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Harlem tenor Noah Stewart says race still matters

Features - Classical Music | Light Classics | Opera

Harlem tenor Noah Stewart says race still matters

by Melissa Lesnie on October 9, 2012 (October 9, 2012) filed under Classical Music | Light Classics | Opera | Comment Now
It was a long way to the top for the first black artist to hit No.1 on the UK classical chart.

Noah Stewart was in London preparing for his Covent Garden debut when he got the news. “My manager called me and said, ‘Noah, you went number one.’ I thought, no way. I didn’t really freak out on the spot because I was on my way to rehearsal. I only had 15 minutes so I called my mom. She screamed. I said, ‘I’m also the first person of colour to have a number one classical album.’ I heard silence and then her co-worker got on the phone because she was crying. Then I started crying because she was so proud of the work that I’d done.”

It’s a touching moment, but it seems surprising that such a milestone wasn’t achieved until 2012. Stewart (or just Noah, as he is billed on the self-titled Number One album in question) says he had few role models “of colour” in his field growing up, citing Leontyne Price as an early source of inspiration. “There were bass baritones like Bobby McFerrin and Willard White, but in terms of Romantic heroes, there were just not many tenors. – not in the core literature, the Domingo and Pavarotti roles. People said, ‘Well, Noah, do you want to do Porgy and Bess? Do you want to do comprimario roles?’ I said no, because my voice is much better than that.”

“I was working in a restaurant once and I would often sing Happy Birthday if someone had a birthday, or at a New Year’s Eve Concert or Mother’s Day,” he remembers. “One night I sang an aria from Carmen, and a French workmate said, ‘Oh, you have such a beautiful voice and your French is good.’ Then she asked, ‘But what are you going to do?’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ And she said, ‘Well, you can’t sing Don José because you’re black.” I just kind of froze and thought, holy cow. I was pretty discouraged – it was like a knife through my heart.”

With chiselled build and winning good looks – at  our interview he wears ripped jeans, a crumpled, unbuttoned shirt and a bit of bling – the 33-year-old could have gone down the pop route, but insists that he “decided to stick with opera and refused to take the easy route just because people are more comfortable seeing me as a rapper or an athlete or a hip-hop artist.”

“I don’t buy this whole thing that there are not many Asian singers who are opera singers; there are not many black singers.” he continues. “That’s not true, because I know tonnes of black singers who are amazing, who have great voices, who are smart and love language and are quite able to hold the operatic stage. They are just not given the opportunity.”

The New Yorker was raised by his mother in a rough part of Harlem where the junior high choir kept him out of trouble. Dreaming big, he was teased as ‘Opera Boy’ in the schoolyard – “I was the only kid dreaming of being Pavarotti,” he laughs. A few short years later, he was accepted to Juilliard on a full scholarship.

He is often described as the epitome of rags-to-riches success – not least because of his African-American heritage. But he is adamant that his struggle is one that many young singers face, regardless of race. “I only had one suit and that’s the same suit that I used to cater waiter,” he recalls. His CV also includes a stint at the front desk of Carnegie Hall, where he hoped influential people would be impressed when they heard his booming voice over the phone.

Eventually, he did get noticed. On the cover of his debut album for Decca, simply titled Noah, he smiles confidently, donning a much swankier suit than he had been accustomed to. The program ranges from arias to spirituals and hymns reflecting his Baptist faith, and even a Frank Sinatra cover. “I’m just a tenor, an old-fashioned singer,” he explains. “Singers of the past sang everything – Mario Lanza was not a ‘crossover artist’; he was a great tenor; he sang arias, he sang popular songs. I think we like to put people in boxes, but I'm my own person with my own views, my own voice and my own choices.”

It is this self-assured spirit, unshakeable after years of doubts and knockbacks, that he brought to our shores in September for the launch of Universal Music’s Yellow Lounge in Australia: an series of informal classical performances held in pubs and nightclubs around the world. “I think it’s bringing in a new audience because it’s a more comfortable environment. It also gives me the chance to connect with my audience in a much more intimate way. But I’ll still get nervous – I still always get a little nervous.”

Noah is out now on Decca Classics.