Rhea Olivaccé shares love of the classics

Soprano Rhea Olivaccé performs Friday at First United Methodist Church in South Haven as part of the South Haven Performance Series.

SOUTH HAVEN — Rhea Olivaccé has a rich musical pedigree.

Her grandfather was a tenor known for singing spirituals in community and church choirs, while her aunt, Ophélia Olivaccé-Marie, a Caribbean cadence-lypso singer, is known as the “First Lady of Song” in the West Indies island nation of Dominica where she grew up.

“My childhood was full of song,” says Olivaccé, a lyric soprano who performs Friday at First United Methodist Church as part of the South Haven Performance Series. “I remember when I graduated from preschool saying I wanted to be singer when I grew up. Of course my family was a big part of that. Quite a few of my family members are involved in music in one way or another. My grandfather was a big influence, as was my aunt. One of my cousins is a reggae artist in the Virgin Islands. Music was a way of life.”

Her biggest fan, however, was her mother, who after hearing Olivaccé sing “Every Step We Take” asked, that when the time came, her daughter sing this same song at her own funeral.

Olivaccé was only 16 years old when she fulfilled that promise.

“My mom was always my biggest fan,” Olivaccé says. “She always encouraged me to sing. I sang in school choirs and everywhere I could basically. I honestly didn’t believe in my singing – until I sang at her funeral. That is when I started to get a lot of feedback about my voice and about my singing. I knew I needed a more formal education in music, and that’s why I came to the States, and that’s where I fell for classical music.”

Two years later, Olivaccé landed a spot in the music program at Florida International University, where she was exposed to classical music. Her turning point came when she landed a chorister’s role in the opera “Norma.”

“I love the combination of the singing, the drama, the costumes, the set,” she says. “There’s just a sense of telling a very complete story. I really enjoy the power of projecting my voice without a microphone. There’s something different about a performance without a microphone. I think it touches people in a different way.”

At Florida International, Olivaccé ended up performing the role of Gasparina in Joseph Haydn’s “La Cantarina,” and the title role in Gustav Holst’s “Savitri.” After graduation, she landed at the University of Michigan, where she went on to earn her master’s and doctorate degrees in vocal performance.

During her time in Ann Arbor, she performed in four full operas, including the leading soprano roles of Tatyana in Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin” and Mimi in Giacomo Puccini’s “La Bohème,” La Contessa in Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s “Le Nozze di Figaro” and Suzel in Pietro Mascagni’s “L’amico Fritz.”

She and her husband, Lumumba Shabazz, moved to Kalamazoo in 2012, when he accepted the job as head soccer coach at Kalamazoo College. Olivaccé, meanwhile, has been teaching voice at Western Michigan University during that time while maintaining a busy performance schedule.

In March, she starred as Bess in Opera Western Reserve’s production of “Porgy & Bess” in Youngstown, Ohio.

For Friday’s recital, Olivaccé dives deep into her repertoire. She will be singing spirituals by Hall Johnson and Undine Smith Moore, and a set of Creole songs by Louisiana composer Camille Nickerson.

“I’m partial to them because the country that I’m from we speak both English and French Creole,” Olivaccé says. “It was fun to hear a lot of similarities in the music there.”

She also will perform a set of Spanish songs by composers Alberto Ginastera, Manuel de Falla and Carlos Guastavino, as well as three American tunes all centered around animals – Samuel Barber’s “The Monk and His Cat” from the song cycle “Hermit Songs,” Lee Hoiby’s “The Serpent” and Ricky Ian Gordon’s “Coyotes.” Pianist Tina Gorter will provide accompaniment.

“I tried to really choose songs that are very special to me, and songs that I love,” Olivaccé says. “These are songs I thought would be great for sharing in the summer.”

Contact: jbonfiglio@TheHP.com, 932-0364, Twitter: @HPBonfiglio