This post was originally published on St. Louis American

By Danielle Brown

Many singers receive their early vocal training performing in church. Belleville, Illinois native Angel Riley started singing in church, but joining Belleville West High School’s choir is where she found her career path.

There, she learned how to read and better understand music.

Be invested in performing new operas… I think it’s important to tell stories of our time and stories of our ancestors’ time.

Angel Riley

In Riley’s sophomore year at Belleville, Allison Felter, director of education and engagement for the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis (OTSL) visited her school and exposed her to opera performance.

Riley said Felter discussed Opera Theatre’s Bayer Fund Artists-In Training Program(AIT), a world-renowned program that helps develop and strengthen aspiring singers in high school in the classroom and beyond.

Riley thought it through. After much consideration, she auditioned for the program and was accepted. Her transition from singing within the genres of gospel, pop, and jazz to more classical music has been both a negative and positive experience for her.

It’s been positive for her in the sense that she grew up learning music by ear, which she said made it easy to learn music. Her ability to know where the music is going and having that trained ear in gospel and jazz is something she said she uses to her advantage with opera.

On the flip side, when she started singing gospel at a young age, she didn’t have much knowledge of technicalities. That created challenges for her during opera training.

“I found it difficult to try and balance using my gospel voice, which is like a [chest] voice, whereas my operatic voice is more of a head voice,” Riley said.

“I think early in my career when I was sophomore in high school until I was a sophomore in undergrad I struggled with knowing how to navigate different registers of my voice. I think that has been a positive and negative in my career so far.”

Riley’s elevation with OTSTL has continued and nowshe’s a fellow in the organization’s Gerdine Young Artist Program (GYAs), which provides the resources and opportunities emerging artists need for establishing their professional careers. GYAs are presented in supporting roles, the stand-in for all mainstage production roles, and are spotlighted soloists in the annual Centerstage concert.

“My experience as a GYA has been amazing,” Riley said. “It’s been a little different with me so far because of COVID. My first session was specifically a lot of online training, lessons, and development courses. Last year, I had the great experience of playing the role of Mary in “Highway 1 U.S.A.” which is performed by American opera singer Nicole Cabell. I also did a Juneteenth concert. I’ve gained a lot of experience by being in the program. It’s also been great working with other opera singers and coaches from different companies.”

Riley, who is African American, said while there is some diversity, equity, and inclusion in the field there are still some gaps to be bridged.

“I think programs like AIT are important because it’s affording people no matter what background they come from the opportunity to explore classical music and opera,” Riley said.

“It’s important for me to create programs and be a part of organizations which allow inner-city community students exposure to opera and classical music at a young age.”

Renowned Black women opera singers such as Leontyne Price, Marian Anderson, Jessye Norman, and Angela Brown are Riley’s biggest opera influences. Some have a Soprano vocal register like Riley.

Giving flowers to the greats is important, but Riley said it’s equally important for newer generation opera singers to take their craft seriously and have an open mind.

“Be invested in performing new operas,” she said, noting that while OTSL does perform staples, “they also make an effort and mission to perform new works as well.”

“I think it’s important to tell stories of our time and stories of our ancestors’ time.”

This summer, Riley will take on the role of Papagena in “The Magic Flute,” a two-act work by Mozart trailing the narration of Tamino, a lost prince in a foreign land who finds himself in trouble with a massive monster. Riley said she is excited about the role and even calls it her “most fun role.”

Riley will also perform in this year’s Juneteenth concert with OTSL.

Visit OTSL’s website for more information about AIT:

Learn more about GYA on OTSL’s website: