Going to the theatre for a performance is magical.
Whether you are seeing a local high school production of your neighbor’s daughter or being spellbound by a Broadway show, you’ve got to admit there’s something special about seeing real people, people you can almost reach out and touch, knock a script out of the park. It’s even more exciting when you know, or know a bit more about, the people behind the roles.
Piedmont Opera and Arbor Acres’ production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I will be no exception. The story revolves around the unconventional relationship between the King of Siam and Anna Leonowens, a British schoolteacher brought to Siam by the King to teach his wives and children. Aside from the beloved classic songs that you probably have heard at least once (songs like Getting to Know You and Shall We Dance), the production brings two incredible women together onstage. I got a chance to sit down with Nia Imani Franklin, who plays Tuptim, and Elizabeth Pacheco Rose, who plays Anna, to get a behind-the-scenes look at these two performers. You might recognize Nia from her recent position as Miss America 2019, and Elizabeth from her starring role as Anna in Piedmont Opera’s production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni.
Nia is no stranger to the stage: this hometown girl grew up in Winston-Salem, attended UNCSA for graduate school, and then went to NYC as many art-minded folks do. In NYC she competed and won Miss New York and then went on to win Miss America. And she’s just getting started. Standing on a platform of advocating for the arts, Nia created Compose Her, an initiative to help women in the field of music composition get seen and recognized.
“I was one of two women, and the only African American woman, to graduate from my program at East Carolina, and then one of two women to graduate from UNCSA,” said Nia, “It can be very lonely and isolating, and I want to look back ten years from now and say, ‘Wow, it’s changed for us.’”
Elizabeth, who plays Anna, the lead female role in the production, has a similar commitment in her quest to inspire women. “My daily life is all about empowering women – almost all of my students are female,” said Elizabeth. “It’s about showing up for my students.” Aside from being a seasoned performer (she’s already looking ahead to a production of Light at the Piazza this summer!), she teaches voice at Wake Forest University, is a dance instructor, and has private students – on top of all of that, she is a mom. “Teaching dance at the dance studio is the most obvious thing I should let go from my life, but it’s the thing that feeds my soul. No matter what’s happening, I go in and feel amazing after spending time with my students.”
Nia knows a bit about balancing: while her tenure as Miss America is complete, she has several balls in her court. This past January, Nia released her first mainstream single called “Earth Sun,” which is available on all digital and streaming platforms. In addition to Compose Her, she’s performing all over the place – from the National Sawdust festival in Brooklyn to an active studio schedule. Immediately following the Piedmont Opera production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I, she’ll be off to Napa for the Festival Napa Valley, where she will mix opera arias with jazz ballads and other popular pop songs.
Both of these talented women juggle their active careers effortlessly. When asked about carving out time to prepare for the upcoming production, both gave an exciting inside look on how they ready themselves for such a classic production. Elizabeth said, “I start with text and the script, thinking, how can I channel Anna? I feel very connected to her as a mother and a teacher, as well as her fight for women’s rights.” Elizabeth not only has the lead, which means countless hours of voice rehearsal, but she also spends many hours a day perfecting her British accent for the spoken dialogue.
Nia plays the role of Tuptim, which is Franklin’s debut role in a professional production. Tuptim is a young woman caught between her duty to the king and her love for another man – a role that Nia is excited to explore. “I have a lot of back and forth, and not a lot of monologues, so I’m practicing with people, like my manager, every day,” said Nia. “Doing vocal exercises, keeping healthy and staying in shape – I have to stay prayed up, for myself, and have my routines, even if that means sitting with my coffee and going through lines.”
Like the women they portray, Elizabeth and Nia are two women who are impressively qualified, very diverse, and devoted to changing the lives of women. Don’t miss them when Piedmont Opera presents Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I at The Stevens Center of UNCSA on March 20th at 8:00 PM, March 22nd at 2:00 PM and March 24th at 7:30 PM. For tickets, visit PiedmontOpera.org or call 336.725.7101.