Rhiannon Giddens began 2022 with a starring role in Porgy and Bess, the iconic Gershwin opera often criticized for its derogatory depictions of Black characters. The widely hailed production, held in Giddens’ hometown of Greensboro, North Carolina, returned the multifaceted performer to an artistic space she had barely explored since her undergraduate years at Oberlin, where she was a standout opera singer. In this way, the thing she was formally trained to do ended up being the latest in a seemingly endless string of creative surprises served up by Giddens—and one that taught her about her own limits and how she might redefine them.
Learn more in this outtake from Giddens’ fall 2022 interview with Oberlin Alumni Magazine editor Jeff Hagan. The interview is featured in the Winter 2023 issue of OAM.
RG: I’m just all over the place, so people don’t really know what to do with me. It’s kind of cool, because I keep people on their toes. You know, it’s whiplash. It’s whiplash for me too. The expectation I feel like at this point is that I can just do it. It’s actually an expectation I’m putting on myself.
Like, I almost didn’t make it through Porgy. I showed up not knowing the score. It’s a 500-page score. I wasn’t in shape vocally. I made it with the help of some excellent people, including Oberlin alum Michael Preacely [’01], who was in the cast with me. Some excellent people showed up for me and helped me navigate what I needed to do. And by opening night, it was great. I’ve never been so close to just going I bit off more than I could chew. It was a really big lesson for me, because I start expecting: Oh yeah, I’m just gonna go do an opera, when I haven’t done an opera in 18 years. Eighteen years. That’s like almost a generation. It’s insane. What was I thinking? So I’ve learned a lot.
OAM: Do you ever feel like you just want to blow it out with rock and roll or something that doesn’t carry all of the weight?
RG: I think about that. But there’s a lot of people doing that. I’m always like What am I needed to do? What am I given to? And I feel like that’s what life is. It’s like there’s what you want to do and then there’s what you need to do because it’s what you’re given. And they don’t always line up.
I have to figure out for myself what it is that I can do to lift this a bit. My next record is all original songs. There’s a couple heavy songs in there, but it’s like there’s no slavery, you know what I mean? There’s no blackface. It’s just songs. But I had to do it on my terms. It’s still gonna have acoustic instruments. And [collaborator] Francesco [Turrisi] and I are doing piano/voice recitals in Carnegie Hall that will have some of those songs. I’m also gonna be doing stuff that I just want to do.
I also crochet a lot. A lot. I actually learned to knit while I was here [at Oberlin]. There’s a great memory that I have: The first live opera I saw was here, Marriage of Figaro. I still remember the cast. I’m still friends with the people in that cast. They were all seniors and juniors, and I was a freshman—like wide-eyed freshman. And I was an usher for the first one, so I stood up the whole time, and I was so taken. I saw it three times that weekend. I was in the fourth row, next to [then-musicology professor Sylvan] Suskin, and I was sitting there knitting. I was knitting a scarf, and he was just like Who is this freshman who’s a knitter and is sitting in the opera? I just remember that so much. I was like a granny sitting there. He just thought it was so cool.
I saw a lot of musicals when I was here. I saw Branford Marsalis here. I saw Ladysmith Black Mambazo here. I saw amazing stuff for cheap. You just have to go. And then I went to all the recitals. I used to have a book of all the recitals. I wish I still had it.
I was obsessed with this music. I was like What are we here for? This is what we’re here for. This is the time. I worked for the publicity office. I put up posters, I designed posters. I designed the website for the opera theater. I wrote press releases. I was an usher. I worked at the box office. Any aspect of the music industry that I could get into here, I did. I even did a couple of interviews. And it was all really valuable walking outta here. I took it all with me and used it in my career.
OAM: What’s left for you to do?
RG: Have a number-one hit.
OAM: That’s what you want?
RG: Just because it’s something different.
OAM: No shame. That’s good.
RG: I’d love to have a radio hit. For my label [Nonesuch]. They’ve put so much time into me and money into me and kind of let me have the freedom to do what I want to do. So it would be great to just be on that circus for a minute, and then get off. ’Cause that’s what I do.
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