Since starring in the classic opera “Porgy and Bess,” Dr. Diana Thompson-Brewer has become a mainstay in North Carolina opera. She talks to us about breaking barriers in a conservative, white-dominated art form.
[Editor’s Note: This article has been updated.] When it was time to start shattering glass ceilings, Dr. Diana Thompson-Brewer knew she’d be doing it with her voice: with the high F at the end of the mad aria in “Lucia Di Lammermoor” to be precise.
“I think that song alone has a lot to do with my success,” says Thompson-Brewer, a North Carolina-based opera singer, voice instructor, and self-professed “supermom.”
In opera, “mad“ scenes are usually an opportunity for a gifted vocalist to show off their pipes. They are technically demanding. And the scene in “Lucia” is one of the peak roles for “coloratura,” a style known for its elaborate melodies and virtuosic singing.
“But I sing it well,” she says. “And somebody caught it on camera.”
While Misty Copeland’s career has brought ballet’s racial inequities to international attention and launched the genre into contemporary relevance, opera, a similarly conservative art, has been waiting for its renaissance. Now, Thompson-Brewer, an opera singer trained in North Carolina whose multi-racial heritage includes Black, Thai, and Native American roots, is one of the talented musicians at the helm of change.
Her deep connection with the North Carolina opera community began in 2007, when she moved here for ten years, pursuing her masters in music at UNC-Greensboro and establishing a voice studio in Burlington.
Although she has since moved back to her hometown of Augusta, Ga., Thompson-Brewer’s “Lucia” caught the attention of a past professor–Greensboro Opera’s Artistic Director David Holley. Holley invited her back to North Carolina to cover as Clara in Greensboro Opera’s premiere of “Porgy and Bess” in 2022. Afterward, she landed three invitations for theater debuts in the same season.
Thompson-Brewer has become a mainstay of NC opera, with lead roles in performances across NC’s 5 opera houses (including a stint as the Wilmington Opera House Theater Company’s Queen of the Night in the “The Magic Flute”–that other crowning coloratura role), and is now debuting her role as Clara in the upcoming production of “Porgy and Bess,” a collaboration between Charlotte’s Opera Carolina and Raleigh’s North Carolina Opera. [Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated how many times Thompson-Brewer had played the role of Clara.]
The First Bars
Music has been a part of Thompson-Brewer’s life from before she could even talk. “I grew up singing Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston. My dad used to say I grew up singing before I was talking, and I’m a firm believer that he was telling the truth,” Thompson-Brewer said.
However, few people outside her immediate family knew about her voice, since she was painfully shy. But when word started to get around, her 7th-grade literature teacher asked to hear her sing, which she only agreed to do from behind a bookshelf in the back of the room.
“At which point the school police officer, my math teacher, and the literature teacher–these are all Black people by the way–pulled me out into the hallway and told me I was too talented to be shy,” Thompson-Brewer says.
They encouraged her to audition for a local arts magnet school, which she attended for 8th grade and high school, beginning her journey towards classical singing and opera, supported by her community.
“The people in my community always pushed me when they saw something,” she said
“And my shyness was probably just a phase.”
Thompson-Brewer took voice lessons in high school and started participating in competitions either singing oratorio or opera. After her graduate studies in 2009, in North Carolina, Thompson-Brewer participated in some YAP, young artist programs, and began her professional career with smaller regional companies.
But for the 2022-23 season The Greensboro Opera performed “Porgy and Bess” – one of the most popular operas of all time—and Thompson-Brewer was invited to cover the role of Clara. And suddenly things got busy.
More of a Clara than a Bess
Admittedly, “Porgy and Bess” has had a controversial history–both in its wider reception as an all-Black cast opera premiering in the 1930s and within the Black community for reinforcing tropes and stereotypes of Black poverty, violence, and drug addiction.
But for Thompson-Brewer, the show has provided an opening, not just for her career but for offering diverse portrayals of Black lives.
“In ‘Porgy and Bess,’ Black people aren’t just a cameo and explicitly shown in one light. You get to see all the different characters and even glimpses of other personalities from the chorus.”
While the titular relationship between Porgy and Bess is chaotic and plagued by abuse and addiction, Clara and her husband Jake’s relationship is the opposite:
“I think you get to see different types of relationships in the Black community at the time. Clara and Jake are this secure, supportive, loving Black couple that have a child together. And when Clara runs out into the ocean for her husband, you get to see this: This epic, sacrificial love.”
In this way, the classic role of Clara is a culmination of Thompson-Brewer’s doctoral dissertation–At First Sight–a contemporary song-cycle exploring what it means to love a Black man in America. And it doesn’t hurt that Clara is “vocally perfect” for the coloratura singer.
Opening the Door
Since Greensboro Opera’s debut of “Porgy and Bess” in 2022, the show has dominated NC’s opera scene–including upcoming productions in Raleigh and Charlotte.
For Thompson-Brewer, playing Clara helped to develop her relationships with local directors, propelling her into other starring roles in operas across the state and nationally. But she has mixed feelings about it.
“It’s great that the door opens because of [Porgy and Bess] but also it shouldn’t have to be the way the door opens,” Thompson-Brewer says.
If a door needs to be opened, that means you weren’t invited from the beginning, and all-Black cast operas shouldn’t be the only way in. At the same time, there has been a visible impact on the demographics of NC opera.
And as a performer, Thompson has a front seat to the change that she is leading.
“Back when I would sing in opera choruses, I was usually one of two or three Black people. But, now in Greensboro’s ‘La Boheme,’ there were 10 Black faces in the production, it was an amazing difference.”