This summer, soprano Jasmine Muhammad is busy preparing for a challenging season ahead at the Pittsburgh Opera, where she will spend her second year as a resident artist.
But when she's not working on parts for Verdi's "Aida," Mozart's "The Magic Flute," Nico Muhly's "Dark Sisters" and Puccini's "La Boheme," Ms. Muhammad is taking on a new role: Deadhead.
Ms. Muhammad, 25, is a background singer in this summer's Jerry Garcia Symphonic Celebration, a summer tribute to the late Grateful Dead singer, songwriter and lead guitarist. The show features guitarist and vocalist Warren Haynes playing alongside orchestras across the country, including the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in June. Four more performances will take place in Colorado and California this summer.
The transition from Mozart to "Morning Dew" isn't an easy one, but Ms. Muhammad's musical background certainly helps.
"One thing I can say is that I don't try to discount or overemphasize my classical training, but people say if you can sing classical you can sing anything, and I agree with that," she said.
At the time that a friend, Alecia Chakour of the Warren Haynes Band, invited her to join the tour, Ms. Muhammad didn't know Grateful Dead music. For her, learning the catalog has been a treat.
"I'm listening to this music and practically falling in love with this."
Audiences eat it up, too, Ms. Muhammad said. Fans of the Dead now have the chance to hear new arrangements of some of their favorite songs, from "China Doll" to "Terrapin Station."
"They're seeing [them] totally rearranged with this orchestra," she said, adding, "I'm also experiencing it for the first time with them."
At opera performances, audience members do not clap during pieces. In contrast, Garcia fans, Ms. Muhammad has found, "are just screaming and up on their feet the whole time. It's exciting, it's thrilling."
Making these adjustments is natural for Ms. Muhammad, who likes to sing "everything," she said, adding, "It's the only way to stay sane."
Originally from Virginia, she sang in choirs and church growing up, starting her classical training at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, a high school in Washington, D.C. She continued her studies in Chicago and New York before landing the two-year residency in Pittsburgh.
"Every day, I feel like I've won the lottery just by being accepted into the program," she said.
Still, Ms. Muhammad's love for singing various genres, not just opera, sometimes causes doubt in the young singer.
"I certainly have a hard time battling [those] dual musical aspirations," she said.
As she weighs her various artistic interests, operatic and beyond, this summer may provide an unorthodox perspective.
"Seeing people in tie-dye and shorts in Heinz Hall is not an everyday experience," she said.
Elizabeth Bloom: email@example.com or 412-263-1750.