What made you interested in challenging the traditional trajectory or parameters of an opera singer?
So many things made me want to challenge the traditional idea of the ‘opera singer’. Firstly, I know that I don’t look like a typical opera singer, and just about every person I meet reminds me of that fact, actually. I knew I had this talent, and I knew it wasn’t typical. Instead of letting that hold me back, I took a step forward and decided to embrace my non-traditional look and my natural hair and boldly share my gift with those who lived closest to me. It’s so strange how we opera singers can travel all over the world, wear costumes and wigs, and sing in several different languages, and the very people closest to us may never hear us sing because they didn’t buy a ticket to our performance. So many of my friends, relatives, and neighbors could know me for years and still not have heard me sing, let alone know I sing opera. I thought it was time to share my gift and abandon tradition. Tradition can hold us back. While there is still great need for the wealthy patron, opera has got to expand and be what it always was: musical storytelling. And anyone, regardless of their economic situation, can appreciate a good story and they deserve to be at the “dinner table.” I am concerned for opera’s role in society today. It has always been an elite art form, but it’s going to need to expand its doors to the whole community.
How did performing in non-traditional places inform your work as a vocal artist? Are you continuing this type of practice outside of Brooklyn?
This venture into non-traditional performance and venue has caused me to be able to embrace my whole self, the same “self” that has to act a character. I am more comfortable with who I am, and it is expressed in my voice and my body. It is in fact, me that people pay money to hear. No one wants to watch a phony on stage.
This boldness helped me to launch Opera Open-Stage nights. I took what I loved about the open-mic scene in Slam Poetry and decided to incorporate that communal and supportive spirit in the opera field. Opera singers need an underground scene to keep us inspired too. I plan to start Opera Open-Stage nights in Southern California.
Any memorable encounters while filming “Guerrilla Opera” in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn?
I loved singing in the bodega and being mocked by a customer who also called me “cute.” I am often mocked by folks, including family and friends. It’s funny how opera can be a joke to so many people and at the same time, be profoundly beautiful. The juxtaposition of humor and serious music-making is in all of these videos.
What prompted you to start Muse Salon Collaborative (a socially conscious network that supports artists and arts organizations), and how does it affect you, as a performer and artist?
MuseSalon came from a burning desire to connect artists with one another. Artists are powerful and vital to society and we need each other in order to manifest our talents and visions and color the world. I came to realize this profoundly when living in New York, the artist’s Mecca. My artistic identity is fueled by my awareness of my community, and I want to be an active member of the community. I cannot merely make art and ignore those closest to me, both fellow artists and neighbors.
Malesha Jessie Taylor is a versatile artist of both the operatic and concert stages. She received her Masters of Music degree from the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, and her Bachelor of Music degree from California State University, Fullerton. Jessie has sung throughout Europe and the United States, including performances with the Boston Pops Orchestra, American Symphony Orchestra, and the San Francisco and Los Angeles Operas. She is the founder of Muse Salon Collaborative, a social enterprise that fosters cross-disciplinary dialogue and collaboration through an international arts network. Jessie recently relocated from Brooklyn to San Diego, CA.