“Eight Songs for a Mad King” is toward the older end of the repertoire that Mitchener usually tackles. This past Sunday, she performed in London alongside the American poet Moor Mother in a series of improvised duets. In March, Mitchener performed a program of works by Jason Yarde, Matana Roberts, Tansy Davies and others, all written in the last three years, at the MaerzMusik contemporary music festival in Berlin.
“I consider myself a performer who composes — in that order, really,” she said. “But to me,” she added, “the responsibility of any performer is to really liberate the score from what you see.”
Michener was born in 1970, in London, to Jamaican parents. Early exposure at home to ska, dub, gospel and Rastafarian music was later nurtured at a local Adventist church. “If you go to particularly Black churches, and people discover that you have a talent for music, or delivering text, that’s really encouraged from a young age,” Mitchener said.
Her path to contemporary music was complicated. As a student at Trinity College of Music in London, she encountered some modern works — including “Eight Songs for a Mad King” — although most of her studies involved classical singing. In her final year there, her singing teacher died, and a new tutor recategorized her voice from a low contralto to high mezzo-soprano. “I had to start again,” Mitchener said.
After graduating, Mitchener took an eight-year hiatus from performing but continued taking vocal lessons while she worked jobs in theater advertising and music publishing. In 2008, she found a teacher who was “unfazed by contemporary music,” she said: the opera singer Jacqueline Straubinger-Bremar, whom she has continued lessons with for the past 15 years. “Some people never find the right teacher for their voice, for where they are musically, or where they are in their lives,” Mitchener said. “I was lucky to find her.”