"I'm a different person onstage. No doubt," she said. "When it's time to perform, I get this crazy energy. If I don't go for it all the way, it doesn't feel right to me. I love the challenge. I love it. To have the audience there and to keep their focus, that's the challenge. . . . And those operas are long. You have to keep your energy up to capture the audience."
Something even beyond that, however, happened last month when she won the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, with its $15,000 prize and performance with the Met orchestra. For those who have witnessed her metamorphosis over the last three years in Philadelphia, that victory was a done deal.
"It was like I was meant to be there. ... When I hit the last note in the Cilea aria ["Io son l'umile ancella" from Francesco Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur] it was the most free it's ever been," she recalled. "Finally I found the spot. The spot! I could've held that note three times as long."
The moment didn't go unnoticed. "There was a clear audience favorite . . . Michelle Johnson . . . who brought gleaming sound to the meltingly lyrical aria. . .," wrote Anthony Tommasini in the New York Times.
Johnson could make you believe that opera singers are born rather than made, shepherded to fame by the forces of destiny, and with luck, kept from vocal harm by extra-militant guardian angels. Though some AVA singers have significant careers even before graduation - and Johnson is frustrated not to be among them - her admirers are likely relieved that her starring roles in Capriccio and Suor Angelica have been in the relatively protective confines of AVA. The too-much-too-soon syndrome has killed many fledgling voices. Johnson basically knows that.
"It's easier to get to a [career] point than it is to stay at a point," she says. "I think about that quite often."
Her idol is Leontyne Price (many have noticed a vocal resemblance), not just for her voice but for her 30-year career. Also significant, Price surmounted racial barriers that may arise for Johnson in subtler ways. The supremacy of the stage director - which prompted overweight stars such as Deborah Voigt to have gastric-bypass surgery - could reverse the color-blind casting breakthroughs of the 1980s and '90s and keep Johnson from roles like Desdemona in Otello. Also looming are the demands of nontraditional stagings. She isn't the first singer to foresee conflicts between the edgy stagework and the church culture in which she was brought up.
"In Europe, they do a whole bunch of things - being 'out there' for the sake of being out there. It's a scary thought sometimes. I'm not sure if I'm ready to go out there butt naked. . .," she says.
Johnson's father, in fact, is a Baptist minister. And though she was first moved to sing in those environs, her family couldn't have been more surprised when, at age 8, she was stricken by opera during a PBS broadcast of Madama Butterfly.
"The costumes, the passion, the emotion . . . I was bawling. In my family, we went to the symphony, we did musicals, but not opera. It was so grand. I'd never seen anything like that before. I have two older brothers, they're athletes . . . and I was singing around the house in an operatic tone. My parents decided, 'Let's do some research and see what we can come up with for this odd child who found this thing on her own.' "
But when Johnson arrived at the New England Conservatory, her repertoire consisted of four art songs and lots of gospel; she was miles behind classmates who had been to Interlochen and Tanglewood. She also was convinced she was a mezzo-soprano - a vestige of growing up in a nonoperatic environment: "People who aren't into opera, they love the mezzo voice," she observes. "To the untrained ear, sopranos and tenors sound like screaming."
Among the conservatory faculty, the late Helen Hodam gained Johnson's complete confidence and then gave her an ultimatum: Convert to sopranohood or study elsewhere. Many mezzos wouldn't need persuading: Sopranos have better music and don't have to play witches. "I was more hesitant," says Johnson, "maybe because of the pressures sopranos go through . . . but Miss Hodam said there was something special at the top of my voice."
Her (odd) first role was the musically and psychologically intricate Miss Jessel in Britten's Turn of the Screw. Viewing a videotape of the performance, she was astounded by what she saw and heard. "They say you don't really hear yourself when you're singing. I couldn't believe I could make a sound like that. There was this one note . . . Whoa!" she recalls.
Now working with William Stone at AVA, she is the rare singer who can say that all her voice teachers have been of the same mind, and have built on what came before.
If there's a letdown about the forthcoming production of Don Giovanni, it's her curtailed meeting of the minds with the blazing theatricality of veteran director Tito Capobianco. The much-loved Capobianco (who entered opera history for directing Beverly Sills in her best roles) had finished staging Act 1 when his wife, Gigi, fell ill and passed away on April 14.
The show goes on despite the artistic challenges and emotions that go with it - another lesson in the real-life world of opera. "Everyone will encounter that situation, and it's important for you to know how to handle yourself," says Justin Johnson, who is picking up where Capobianco left off.
The production maintains Capobianco touches: At one point, Don Giovanni appears as the anti-Christ and rips a crucifix off Johnson's neck. But in an ensemble opera such as this one, the pulling together of the cast under the circumstances would have to be a plus.
As for Johnson, she's assured that, back home, both family and congregation are praying for her success. With that comes an imperative that has so far overridden any setbacks and difficulties. "Who doesn't get into their funks?" she says. "I do. But I'll hear something on the radio and I realize, 'This is why I have to do this!' "
The Academy of Vocal Arts production is performed with two casts: Saturday and May 3 and 5 at AVA's Helen Corning Warden Theater, May 7 at Central Bucks South High School in Warrington, May 10 and 12 at Centennial Hall in Haverford, and May 15 at the Gordon Theater at Rutgers University, Camden. Johnson is cast in the performances for Friday, next Tuesday, and May 10 and 15. Information: www.avaopera.org or 215-735-1685.
Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at firstname.lastname@example.org.