these colors soar like the butterfly.”
The album features a unique concept called “Clazz” which Burnett coined. Clazz blends elements from Western European classical music with indigenous American music styles including jazz. “Love the Color of Your Butterfly” is an amalgamation of jazz, opera, art song, oratorio, rhythm and blues, and spirituals and it features some of the most prominent musicians in jazz today.
USING YOUR VOICE
As one of the few Black opera singers who have reached her level of success, Burnett has worked to use her artistry to speak about social justice issues.
“There are so many Black opera singers, but when it comes to positions in the higher echelon of the business, there are not many,” she says. “I was one of very few African- Americans on the entire Metropolitan Opera roster for eight seasons.”
Ignited by the 2014 killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Burnett created a show entitled “I, Too Sing America: A Lament for the Fallen” which she performs in churches and schools across the country.
“I was moved by what was going on throughout the country, but I felt like in New York we were trying to find normalness in the midst of chaos and that presented itself as stillness, in my opinion. Because I believe I have a responsibility as an artist to transmute the inner feelings of the community into artistic expression, I created this show to do just that,” she says.
She worked with three of her close colleagues to create a presentation featuring the music of African American composers juxtaposed with Burnett’s own writings and with images of prominent African American figures, images of community togetherness across racial lines,, and images of the men, women and children who were killed due to social injustice.
“When you see the images of the fallen people, it allows you to recognize these people as living, breathing human beings, thus reigniting the humanity of us all,” she says.
Burnett says the murder of George Floyd in 2020 caused the performing arts industry to look at the lack of diverse representation within the industry, and she remains aware of her presence and influence as a Black woman in the business.
“During the first two years I was in “Phantom”, people would come up to me at the stage door and say ‘Wow, you’re the only black person on the stage’ and I don’t take that lightly. I do my best to show up, be present and conscious in performance art spaces, and do my work to the best of my ability,” she says.
A CHANGE OF SCENERY
After “Phantom” ended, Burnett says she needed a change of scenery and found her way down to UNCG, but teaching is not new for her.
“Teaching chose me,” she says. “People were coming to me over the years asking if I could help them with vocal technique and had found me through word of mouth. I’ve made myself available to people who want to come and learn techniques for Opera or Broadway, and everything in between.”
Burnett says she enjoys seeing her students make progress in their craft and having positive interactions with them.
“Working with my students has helped to reinforce what I need to know as an artist,” she says. “It allows me to better articulate the fundamentals of singing and performance technique.”
With her background in a variety of musical genres, Burnett says people have been drawn to her as a teacher. But she was drawn to UNCG for the same reason: “I appreciate the varying styles of the UNCG School of Music. It is really seeking to jump into the evolution and the future of the music industry. Few places are doing that.”
Story by Avery Craine Powell, University Communications Photography by Sean Norona, University Communications Additional photography courtesy of Janinah Burnett