Emilie Kouatchou didn’t think she could play the role of Christine Daaé in The Phantom of the Opera. She knew she could.
“One of my biggest goals in my life was to be on Broadway. And the part of Christine was something I knew I could do. I was very confident,” Kouatchou tells EBONY. In January 2022, she became the first Black woman to play the ingenue in the Broadway version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s hit musical.
“The nerves were high. I'm not even gonna lie,” she recalls. “We had just reopened Phantom because it had been closed during the pandemic. The support was insane. I just felt like the energy from the audience. Everyone was super excited and kept clapping and cheering and … I don't remember much, honestly, my heart was beating so fast. I was focused on getting from point A to Z, one thing at a time, and then I could relax and party. It was a crazy night.”
Kouatchou’s singing odyssey began as a child. “I was always singing,” she recalls. “I remember taking voice lessons when I was really young, about seven years old. My parents helped me with lessons. I did theater in high school and community theater growing up. So I always was singing,” shares the Broadway star.
Making the decision to pursue musical theater was an easy one for Kouatchou, but it took a lot more convincing for her parents. Growing up first-generation American in an African family home, where the mandate is often to become a doctor or lawyer, her Cameroonian parents were initially anxious.
“They wanted me to do something where I could support myself, so this whole theater thing kind of came out of left field,” she admits. “But I did a summer intensive in high school for theater, right before my senior year, and I knew this is what I wanted, so I went to my parents and shared that. And they were really nervous, as parents should be.”
Her family had a unique proposal for the young artist. “We had a deal where they said you can only audition for the top 10 schools. Either you get into one of those schools or you go to Northwestern University, and you do something normal,” Kouatchou shares, adding, “I got into a lot of those 10 schools and ended up going to the University of Michigan's musical theater program."
Not surprisingly, her parents are now her biggest supporters. “They’ve come to the production a bunch of times and let me know about auditions. My mom's like, ‘Can I be your manager?’ And I'm like, ‘Do you know anything about theater?’ She says, ‘I'll learn!’”
The role of Christine calls for an operatic soprano range. Kouatchou never studied opera. “But I always had a really strong head voice from my choir background and voice lessons,” she says. “I honed in on that skill in college.” She feels a strong responsibility in showcasing Black talent in all types of roles. “My service to this part is to offer some inspiration and hope to people who look like me and want to do something different that feels true to themselves, that they don't have to feel boxed into anything,” she declares. “I feel at peace knowing that just my presence alone on that stage helping a lot of people. I think I put a lot of pressure on myself at the beginning to be this beacon of hope and to say and do the right thing. But I realized that me just being myself is enough.”
Kouatchou also pays homage to fellow Black women who have played Christine around the world. “Lucy St. Louis just finished her run in London and she's wonderful,” she exclaims. We've kept in touch and she's super lovely.”
Kouatchou will be hanging up her Christine role when the show ends its 35-year run on Broadway this April. But that doesn’t mean her relationship with the famed masked musical is over. “I’ve always wanted to play Madame Giry,” she reveals. “Maybe 20 years down the line, if they are looking for a Giry on tour!”
The Phantom of the Opera is playing at the Majestic Theatre in New York City through April 16, 2023.