When N’Kenge was just 17, she found herself in New York City’s Russian Tea Room — an icon of celebrity and opulence — about to perform a Mozart aria and an African-American spiritual, a rather unusual pairing. It was a “pinch yourself” moment. The young singer had won a scholarship awarded by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, the composers of rock ’n’ roll classics such as “Hound Dog” and “Jailhouse Rock,” and they were in the audience.
Nobody knew then what N’Kenge’s career would look like, but the music she chose would turn out to be a prescient hint. Now, she’s one of the most versatile singers anywhere, performing lead roles in opera houses all over the world, starring on Broadway, recording studio albums, and more.
Simpson-Hoffman will join the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra and conductor Stuart Chafetz at 8 p.m. on Wednesday, July 4, in the Amphitheater for a program of patriotic classics, film scores, pop tunes, Broadway numbers and classical music.
When Chafetz puts together a program with a soloist, he customizes it specifically for his or her talents. Because N’Kenge has such broad abilities, Chafetz has put together an eclectic variety of music for tonight’s concert.
For Chafetz, the selection represents the best American music has to offer from different genres and time periods. He’s programmed Carole King’s “(You Make Me Feel Like A) Natural Woman”, for the ’70s, “Funkytown” for the ’80s, “I Feel Pretty” from West Side Story for Broadway and the theme from “Skyfall” for film scores, to name a few.
“It’s about being multi-generational. The concert’s programmed so that grandparents, grandkids and parents can all sit together and enjoy the entire experience,” Chafetz said. “I’m always excited to get the Chautauqua Symphony groovin’ — as well as the audience.”
N’Kenge is well-equipped to sing the program in part because her musical diversity started early. A native of New York City, she attended both Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School for the Performing Arts and the Harlem School of the Arts, two of the city’s most renowned music institutions. She was raised on pop, Motown and rhythm and blues, but a vocal teacher saw the operatic potential in her voice and encouraged her to pursue classical music.
That exposure to opera was a turning point for N’Kenge. When she was still in high school, the young singer had an offer for a record contract, and she could have begun her performing career without attending college.
But because she was interested in opera as well, N’Kenge enrolled at the Manhattan School of Music. She would later attend The Juilliard School to earn a master’s degree.
While she was developing her operatic career, she never let go of the pop, Motown and R&B on which she was raised. In an industry that tends to typecast, that confused lots of people, according to Simpson-Hoffman.
“They couldn’t understand how someone could sing “Deh Vieni” from Le Nozze di Figaro and then turn around and sing “Proud Mary” from Tina Turner,” she said. “Because they didn’t understand it.”
These days, N’Kenge said that being versatile and having a diverse repertoire is growing in importance across the music industry. People are beginning to understand it more and more, she said, because performers must be able to capture the attention of many different audience groups.
“I think it’s because the times have changed,” she said. “Everyone is trying to get a younger audience, and they want to be able to keep the love of classical music alive.”
For N’Kenge, a concert like tonight’s — where music from a James Bond movie is on the same program as Leonard Bernstein and Carole King — is the perfect way to do that.