I start with an apology. When Latonia Moore sang Aida at Covent Garden in 2011, at the end of a run reviving David McVicar’s production, I waxed lyrical about her performance, concluding: “I trust that the Royal Opera’s casting department have already signed her up for future engagements”. Perhaps that was the equivalent of the sports commentator’s curse because Moore was then faced with years of what she describes as “complete radio silence” until a tentative call last summer to help them out with an Elisabetta problem in Don Carlo. Moore finally returns to London this month, again in the role in Aida, but this time for English National Opera in Phelim McDermott’s new production.

Latonia Moore (Aida, ENO) © Tristram Kenton
Latonia Moore (Aida, ENO)
© Tristram Kenton

In a break during rehearsals, she was frank about her long absence from London. “It was extremely frustrating,” she explains. “Tony Pappano was very complimentary and I just don’t know what happened. I’m not sure what went down there!” But now she’s here to tackle the role for the first time in English. Moore was initially hesitant – Italian vowels are kinder to the voice and it’s harder to stay true to Verdi’s rhythms and accents in English. “It’s also hard not to cross the line into musical theatre. It’s very easy to turn Verdi into Gilbert & Sullivan!” She reports that vocal coaches are “on our ass” about diction, a frequent complaint charged against singers at ENO and some changes to the translation have been made during rehearsals. “Some words were ridiculous to sing on high notes,” she admits.

The biggest vocal challenge in Aida is the one all sopranos dread… the high C in “O patria mia”! “I heard a recording of Beverly Sills but even she – who has an extension for days – found it hard, so that gave me comfort. Even recently, when I heard Anna Netrebko it was hard for her and she has high Cs for days. It’s a balls-buster! If you sing the Act 2 aria from Ballo, it’s the exact same notes leading up to the high C, but that one is so easy. Same thing in the Verdi Requiem with the high C in the Libera me. But “O patria mia” sits within the passagio around five notes – the “Dove sono” zone is what I call it – and it’s very difficult to flip back over after you’ve been singing there because it’s a matter of making sure that your larynx stays down for the whole aria. It’s terrifying.”

Latonia Moore as Aida at San Diego Opera © Ken Howard | San Diego Opera
Latonia Moore as Aida at San Diego Opera
© Ken Howard | San Diego Opera

Funnily enough, Moore is familiar with ENO’s previous production, flamboyantly designed by Zandra Rhodes, as she sang it in San Diego. “By the time I did Zandra’s production, I’d done so many traditional looking ones, and a few updated ones which were just a barrel of shit, that it felt like a breath of fresh air… as is this one by Phelim.” Moore explains that McDermott sees his Aida as a sister production to his staging of Philip Glass’ Akhnaten which was ENO’s smash hit of 2016. “Phelim’s pretty damn awesome!” Moore exclaims. “I wish there were another word than director, because directing is not what he does. He tries to pull out of you every bit of your nature that you take for granted. His staging is a bit like Game of Thrones where you can kind of put your finger on a time period but not really. I am blue-haired and there’s a little bit of tribal make-up but the look of it is very different from any Aida I’ve ever done.”

Aida is Latonia Moore’s signature role, although not by choice. As a young black singer she definitely felt she’d been typecast after coming to sing the role almost by accident in Bremen. “Afterwards, I didn’t think I’d do a whole lot more Aidas. Before that I’d been singing Liu, Micaëla, Butterfly – full lyric roles whereas Aida is proper spinto. I was offered to cover it at the Met which I did not want to do, but to be perfectly honest I had no other work for the entire season so I had to take it.” Moore found it a frustrating experience, especially when Violeta Urmana cancelled the penultimate performance only for the Met to fly in Sondra Radvanovsky to take over. “Sondra was wonderful, she’s a great singer. She couldn’t do the last performance, but in the meantime my colleagues had spoken up for me to Peter Gelb and he gave me a chance. I was shitting my pants when they told me because the last show was the matinee and therefore the broadcast! No pressure – a huge way to make a debut! Not the perfect debut, but I definitely made a splash.”

