N'kenge Simpson-Hoffman Biography
Took Home Pageant Crowns, Performed in Opera by Famed Composer, Toured in Germany, Selected discography
Among the most versatile new performers in the world of opera in the late 1990s and early 2000s has been N'kenge Simpson-Hoffman, whose talents encompass musical theater, jazz, and popular song as well as traditional operatic repertory. She has performed at the White House and the United Nations, has taken lead roles in operas by composers ranging from Mozart to Puccini, and has given over 100 solo recitals in such varied locales as Israel, France, England, Italy, and Germany in addition to the United States. A former beauty queen, she entranced audiences in lead romantic roles in both operas and musicals. Simpson-Hoffman found perhaps an ideal forum for her varied talents when she became a member of the "Three Mo' Divas" trio created by Three Mo' Tenors mastermind Marion J. Caffey in 2003.
A native of New York City, N'kenge Simpson was born around 1975. She was a product of the strong arts education programs in New York's public schools, graduating from the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School for the Performing Arts. She also studied at the Harlem School of the Arts. She began to stand out from the crowd in 1992 when she was named one of the first two winners of the ASCAP Leiber & Stoller Foundation Award, a new $10,000 performing arts scholarship established by the songwriting team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, the composers of "Hound Dog" and "Jailhouse Rock" among other rock-and-roll classics. The 17-year-old student performed a vocal piece by Mozart and an African-American spiritual before an audience of music-industry dignitaries at the awards ceremony at New York's swank Russian Tea Room.
Took Home Pageant Crowns
Simpson-Hoffman enrolled at the Manhattan School of Music, and that year she also took home the title of Miss New York State Talented Teen. She followed up that pageant victory with the Miss Manhattan crown in the Miss America competition two years later. Simpson-Hoffman's operatic career began shortly after she earned her bachelor of music degree in 1994, when she appeared as Clara in George Gershwin's opera Porgy & Bess at Colorado's Aspen Opera Theater and also offered a rendition of "Summertime" in a one-hour concert of highlights from the opera. She also appeared that year at Harlem's famed Apollo Theater in a guest slot with the Hal Jackson Talented Teens troupe.
Returning to Aspen in 1995 and 1996, Simpson-Hoffman became better known as a young talent. She appeared at the White House Christmas ceremony in 1995, and the following year she performed two vocal selections from Beethoven's rarely heard music for the play Egmont with the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra; a reviewer from the New Jersey Star-Ledger (quoted in her press materials) noted that although she "looks like the cute teen-aged kid next door" she "has a big bright voice that could easily fill any of the world's largest houses." Simpson-Hoffman also appeared on ABC television's Good Morning America that year.
In the mid-1990s, Simpson-Hoffman worked toward a master's degree in music at New York's Julliard School, graduating in 1999. She began to enter vocal competitions, winning the Five Towns Classical Competition (in 1996) and the Lola Wilson Hayes Vocal Competition (in 1997), and placing second in several others. By 1998 she was ready for more substantial roles in operas and sacred vocal works. She traveled to Israel as a member of the Israel Vocal Arts Program and appeared in two operatic productions there, and she sang the soprano part in Johann Sebastian Bach's St. John Passion in a performance at the Manhattan School of Music.
Performed in Opera by
Simpson-Hoffman began to build the foundations of an independent career between 1999 and 2002. She issued her first CD, Red Souvenir, in 1999 and won praise from the tastemaking magazine Opera News that year for her performance in an opera by Godfather score composer Nino Rota, Il cappello di paglia di Firenze. On a trip to Rome, Italy, she sang the role of Despina in Mozart's opera Così fan tutte. She began to appear in concerts with regional American orchestras, performing the soprano part in Handel's Messiah with the Billings Symphony in Montana in 2000.
That year marked Simpson-Hoffman's emergence in high-profile situations. As the Washington Post put it, she "lent soulful, lustrously sung advocacy" to two of Aaron Copland's All-American Songs in a performance at the Library of Congress in Washington, accompanied by the U.S. Marine Band and nationally broadcast on National Public Radio's Performance Today series. She sang in the Zulu language while performing in a new opera about South African leader Nelson Mandela, No Easy Walk to Freedom, performed at Hofstra University on Long Island, and she took the lead role of Juliet in a newly rediscovered Romeo und Julia (Romeo and Juliet) opera by German composer Boris Blacher. She was part of the cast for the world premiere recording of that work on the Albany label in 2002.
Simpson-Hoffman had continued to perform the ever-popular songs of George Gershwin in appearances with orchestras, and in 2001 she demonstrated her talents in musical theater with the lead role of Luisa in a Lyric Opera of Cleveland production of The Fantasticks. The Cleveland Plain Dealer praised her as "a natural stage presence" who "beautifully conveys Luisa's romantic yearning and her journey to maturity." Simpson-Hoffman made another European trip in 2002, performing as a soloist in Mozart's Requiem mass at Italy's Saluzzo Music Festival and appearing in the large role of Susanna in Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro in a Czech Republic touring production. Back in New York, she sang at a United Nations ceremony honoring Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
Toured in Germany
The years 2003 and 2004 brought Simpson-Hoffman to the edge of operatic stardom with two more major roles: she sang the role of Musetta in Puccini's La bohème with the Virginia Opera and that of Despina once again in Così fan tutte with the Seattle Opera, the latter in a special Young Artist slot designed to introduce new performers to operatic audiences. She traveled to Germany, giving a solo recital and appearing at an Olympus trade show and a concert honoring Secretary of State Colin Powell. She also released an album of German classical songs, known as lieder.
Simpson-Hoffman also performed jazz, performing in concerts at New York's Lincoln Center with jazz giants Wynton Marsalis and Ornette Coleman and appearing in New York City nightclubs. With all these arrows in her performing quiver, she was a natural for the Three Mo' Divas, with whom she appeared several times in 2003 and 2004; like the more famous Three Mo' Tenors, they performed opera, blues, jazz, soul, gospel, and show tunes. "Simpson-Hoffman, the most physical of the group, gets an abundance of showy numbers, such as 'Fascinating Rhythm,' and an audience-participation 'Minnie the Moocher,'" ob served Don Braunagel of the Los Angeles Times after a 2004 performance.
Continuing to live in New York, Simpson-Hoffman taught music to schoolchildren in Harlem, hoping to create for them some of the same opportunities that she herself had taken advantage of. She held a day job as regional operations manager at her mother's company, Simpson Personnel Services. But with another major award, the 2003 Liederkranz Foundation top prize, under her belt, and more national visibility with the Three Mo' Divas on the way, Simpson-Hoffman's star was still on the rise as of early 2005.
Red Souvenir, LBTV, 1999.
Romeo and Julia, Albany Records, 2002.
A Tribute to German Lieder, CRS, 2003.
Daily News (New York), August 27, 2003, p. Suburban-7.
Los Angeles Times, March 23, 2004, p. E3.
New York Times, July 24, 1992, p. B6.
Newsday (Long Island, NY), November 20, 2000, p. B9.
Plain Dealer (Cleveland, OH), June 29, 2001, p. E8.
San Diego Union-Tribune, July 17, 2000, p. E3.
Sun (Baltimore, MD), June 13, 2000, p. F3.
Washington Post, November 16, 2000, p. C5.
N'Kenge Simpson-Hoffman, www.nkenge.net (March 5, 2005).
"N'kenge Simpson-Hoffman," Thea Dispeker Inc., www.dispeker.com (March 5, 2005).
—James M. Manheim
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