This conversation was recorded in September of 1990, and published
in The Opera Journal three years later.
It has been slightly re-edited, and the photos and bio-box have
been added for this website presentation.
Soprano Alpha Floyd
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
|The American soprano, Alpha Brawner-Floyd, was
the daughter of Rena Darden Brawner, a registered nurse, and Jeff Brawner,
a medical doctor. She received her early voice training under Dr. Willis
James at Spelman and from the Juilliard School of Music in New York City.
Among her teachers were: Lotte Leonard, Jennie Tourel and Claire Gelda.
Alpha Brawner married the psycologist Arthur Floyd Jr. in December
1965 in New York City, and is better-known by her married name, Alpha
She began her career as the debut award winner of the Concert Artists
Guild. She interpreted the title role in the American Opera Society's
production of Karl Goldmark's The Queen of Sheba (New York City,
1970). This performance was issued on the BJR label. She appeared at many
major American opera houses throughout her career, most notably at New
York City Center Opera, Houston, San Diego, and Jackson Opera/South Kentucky.
Her Lyrico Spinto repertoire included Leonore in Verdi's Il trovatore,
as well as his Aïda and Lady Macbeth, plus the title roles in Puccini's
Turandot and Tosca. On January 27, 1972, she created
the title role in the world premiere of a new version of the opera Treemonisha
by Scott Joplin at the Atlanta Opera, a joint production of the music department
of Morehouse College and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, using the orchestration
by T.J. Anderson,
directed by Katherine Dunham, and conducted by Robert Shaw. In August 1972,
she sang Aïda at the convention of the National Association of Negro
Musicians at the Commodore Hotel in New York City (with Harlem Chorale
and Symphony of the New World conducted by Everett Lee). She later sang
Lucrezia Contarini in a 1979 performance of Verdi's I Due Foscari.
In addition to her work on stage, she also performed successfully in
the concert hall. On May 1, 1982, she was one of a group of soloists in
a performance of Verdi's Requiem at Salem United Methodist Church
in New York City.
== Names which are links in this box and below
refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website. BD
With the recent death of the great contralto, Marian Anderson [April
8, 1993], many musicians have re-evaluated the status of black American
singers in concert halls and opera houses, both at home and abroad.
Many established stars credit her with opening doors and paving the way.
Everyone, both performer and audience, owes her a debt not only for her
groundbreaking stance and sheer will-power to overcome obstacles, but simply
for the music she made and the emotions she shared through her gifts and
One who has been both a beneficiary and a continuation of this legacy
is soprano Alpha Floyd. For many years, she has gone about the business
of giving concerts and operas around the country and throughout the world,
and in doing so, has paved her own way through the maze that is the performer’s
An infrequent visitor to Chicago, it was my pleasure to arrange an
interview with Floyd before one of her concerts in conjunction with the
Center for Black Music Research at Columbia College. Warm and gracious
with an infectious laugh, her enthusiasm for many subjects belied a substantial
career, and showed a true joy for making music in any situation.
Here is much of what went on that afternoon . . . . .
Bruce Duffie: Do you like all the travel necessary for
a singing career?
Alpha Floyd: Oh, yes, I love it. It’s very exciting
because you go to new places, and even when you go to old places, you
see new things. I go to San Francisco every year, and every time
I’m there I find something different that I haven’t seen before.
BD: Do you get enough time in each city to enjoy the place,
or are you mostly concentrating on your work?
Floyd: I don’t really have enough time. There’s
usually only three or four days in a city before I go to the next job,
so I don’t get a chance to really see the city. I have to come back
and keep coming back. Each time I get to do and see a little more.
BD: How do you divide your career between operas
and concerts? [Vis-à-vis the LP shown at right, see my interviews
with Florence Quivar,
and Lorin Maazel. Floyd’s
role is Annie, and she is also a soloist in the Sextette. Though not
a large part, it is important that she participated in this significant
Floyd: I don’t like to do opera one night and a
concert the next week. I like to have the concerts concentrated,
and the opera concentrated. So, from September to December or January
I have concerts, and from February to April I have my opera. Then
in the summer I do several festivals, but it varies from year to year.
I do a festival in Oregon every year, and it’s very beautiful there.
The weather is very cool, so coming from New York where it’s hot and muggy,
the cool is wonderful. It’s a great contrast.
BD: Is it easier to sing when it’s cooler and drier?
Floyd: Oh, yes, sure.
BD: You get offers for operas and offers for concerts.
How do you decide if you’ll accept or turn down each one?
Floyd: If it’s not one of the standard operas that
I sing all the time, I have to look and see if it is really suited to my
voice. If it is, and if it’s interesting, then I say yes. I
always like a challenge, and I like new music, too.
BD: This would be contemporary music?
Floyd: Both contemporary pieces, and romantic works
that are new to me.
BD: Would you give any advice to a composer who
was writing for you?
Floyd: Sure, because I know my voice better than
anyone. Now I’m not so forward as to say, “This
would sound better than that,” but when we go over
the music, most composers are gracious, especially if they’re writing for
you and your voice. They usually ask if I like it this way, or would
prefer it another way, and demonstrate alternatives so you have the opportunity
to make your preference known.
