N’Kenge Simpson-Hoffman in
SONGBIRD ON THE RISE
by William Gooch
published July 24, 2009
An interview with N’Kenge
whose show DivaLicious debuts Saturday, July
at the Triad Theater
and whose self-titled album will be released in
It is often said that the formula for success is ten percent luck, ten percent talent, and eighty percent hard work.
I don’t necessarily agree with those percentages because it is difficult to package success into an algebraic equation. But if you could,
the one ingredient missing from this success formula is passion, and N’Kenge Simpson-Hoffman has plenty of that.
Before I met N’Kenge in person, I knew that she was talented. Because she is superbly trained, it was a given that
she had worked hard. And her impressive list of accomplishments lead me to assume that some luck was involved in there somewhere. When I
finally got the opportunity to sit down and chat with N’Kenge, what was most striking was this all-consuming passion she has for music and
entertaining audiences with her eclectic blend of opera, gospel, pop, Broadway showtunes, and American standards.
Don’t be fooled by her bubbly personality and diminutive frame; N’Kenge has both feet on the ground. And with a new
CD dropping in August and upcoming performances in New York City, Cincinnati, Detroit, Canada, and Romania, this euphonious songbird is not
only on the rise, she is headed for heights unknown. Now, that’s something to sing about!
Could you tell me a little about your
N’Kenge: I am a native of the Bronx. My mom was a single mom and worked really hard to provide opportunities for me. I
went to Cathedral School at St. John the Divine, and there I joined the children’s choir, which was my introduction to singing classical music. I later
attended the LaGuardia High School for the Performing Arts, where I was a voice major. I also studied voice at the Harlem School of the Arts. I had
mezzo-soprano Betty Allen for master classes there. She was instrumental in getting me booked to sing with Winton Marsalis at Lincoln
When did you decide you wanted to be a
N’Kenge: I really decided around the age of ten when I performed Peppermint Patty in a school production of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown. I fell in love with performing and adored the audience
In listening to some of your classical
recordings, your voice is similar to the great soprano coloratura Reri Grist. Would you like to perform more full-length
N’Kenge: Since the age of nineteen I
have done mostly opera. I have performed Pamina in the Die Zauberflote, Juliet in Romeo and Juliet, Clara in Porgy and Bess, Susanna in Le Nozze di Figaro, Musetta in La Boheme and many others. My
teachers at Manhattan School of Music and Juilliard really didn’t want to me to sing outside of the classical repertoire. Because I am now
performing so many different styles of music, I don’t perform full-length operas as much as I have in the past. But I do welcome doing more
How would you classify your operatic voice?
N’Kenge: The more general classification of my voice is lyric soprano with a coloratura extension. I have the top of a
coloratura to a certain degree. I wouldn’t try to tackle the Queen of the Night from Die
Zauberflote, [laughter] but I have the extension to sing Gilda in Rigoletto. I can bounce my voice around in that coloratura manner but not to the point where I am repeatedly
singing a lot of high coloratura parts. My voice is more comfortable doing more of the dramatic roles like Marguerite in Faust or Mimi in La Boheme, but because of my diminutive frame I
get cast in soubrette roles.
Could you talk about your experience in
the musical theater production of Aida?
N’Kenge: Aida is another example of me trying to cross over and sing music outside of the classical repertoire. When
I got the call to perform Aida, I was already booked to perform Naughty Marietta at Alice Tully Hall with the Little Chamber Orchestra Society. So, I ended up performing
the two works around the same time. I would belt my brains out in Aida and then come back to NYC
and perform the operetta Naughty Marietta.
The role of Aida is such a strong female character, and it was inspiring to
portray a strong black woman. In this industry it is always a struggle because, as a woman of color, you get typecast a lot. Aida was my first leading role in a musical.
That said, is your vocal preparation for
musical theatre different than for operatic roles?
N’Kenge: Honestly, I do the same
vocal exercises for musical theatre as I do for operatic roles. My vocal exercises are more extensive for the classical repertoire, especially
if I am doing a coloratura role. I don’t have to vocalize into the high Cs if I am doing musical theatre. My voice has always been healthy and
I am able to go back and forth easily between different musical genres. A lot of classical singers wouldn’t dare belt out a song because it is
a different sensation in the vocal chords. Because I sang R&B and pop songs before I started singing the classical repertoire, that
belting sensation in the vocal chords was not unfamiliar to me.
Now, the famous soprano Martina Arroyo
is your vocal teacher. Could you talk about what it is like working with her?
N’Kenge: She is a no-nonsense
teacher and she is very supportive of what I am doing. I am very honored that she took me on as a student because she doesn’t take on many
students. She keeps my sound focused and round. She is also very maternal and a great advocate. The lesson time with her is all about your
voice; there are no distractions. She gives one hundred percent of her time and concentration during your lesson.
