The Subtly Subversive Imagination of Alicia Hall Moran

In a new opera, the mezzo-soprano brings the story of an Olympic figure-skating rivalry to the ice

By Camille A. Collins

Act I, A square in Seville

An appreciation of composer, choreographer, and mezzo-soprano Alicia Hall Moran ’95 requires at least an elemental familiarity with the central character in Georges Bizet’s opera Carmen. As Hall Moran says, Carmen is “one of the few characters” in the classical repertoire that “black culture has been written into.” The motif of Carmen, the marginalized yet cunning cigarette girl from southern Spain, rises again and again in the imagination and oeuvre of Manhattan-based Hall Moran, a multi-genre artist whose performing and composing encompass opera, theatre, and jazz, and who made her Broadway debut in 2012 as Bess in the Tony Award–winning revival of The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess.

Indeed, Hall Moran’s recently released album, Here Today, features a mash-up of Carmen’s most famous aria, “Habanera,” with Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered.” And this January at two ice rinks in New York City, as part of the Prototype festival of new musical theatre, Hall Moran mounted her opera Breaking Ice: The Battle of the Carmens, about the rivalry between figure skaters Debi Thomas and Katarina Witt at the 1988 Winter Olympics. Both athletes—Thomas, an African American, and Witt, from East Germany—skated to selections from the famed opera, offering the media a handy frame of reference with which to explore their glacial rivalry.

Hall Moran was a member of her high school’s synchronized ice skating team as those Winter Olympics were underway and was captivated by the international competition: She had an affinity for the black skater and a burgeoning grasp that the character of Carmen was one of the only traditionally viable opportunities for generations of black and Latinx songbirds—Leontyne Price and Jessye Norman have both played the role. Besides, as Hall Moran puts it, she “didn’t have to do any math to understand Debi Thomas.” Indeed, while the Olympics were taking place, Thomas was attending Stanford University, where Hall Moran’s parents met. And, as Hall Moran readily points out, she and Thomas bear a striking physical resemblance, in addition to a passion for skating.


L’amour Est Un Oiseau Rebelle or Love is a Rebellious Bird

Watching the avant-garde production of Breaking Ice, with Hall Moran skating and encircling the cast in an orbit of warm vocals and steady motion, the subjects of race and gender appear like water trapped under its frozen form; they bubble and swish beneath. In the foreground is Hall Moran’s imaginative reach: She has assembled a saxophonist, a taiko drummer, and two tango skaters from the Ice Theatre of New York to enact with her a forgotten Olympic feud and explore what it means to embody Carmen, a dark seductress and ethnic minority in her own country.

It should not be lost that Hall Moran has created this work with insight and a singularity of perspective very specific to her own life experience. Born in California, she attended nursery school in Manhattan and elementary and high school in Stamford, Connecticut. Her father transitioned from a career on Wall Street to corporate America, while her mother worked in publishing. Thanks to her father’s love of seafaring, the family would, on vacations, sail the ocean by day and dock at various marinas by night. In these locales, however, Hall Moran felt uncomfortable “in the culture of the other boaters.”

Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that during her 2006 “Wade in the Water” concert at the Museum of America and the Sea, in Mystic, Connecticut, she performed a rendition of “Pirate Jenny,” The Threepenny Opera ballad about a hotel maid fed up with a life of abuse in the margins and intent on revenge. In recalling her time on her high school skating team, even though she was specifically recruited to join, she was still “the only skater of color on the team and the only black skater at the rink.” These experiences of otherness are important in understanding what captivates Hall Moran—her habit of paying tribute to the outcast, often another woman of color, and correcting even ever so finely a past wrong, or elaborating on a fading slight. As for the story that captivated her as a teen, Debi Thomas won bronze in ’88 because she struggled with her jumps. What fascinated Hall Moran was “that this competition went against stereotypes because the sultry performance was done by the white, East Germany skater, not the scholastic, brainy African American skater,” she says.


A square in Seville. At the back, the walls of an ancient amphitheater

In tenth grade, Hall Moran joined her high school’s concert choir and on a trip to Bulgaria, the group went to see a performance by a troupe of Romani musicians and dancers. Two young black American women in the group became the object of respectful fascination to a number of the Bulgarian men. It is a not a surprising footnote to the black experience in America that she had to leave the country to realize the captivating power of women of color. It is a knowledge that as an adult and professionally trained performer—in 2000, Hall Moran received a bachelor’s degree in vocal performance from the Manhattan School of Music—she has channeled into the role of the swift street hustler specifically. “I’ve felt a lot of validation as a dark-skinned person in the world of Carmen,” says Hall Moran.

At Barnard, she learned invaluable truths that directly shape her life and work today. “Barnard showed me in no uncertain terms that by developing my intellect I was going to bring something to the field of music. I had no reason to be confident about that. But Barnard gave me the tools to write my version of the best world.”

She recalls fondly the support she received from Choral Director and Professor of Professional Practice Gail Archer, and how much she greatly enjoyed studying under Professor Agueda Rayo, who taught African American, Native American, feminist, and Chicana authors. She lavishly praises these instructors as “artistic intellectuals” who were not afraid of “style,” and who transformed their teaching “into a sort of a song.” Reflecting on these explorations of often-unheralded female writers, Hall Moran’s unique perception is evident. “We were able to read the proof of the questions they posed in their lifetimes,” Hall Moran says. “Many times, you find it’s the questions of strong, intellectual women that become the architecture for progress in a particular discipline.”

As for her own point of view, her passion, and her determination—they’re clear: Rather than see the stories of marginalized women sidelined, “I yearn to be the protagonist and to uproot classic narratives,” Hall Moran says, referencing tales such as Cinderella. “The revelation is, in order to see myself as Cinderella, I’ve created these other [artistic] worlds,” both on the ice and off. •


Camille A. Collins has written about music for and BUST. She lives in New York City.

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