Janinah Burnett was born to be an artist.
“I’ve always been a singer. I always say that I’ve come to the planet as a singer,” Burnett said.
From an early age, she was immersed in music culture in part due to her father, Carl, a jazz drummer.
It did not take long for fame to find Burnett, whose first postgraduate performance was in Baz Lurhmann’s “La Bohème” on Broadway. Since then, Burnett has shared her internationally acclaimed soprano in major opera houses around the world and won the LA Theater Alliance’s Ovation Award.
Next on Burnett’s global tour is a stop at Eastern Mennonite University for its annual gala concert titled “Rutter, Rhapsody and Radiance.”
In previous years, the gala was solely a display of the advancement and education of each ensemble within the school. David Berry, EMU music department chair, said he wanted this year’s event to fulfill the true meaning of a gala by combining “ear-catching, show-stopping pieces” with a keynote artist.
“We’re always trying to do pieces that we think need to be brought to life, but for this and thinking of what a gala is, is to give the audience a special show, an experience you won’t forget,” Berry said.
Burnett said returning to schools and universities is equally enriching for the students as it is for her. Because life as a professional performer can feel distant from the studious life onstage, sharing with budding artists in a cultured environment allows for mutual learning.
“It’s so nice to be able to share what the reality of doing this profession is with young people who aspire to do this,” Burnett said. “Sharing about what is happening in my world and also finding out what’s happening in their world, the new things that they’re discovering ... It’s really a delicious exchange that I look forward to.”
Assistant professor James Richardson, performing baritone for Mozart’s “Don Giovanni,” said the camaraderie and collaboration between the guest soloist, faculty and students reflects the ethos of music making at EMU.
“We’ve a little bit of everything planned from the solemn and subdued to the most rhapsodic, rapturous and euphoric,” Richardson said. “We’re looking forward to the gala of galas as we’ve some stellar performers joining us for our evening.”
Burnett landed on Saturday’s bill, not from luck, but from friendship. Berry was an undergraduate student at the Eastman School of Music when Burnett was in graduate school. Again, their paths crossed when they were invited to perform in New York City with the Harlem Chamber Players at the opening exhibition of Kehinde Wiley’s art at the Brooklyn Museum.
When it came time to choose a guest performer for the evening, Berry said he could think of no better fit for the evening than Burnett.
Beyond her work as an award-winning opera and jazz performer, Burnett also arranges her own music and has co-written an artistic lament titled “I, Too Sing America” that she said is for the African American youth who have been killed at the hands of social injustice.
“I want to be a key player in contributing to the evolution of the music of our lives. More than saying that I’m an opera singer, I’m an artist. So an artist, there are no boundaries there,” Burnett said. “We are alive in a transformative time. ... Now’s the time for fearlessness and creating things that will allow us to continue to evolve greatly.”
Burnett will perform classic arias of Puccini and Verdi, as well as American jazz works by Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington, accompanied by the EMU orchestra and jazz band. The University Choir will present John Rutter’s “Requiem.” Berry, on the piano, and the EMU Wind Ensemble will conclude the evening with a presentation of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.”
Kimberlea Daggy, WEMC radio host for classical music program “Air Play,” will facilitate the evening and give some context to the music being performed as the night’s host.
Saturday’s gala will begin at 7 p.m. in EMU’s Lehman Auditorium. Berry said the donation-based, pay-what-you-can event’s focus is to bring an exceptional opportunity to the students, and all proceeds go to EMU music scholarships.
“We wanted to do something extravagant, outside of what a normal concert is for us,” Berry said. “We’re a small department, but we’re flexible and really trying to find a new way to be a music school — be outside of the more traditional, so students that are passionate about it can have a home here.”