What is your opinion on the lack of
black opera singers in leading roles at the Met?
N’Kenge: There are a lot of talented
African American classical singers that should be singing at the Met. The professional standards of the operatic world are extremely
high and its so important to always be 150% on top of your game. It is a challenge to consistently maintain those standards.
Also, the directors should be a little more open-minded about casting because their subscriber base is shrinking.
They really need to expand their base beyond the traditional subscriber. The general consensus is that folks of color aren't big subscribers to the opera; however, now we have an African American president and more black folks will become subscribers if they see themselves reflected on stage.
What was it like being in the Miss
N’Kenge: Well, I was recruited for
the Miss America Pageant. [Laughter] One of the judges for the Miss America Pageant was a judge
when I won the New York State Talented Teen contest. He felt I was talented and was the right age. They enticed me with scholarship money that
was available. So, basically I did it to win scholarship money. I was assigned an executive director that preps you on the best way to present
Now, there is a side to the Miss America Pageant that is really crazy. For
example, you are only supposed to rehearse your talent routine in practice gowns so that the other contestants don’t see the actual gown you
are wearing or get the opportunity to sabotage your gown. You’re not supposed to let the other girls see the color of your swimsuit. I mean it
is really that petty. [Raucous laughter]
But at the same time, you to have to really focus on the interview segment. The judges ask you
all types of questions about current events. So you have to be really knowledgeable and answer questions in the ‘Miss America Package’
style. I have to say, it was great training for doing interviews.
Your self-titled CD N’Kenge comes out in late August. One of the tracks on
that CD is “Bachianas Brasileiras” by Villa-Lobos. That aria is closely associated with soprano Kathleen Battle. Why did you choose to
include that aria on N’Kenge?
N’Kenge: The Bachianas aria was a
piece that was already in my repertoire and I love it because you have eight cellists—believe me, it is very difficult to find eight fantastic
cellists and put them all in one room. [Lots of
laughter] I wasn’t trying to compare myself to anyone who has recorded the work. Since Kathleen Battle, no major recording has been made
of the aria, and since my CD has music from different genres, I felt that audiences who weren’t necessarily into classical music would also
You have covered John Lennon’s
“Imagine.” Why did you arrange “Imagine” like a gospel song with a choir in the
N’Kenge: I didn’t want my version
directly compared to the John Lennon version. Because there is so much respect for John Lennon, I felt if I was going to cover “Imagine,” I
had to put my own twist on it.
How did you come to collaborate with Ray
N’Kenge: I was working with Preston
Glass, who wrote “I Miss You Like Crazy.” I got him to work as one of the producers on my recent CD and he hired Ray Parker, Jr. to play on
the album as a musician. So the producers wanted me to do a duet and I thought, why not get Ray Parker, Jr. to do a song with me? You know,
Ray Parker, Jr. really sees himself as a guitarist who happens to sing. Anyway, we talked Ray into it and he is featured on two songs I’ve recorded.
Let’s talk about your upcoming show
DivaLicious at the Triad Theatre. How did you come it
with that name?
evolved from a show I did last year called Last Diva Standing. DivaLicious extends to more musical genres than its prior incarnation. It gives homage to all the sizzling divas from opera to
pop. I conjure up Maria Callas, Marian Anderson, Tina Turner, Billie Holiday, Josephine Baker, Gloria Gaynor, just to name a
few.DivaLicious is a celebration of these women’s music, their lives, and what they brought to our world. It is all streamlined with
dialogue, a great band, and costume changes. In a nutshell, the show is divalicious. [Lots of laughter]
What is next for
N’Kenge: I have so much going on. I
am repeating the DivaLicious show at Don’t Tell Mama, but it is called DivaLicious Unplugged. I make my Carnegie Hall debut in November 2009. I will be working with the Cincinnati
Pops Orchestra in December and performing the title role in Romeo and Juliet in Romania in May
williamgooch @ stageandcinema.com
DivaLicious debuts at the Triad
Theater on July 25 at 7:00 pm, and features special guests Karla Mosley from CBS’s Guiding Light and Curtis Wiley from the musical The Lion King,
along with award-winning musicians including Bassist/Guitarist Danny Miranda from the band Queen and Blue Oyster Cult. Tickets are $15.00 in
advance at www.theatermania.com, or call 212-352-3101. Admission is $20.00 at the door. There
will be a two-drink minimum. For information about the Triad Theater, go to www.triadnyc.com.
For information about N’Kenge Simpson-Hoffman, go to
read William Gooch's review of DivaLicious