Latonia Moore as Aida at the Metropolitan Opera © Cory Weaver | Metropolitan Opera
Latonia Moore as Aida at the Metropolitan Opera
© Cory Weaver | Metropolitan Opera

Verdi’s bicentenary in 2013 meant the Aidas kept rolling in – she’s now clocked up exactly 100 performances. “Part of me was making excuses saying it’s not just because I’m black it’s because I made this splash in New York, but then after a while I noticed that’s all I kept getting offered – Aida, Aida, Aida." Moore states that the problem was that many companies believed that a black Aida was all their audiences would accept. I suggest that surely the Leontyne Prices of this world fought that battle decades ago?

“You’d think! Look, some companies see past it. During that Zandra Rhodes Aida in San Diego, Ian Campbell hired me for Madame Butterfly. Finally, I thought, someone sees something different. He said “It’s not about me seeing something different. I hear something different.” He said “You can sing a million Aidas but I always think you’d be a better Butterfly.” He’s right. Butterfly is my best role. My throat lends itself to that role specifically."

Does the character of Aida always have to be blacked up? Anna Netrebko certainly darkened up at the Salzburg Festival this summer, but as a black person, Moore isn’t even remotely offended. “It’s a part of the role. I saw the pictures of Anna and you know, it didn’t offend me at all. You remember the big hoopla about Aleksandrs Antonenko singing Otello without blackface at the Met? People were in uproar over that but if they’d put him in blackface, there would have been uproar too.

“We are like chameleons. It doesn’t matter what colour you are in daily life, you are there to portray a character. When I first portrayed Madame Butterfly they lightened my skin by putting on a big base of red and then a very light skin tone on top so I did look really Asian. Sometimes as Butterfly they don’t do that at all. It’s my job to convince you that it doesn’t matter what colour you see or how big you see I am, that I’m this 15-year-old girl who’s ecstatic about my wedding day.

Latonia Moore in <i>Aida</i> on Sydney Harbour © Prudence Upton
Latonia Moore in Aida on Sydney Harbour
© Prudence Upton

“But let me tell you something really funny specifically about Aida. The first time I ever saw it was on television with Aprile Millo from The Met. I had never seen her before – I was only 18 – and I thought she sounded amazing... and I thought she was black! It wasn’t until I saw a concert on Youtube much later that I discovered that she’s white! Not only did she look black to me, she sounded black to me as Aida. She sounded like an African princess. I was flabbergasted!

This business is about portraying characters so if you’re playing Otello and the director’s vision is for you to be black, be black. If you’re playing Otello and it has nothing to do with you being black, then don’t be black. If I was directing it, I would want to make the Otello black regardless of who the singer was. I like the contrast. And if I cast a black Desdemona – and I’m singing it in December – then I would pull off a Grace Bumbry. She was very famous for having a different make-up palette for every role she did. You can find certain shades to lighten you up, not to be white but to be almost mixed race mulatto, blonde up your hair a bit. Beyoncé could pull off being Desdemona – just giving a hue of brightness without being porcelain white-skinned. It’s about convincing the audience. This is our job.

Latonia Moore (Aida, ENO) © Tristram Kenton
Latonia Moore (Aida, ENO)
© Tristram Kenton

“In terms of Aida, some of the greatest I’ve ever heard are not black at all. I’d be in denial if I sat here and said I wasn’t affected by Maria Callas. She was the quintessential opera singer, the perfect example that opera is more than just the voice – we are singing characters to life. It’s theatre. Singing is about more than technique and I hope the public keeps realising it. It’s one of the reasons I have the career I do, because I’m certainly not just a vocalist. If that all I wanted to do, I’d have remained a jazz singer.

“But Renata Tebaldi would be my No.1. I know she wasn’t perfect but the sound of this woman’s voice was as if God had put his finger down on Tebaldi’s throat and said “This is for you”. The sheer beauty of sound stops your heart.” But Moore doesn’t dare imitate. Bill Schuman, her teacher for the past 18 years, won’t let her. “He’s very good at keeping your throat sounding like you ‘I know you want to sound like Tebaldi, but that’s not your throat. You have to sing like you.’”