BD: Then the general question becomes whether composers
today are writing music that is grateful for the voice, and grateful for
you to sing?
Floyd: I can’t speak for all of them, but those
that I’ve sung write grateful music. Otherwise, I wouldn’t do it.
You only have one voice. If your technique messes up a piano, it
can be fixed. But if something happens to your voice, that’s it.
BD: With the vast array to choose from, how do you
decide which songs and larger pieces you will present in any given year?
Floyd: First, I decide what kinds of programs there
will be. I begin with some older pieces — Handel
or Mozart — and go from there to see
what will fit in. Some programs have themes, and if it’s a romantic
program, I’ll include Rachmaninov, or Brahms, or Schubert, and I always
try to include some new music.
BD: Do you sing differently, or adjust your technique,
for a small recital hall as opposed to a large hall, or an opera house?
Floyd: There has to be an adjustment. In the Carnegie
Recital Hall, for instance, you don’t have to project as much because
it’s like your living room. But if you’re in the big hall in Carnegie,
where I’ve sung many times, you really have to adjust. If you sing
in the large hall as you would in the small one, you’ll be too soft, and
if you sing in the small one as you do in the large one, you’ll be much too
loud. But it’s not a great adjustment — or
it shouldn’t be.
BD: It’s subtle, but I assume your technique is
your technique no matter where you are performing?
Floyd: Absolutely, and you have to work around that.
BD: Are you conscious of the audience that attends
any particular performance?
Floyd: I sing to my audience because I want them
to come and hear me. I’m not a person who sings inwardly. I
project out, and I want them to enjoy it. I love to sing, and I hope
that those who come love to hear me. I also hope that I’m an instrument
of educational value to the audience.
BD: So you’re part teacher?
Floyd: I hope so!
BD: What kinds of things do you teach audiences?
Floyd: I hope any voice students will see that I’m
breathing properly, and that my languages are correct. I’m a good
musician, so the notes will be correct, and for a young singer that is very
important. For the general audience of music lovers, I hope that my
singing will enhance their day, and that they will think about it even
the next few days.
* * *
BD: Tell me about singing Goldmark’s Queen of Sheba.
Is it a good role for you?
Floyd: At the time I thought it was, but in thinking
about it again, I’m not so sure that the role is as grateful as the other
character called Sulamith. I think I like that role better.
It fits my voice better, and it’s very beautiful music. Every now
and then you hear a performance of it somewhere, but I’m surprised that
it’s not sung often.
BD: I often feel that way when I hear an unusual
work — why is it not done more frequently?
Floyd: In bel canto works, you sometimes
don’t have the singers for it. A specialist comes along, and you
get a number of works which fit that particular voice.
BD: What is the role you’ve done the most?
Floyd: The role I’ve done the most is Aïda.
Then comes Leonora in Il Trovatore.
BD: Did Verdi write well for the voice?
Floyd: I think so. I happen to love his music.
It has such great flow.
BD: Tell me a bit about Aïda.
Floyd: Her predicament is that she’s a princess of
Ethiopia, yet she’s been captured and enslaved by the Egyptians. Unfortunately,
she falls in love with Radamès, who is loved by the Egyptian princess,
Amneris. It’s quite complicated. There is one thing I disagree
with in the plot. I don’t think she should have gone with Radamès
to be sealed into the tomb. That is the ultimate price to pay, and
it’s difficult to say what you would do in that situation, but I don’t
like the ending.
BD: How would you rewrite it?
Floyd: First of all, I would not have Radamès
die. Let them both escape that fate.
BD: So you wouldn’t rewrite the end of the fourth
act, but rather the end of the third act to make it a happy ending?
Floyd: I like happy endings, not only to operas
but to anything! But I guess tragedy is more appealing to people.
It’s certainly box-office material.
BD: I’m with you — I
prefer happy endings in drama and real life. But I wonder if it’s
the story, or the music that brings people to the theater?
Floyd: Actually, in opera the story line is often
on the surface, or superficial. For me, opera is the music, and I
think it’s that for most people.
BD: But when you’re on stage, you have to be dramatic
and present that character.
Floyd: Of course, and I am. I become Aïda.
I’m from Memphis, Tennessee, so Memphis, Egypt is close! [Laughs]
BD: Are there any roles in which the character is
perilously close to the real Alpha Floyd?
Floyd: [Ponders a moment] I can’t think of
one. But I’m an actress, so that’s my job
— to become these people for the moment.
BD: When you arrive at the theater, how long does
it take you to get into the character, so that when you walk on stage,
you are that character?
Floyd: When we have a run of performances and rehearsals
for four to six weeks, I am that character the whole time. Even
between performances, I am still in the essence of the character.
I don’t go around with head bowed as Aïda would on the stage, but
the essence of the character has become a part of my own character.
I don’t let go of that until the run is over, and even then, it’s three
or four days before I’m free of it.
