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Arts & Culture » Books

Monster's mash: Kevin Simmonds' poetic look at opera diva

by Cornelius Washington

author Kevin Simmonds
author Kevin Simmonds  

In the LGBTQ community, within most of us is that initial discovery, focus, fascination with and lifelong appreciation of a person who simultaneously captures and embodies everything inside of you. That person also does what, deep inside, you wish that you could do or become.

This first meditation is very important. It's also key that this person proves themselves to be a positive, enduring guide to emulate and enjoy throughout both of your lives. This is the essential ingredient in the culture known as "diva worship."

Transcendence is another essential ingredient, over circumstance, disasters and setbacks. With this person as inspiration and, sometimes, moral compass, you can appreciate and achieve a well-lived life, with varying degrees of satisfaction and/or success.

Kevin Simmonds, in his short but wonderful book, The Monster I Am Today: Leontyne Price and A Life In Verse, provides the reader with a poetic insight that is lyrical, loving and romantic.

In Miss Leontyne Price, Simmonds has chosen extremely well, because everything about the legendary soprano is the exploration, enhancement and extension of what it means to be Black, female and gifted, willing to put in the hard work and discipline, too, sang at what most consider the epitome of the highest technical level.

Price's visual presence can only be described as regal; her flawless chocolate skin, her wide-set, commanding eyes, the sensual cheekbones, and her lush, symmetrical lips that framed the projection of drama and mood that made cameras and stages sizzle with ferocity and rose petals.

Price's standing ovations from sold-old performances obliterated racist deflection and inspection. She upgraded the very culture of opera music as one of the genre's most modern ambassadors as well one of history's greatest interpreters of Verdi.

Mr. Simmonds, a New Orleans native, writes a romantic and sad story of a young gay Black male, isolated from family and southern sensibility. Very early, however, he found faith and solace in his adoration of Price, embracing his cultural "otherness" from heterosexual perceptions, to find his own social group and vocal skills sets, appreciated within the better part of the New Orleans parish public school system.

His brave obsession became authenticity against homophobia, status, elitism and sheer boredom, with his encounters in classical music, as he found and cultivated his own voice, approach to life and identity.

In reading Simmonds' book, I was transported back to a time of humid weather, homophobia ... and excellent food. It was interesting to see Price and Simmonds' lives duet as they endured their long struggle as Black artists bearing Black burdens while simultaneously projecting to the back of the house and not allowing them to overpower their contributions to their art.

All of the great elements of opera are in the book; comedy, tragedy, romance, resolve, determination and strength. I laughed out loud at his humor and wit, particularly the part that details his hiding his gay porn collection in his piano.

The expression of the Black effeminate ability to use music as a form of soft power is extremely relevant today, given what's happening with and to other openly black LGBTQ artists in various music genres. It's a reemergence of the Black aesthetic, with the razor's edge of impact, politically, artistically and socioeconomically.

In Mr. Simmonds' book, he is aspirational, inspirational, unstoppable, delicate and indefatigable, with great focus, drive and rigor, elitism crumbling under his laserlike eye of excellence.

Mr. Simmonds is a man to watch in the 21st century, as one of the most important gay black writers. Get the book. Read the book. Enjoy the book.

The Monster I Am Today: Leontyne Price and a Life in Verse by Kevin Simmonds. $20.
nupress.northwestern.edu
www.kevinsimmonds.com


Kevin Simmons will participate in a talk and music online event sponsored by the SF Public Library, Wednesday, November 10, with soprano Valetta Brinson, and poets James Cagney and devorah major. https://sfpl.org/events/2021/11/10/performance-kevin-simmonds

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