A diva charts her own course to the Met

Takesha Meshe Kizart, dressed up for the Opera. (Photo by Maja Slavec.)
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The first time Takesha Meshé Kizart performed in public, she was two years old. By the age of 14 she was doing, well, everything. She was a soloist in a performance of Handel's Messiah; the director, producer, choreographer, costume designer, and star of her school's production of The Wiz; the vocalist on her cousin's techno club single, "Sanctify."

"I'm one of those people who is multitalented," Kizart told Capital in an interview in the lounge of her Upper West Side hotel. "I'm one of those people who could probably right now be the C.E.O. of the Quaker Oats company or I could be an entertainment lawyer, one of those people."

Instead, Kizart, 29, became an operatic soprano, another career in which high levels of confidence and drive—which in Kizart, thanks to charm and a ready laugh, read as endearing rather than obnoxious—come in handy. "I've been going nonstop since I started in January '08," she said, referring to her professional debut, "which is a huge blessing—thank you, Jesus—that's wonderful. I'm learning music constantly."

Kizart has followed a different journey from many other talented singers of her generation. Rather than doing the competitions-and-covering circuit like her conservatory buddy Angela Meade, or joining a prestigious young artists' program at the Met or San Francisco like Danielle de Niese, she has taken a more old-fashioned path: going right to major roles at sometimes smaller houses, mostly in Europe. Indeed, she arrived in New York from Ljubljana a couple of weeks ago, fresh from an unexpected role debut as Cio-Cio San in Puccini's Madama Butterfly at the Slovenian National Opera. (She learned the part in a week after the director and conductor rejected the singer they'd had in mind.)

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Kizart's European Strategy avoids the tiny roles that many singers accept as their due early in their careers. It's perfectly suited to her well developed sense of her own talent. You can't imagine Kizart in the chorus. "I've always been like, 'I've got the wings,'" she said. "I've always understood my destiny in God." And the strategy seems to be working: she'll make her Met debut in the 2012-13 season in the major (if still supporting) role of Liu in Puccini's Turandot.

Well before that, though, this Saturday she'll debut another new part, the title role in Donizetti's Maria di Rohan, at the Caramoor Festival in Katonah, where she appeared two years ago to great acclaim as Leonora in Verdi's La Forza del Destino.

Maria di Rohan stands out largely because she remains alive at the end of the opera, an extreme rarity in Kizart's repertoire, which includes tragic roles like Butterfly, Tosca, Leonora in Il Trovatore, and Elena and Margherita in Mefistofele. As she and her advisers try to expand, though, there are a couple of parts she's not interested in, wanting to avoid be racially typecast and dreading comparisons solely to black singers.

"I've been offered Aida since I could breathe," she said, "and I've said no. I had a conversation with my management before we got started, and I was like, ‘That's not going to happen.' No Aida, no Porgy and Bess, none of them. I want to become known as myself first, before I become known as the next—blah blah blah, you know what I mean—the next random person. Let me be known as Takesha Meshé Kizart first."

Kizart was born into a musical family in Chicago. Her great-uncle was the blues great Muddy Waters, and her great-aunt on the other side is Tina Turner. "I've been singing since I could breathe," Kizart said, and laughed. She laughs long and hard, and she doesn't just laugh; she doubles over and slaps her knees.

After moving with her mother to Dallas, she got her undergraduate degree in vocal performance at the University of North Texas, where she bristled against what she thought was an excessively rigid training program. She had talented friends who had gone to Philadelphia's Academy of Vocal Arts, and so she applied.

"AVA is one of those places that focuses you," she said. "It's intense, but in an amazing way. Rehearsal all day for hours and hours: It was just a wonderful place to do that in. I'm the kind of person who has a different work ethic than maybe others. When you're able to bring music to life, if that's not your joy, you should be doing something else. And that's the great thing about AVA. You're able to identify whether it's your joy."

Kizart has a big voice, and she's pretty and curvy, which has led to pressure to take on roles far too huge for a young artist. (This process has probably been accelerated by becoming prominent in major roles so soon. That "European Strategy" will require extreme diligence on the part of her team to prevent vocal burnout.) "I've been offered Salome at least five times now," she said, "and I'm like, ‘We have time for that, people.' I was offered Abigaille [in Verdi's Nabucco] before I had even started a career. I was like, ‘No, no, that's not going to work.' Just because you have a large voice doesn't mean you need to be starting out with all the craziness. I mean, come on."

She recognizes that her appearance may help her in the age of high-def, though she's careful about modesty. "Even when I do Salome, I want to be in a jeweled bikini," she said. No Karita Mattila-type full-frontal here.

"I have always strived to be the type of artist that they now seem to want," she said. "I don't find any pressure from anyone else but myself. I always want to make sure that I look my best, and sound my best, and am prepared to the best of my ability. I'm preparing my legacy right now. I want to look back with pride."