BD: I’d hate to be the airline steward when you’re
flying home after a role in which you kill someone! [Both laugh] Are
there some roles that you don’t sing often which you’d like to do again?
Floyd: I did Turandot once, and got great reviews,
but it’s too difficult to sing all the time. The role is short but
BD: Did you make an appearance in the first act?
Floyd: Yes, of course. There’s nothing to
sing, but I appeared at the right moment. She is on her way to another
execution, and passes by.
BD: She’s unconcerned about her latest victim?
Floyd: That’s right. [Waving her hand] Next!
BD: Are you then glad that Turandot’s heart is melted
Floyd: Yes, I like that. See, I’m a very sentimental
person to begin with, so when something like that happens, I like it.
* * *
BD: Have you sung some Mozart?
Floyd: I’ve sung Mozart arias, and I did The Magic
Flute at the very beginning of my career for about seven or eight years.
BD: Is there a secret to singing Mozart?
Floyd: You have to have a good technique, because Mozart
exposes the voice. The orchestra is very quiet, and you have this
beautiful line. You have to have a good technique in order to survive
that. If you don’t have a very good technique, Mozart is very difficult
to sing. There are some composers where the orchestra takes over,
and a good voice can manage to make it through. You can ride the orchestra,
but if you don’t have a good technique, and you try to sing Mozart, you’re
in trouble. I have a good technique, and I’ve had some wonderful voice
teachers. I graduated from Spillman College in Atlanta, Georgia,
and then graduated from Juilliard, and stayed in New York pursuing my career.
BD: You’ve sung all over the United States.
Have you also appeared in Europe?
Floyd: Oh, yes! I’ve sung in Rome, and in
Germany, and often at La Fenice in Venice. That’s one of my favorite
opera houses. I like the size, and it’s very beautiful, plus the
surroundings are wonderful with the canals.
BD: You should sing Rusalka over there!
Floyd: I’ve never sung it, but that’s a good idea
with all the water there.
BD: Are the audiences different in Europe from here
Floyd: They’re different in that they know all the
operas since they grew up with them in Kindergarten. When I started
listening to opera, I was about ten or eleven, but already that was late
compared to the Europeans. Some people become real opera buffs later
on in life, but that’s the only difference, because lots of people love
opera here in America just as much as anyone anywhere in the world.
BD: Hooray for us! But should we continue
to try and expand the audience here in America?
Floyd: I think we should, and it should start in elementary
school. High school is already late to begin. Just as the kids
know the pop stars, they should know the great operas, and the famous singers.
Nowadays, there are lots of television commercials that use operatic melodies,
and I think that’s very nice.
BD: It gets a bit of opera in their ears without
them realizing it!
Floyd: That’s true, but we need to start building
audiences even in the early grades. If we wait, teenagers have so
much to do. They’re busy, busy, busy, and if you try to add opera,
it’s much more difficult, whereas in first grade, everything is new and
exciting. So if you introduce it there, it becomes part of their
psyche. Many of the smaller opera companies, and the large ones too,
should go into the schools and perform excerpts of things the kids would
enjoy. I maintain that if the music is good, the kids will enjoy it.
BD: So you’re optimistic about the future of opera?
Floyd: Oh, yes! I don’t think it’s a museum
that will stay there for a certain group of people, and that’s that.
BD: Is it good that opera is on the television,
where virtually anyone can see it?
Floyd: Oh, yes! It’s a wonderful idea to put
opera on the television. Hopefully, more people will see it there,
and then come to it live because they’re not afraid.
BD: Do you like this new gimmick of supertitles
in the theater?
Floyd: It’s good for now, until we can think of
something even better. I do find it a bit of a distraction, and
have noticed others around me looking up and missing something that happens
on the stage.
BD: Would you prefer to see
— and to sing — operas
Floyd: There should be two casts
— one for the original language whatever that is, Italian,
French, German, Russian, whatever — and
then another cast singing a good translation, like ones that Andrew Porter does.
That’s an excellent idea, so those who want to get the essence of the
opera in English can have that, and others might even want to compare
the two, and see both performances. I’m
sure that’s very expensive, though.
BD: One last question. Is singing fun?
Floyd: For me, yes, because I love to sing.
I always have! I sang when I was three and four years old, so it’s
been with me forever. It’s a gift that was given to me, and I’m very
BD: Thank you for the conversation.
Floyd: Thank you. I enjoyed it.
---- ---- ----
© 1990 Bruce Duffie
This conversation was recorded in Chicago on September 21, 1990.
The transcription was made in 1993, and was published in The
Opera Journal in the September issue. In 2020, it was slightly
edited, and additions were made, and it was posted on this website at
that time. My thanks to British soprano
Una Barry for
her help in preparing this website presentation.
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed
and posted on this website, click here.
winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with
97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final
moment as a classical station in February of 2001.
His interviews have also appeared in various magazines
and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast
series on WNUR-FM.
are invited to visit his website for more information
about his work, including selected transcripts
of other interviews, plus a full list of his
guests. He would also like to call your attention
to the photos and information about his grandfather,
who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.
You may also send him E-Mail
with comments, questions and suggestions.