Tony and Grammy Award winner Heather Headley has been no stranger to the stage — until now. Like so many fellow artists, Heather Headley hasn’t been able to share her talents with a live audience since the pandemic began. That changed this month when the Northwestern University graduate, who played the role of Nala in the original Broadway cast of The Lion King and the title role in Aida, for which she won the Tony for Best Actress in a Musical, took the stage to perform as part of Lyric Opera of Chicago’s For the Love of Lyric.
The free virtual concert, which will take place Sept. 13, will feature Headley’s performance, as well as performances by world-renowned soprano Renée Fleming, soprano Ailyn Pérez, bass Soloman Howard, and mezzo-soprano and Ryan Opera Center alumna J’Nai Bridges, with Doug Peck serving as music director.
We caught up with Headley to ask her about family life during the pandemic, starring alongside a powerhouse cast of co-stars in Netflix’s Sweet Magnolias, and what it was like to perform on Lyric’s iconic stage.
Is this the first time you’ve performed on a stage since the start of the pandemic?
I think we’ve all been performing from our bathrooms and our living rooms and our basements and outside our homes, and everywhere else we can find. But this was the first time I was on stage. And it was a sad but just a cathartic experience. Driving into Chicago and seeing it so empty—it hurt my heart. And walking into the theater and everybody was in shields and masks—to protect me and also to protect themselves—I was like, “Ah, I just, I hate this whole thing.”
What did it feel like to perform in such an iconic setting—your first time on stage at Lyric Opera of Chicago?
Seeing the empty chairs and the empty seats, this empty, gorgeous, beautiful theater was sad. But then I started singing and it was just so healing and cathartic. It reminded me that [singing] is always where I get that healing, whether it be on stage or just singing in your bathroom, singing wherever. And it was the first time that I’d sung on the Lyric Opera stage. I’ve been there for a show, but never had the opportunity to sing there before. So yeah, it was a good moment.
What’s it like to perform a virtual concert?
It’s different—this was different. I think the Lyric is doing it really beautifully, to bring their audience to the theater in this way—to see it from a different perspective. Because the audience really doesn’t get to see it from our view. It’s gorgeously lit, and beautifully done.
Do you think there’s a future for these types of performances long term or are you eager to get back in front of a live audience?
I am sure there’s a future for some of these concerts, but I do not want there to be. My great hope—my prayer—is that we all get back to performances—live performances within these beautiful theaters. I’m eager to get back in front of the live audience, but for now, I understand that we have to do this during this temporary normal.
How have you and your family been coping during the pandemic?
My family has coped better than I thought we would. I’ve had a few days of crying. But our children have been so amazing and so stellar, so excellent and upstanding, and have come alongside us and loved on us through this. I’ve fallen in love with my family even more, loved my kids even more, my husband even more.
Even in the ugliness of being in the quarantine and not loving it, we’ve grown so much and enjoyed each other. I’ve watched my children grow up in front of me. I’ve had conversations with them and learned more about me and more about them. And so, I’m grateful for those times… I can’t believe I might say this… Goodness, I’m grateful for this part of the pandemic. I want it to be done and I want it to be over, but we’ve fared well. And I say that in all humility and gratefulness and thanks to God.
How hard has the suspension of live theater been on you and your fellow artists and the greater artistic community?
It’s been tough because I love performing live. I love being in the theater. I want to be able to do our shows and do the television shows and everything that we do. But there are other performers who’ve been hit really hard. And that’s extended from the performers. Let’s talk about the ushers and musicians, lighting guys and our crews and directors—everybody. The people who work the concessions, the people who help you take the tickets—there are just all these people who depend on the theater, not only for their creative outlets, but for their bread and butter.
And it’s been incredibly hard on some of those people. And the sad part is that this is maybe going to go on for a little longer, because a lot of us believe that the theater is going to be the last thing to maybe come back, because we deal in a business of having a lot of people around and so it’s going to be tough.
What can supporters of the arts do to help?
We may lose some theaters, we may lose some shows, but I do pray that if you can donate to the arts, if you can donate in some way, great. And, when the theater does open, I pray that people will rush in and be there so that these shows can come back and people can perform.
I do think that when it comes back, there’s going to be this whole group of people that need to have the beauty of theater, the happy three hours of going somewhere else in the world. So, if you can donate, or even if you can’t donate and you know a theater person that’s going through tough times, that usher, that person, maybe just call to say hi, see how they’re doing. If you can offer a job or anything like that. There are organizations that are trying to reach out to actors who are having tough times and people in the theater.
You star in Sweet Magnolias on Netflix, which has been picked up for a second season—much to the relief of fans left jaws hanging open after a Season 1 cliffhanger finale. What was it like to join such a powerhouse cast of Broadway names for the show?
It was really amazing to join the cast and to be a part of the cast. I have just had a quick friendship now with JoAnna [Garcia Swisher] and with Brooke [Elliott], also with our writers and directors. One of our directors, Norman Buckley, is the baby brother of Betty Buckley. So that was always… We had a lot to talk about. And we had a great cast of people, from people who have been on Broadway to people who have done film and theater—Dion Johnstone and Justin [Bruening] and Chris [Klein], Jamie Lynn [Spears].
It was just a great group to be a part of. And we all just kind of created a little family. We’re all looking forward to getting back to work on season two, when that starts. As soon as we’re told that everything’s healthy and safe enough, we will be ready to go. So excited about that.
Your work has spanned so many mediums. This kind of versatility has certainly made your work adaptable to the ever-changing ways audiences consume art. What advice do you have for young artists who aspire to reach similar heights?
I think for me, I’ve always had this mindset that I didn’t want to be in a box or to have people pigeonhole me. And so I’ve always thought of all these different tributaries in this river of mine, as almost like children. I love the theater and I love my life singing and my concerts. I love singing at church. I love R&B and pop. I love the times that I get to be with somebody like Andrea Bocelli. I love the television stuff. And so, there’s every day that you may come and you think, “Oh, well, today I don’t like this child as much.”
It may be harder or something like that. But if you were to take any of them away from me, I wouldn’t like that. So to younger performers, just hone in on your craft. It’s been tough during these times because I think a lot of times we don’t want to sing during times like these, but now’s the time to practice and to perfect our crafts even more—to be ready when our world opens back up again. So to the younger performers, just put your toes in everywhere and see. You’ll know what you’re good at, and you’ll go from there.
Tune in to the free For the Love of Lyric concert on Sunday, Sept. 13 at 6pm.
How to help:
Contribute to the For the Love of Lyric Fund to aid in Lyric Opera of Chicago’s recovery from financial hardships caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Gifts made to the Fund will be matched dollar-for-dollar by the generous sponsors of the star-studded concert.
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Brooke Geiger McDonald is the editor in chief of Make It Better Media Group. A Chicago native, she has worked for publications like O, The Oprah Magazine and SHAPE Magazine and her work has appeared in Parents, TravelPulse, Attractions Magazine, MSN, Disney Food Blog, and more. At home, she is outnumbered by her husband and two sons, and the four of them are certifiable Disney and Star Wars fanatics, always counting down the days to their next Disney vacation. Her favorite nonprofits to support include The Walt Disney Birthplace in Chicago and organizations focused on environmental conservation and combatting climate change, such as the Environmental Defense Fund and Shedd Aquarium. Follow her on Instagram @brookegmcdonald and Twitter @BrookeGMcDonald.