Showing posts with label Noah Stewart. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Noah Stewart. Show all posts

Monday, May 07, 2012

Noah Stewart: the director's cut

My interview with Decca's newest tenor sign-up, Noah Stewart, is in today's Indy, but I thought you might like to see the "director's cut"....

First, a spot of Puccini...

When Decca put on a launch in London for its starry new signing, the American tenor NoahStewart, technology malfunctioned. The video broke down, the dry ice played up and the microphone went on the blink. Perhaps that was the intervention of fate. After navigating some Puccini, plus ‘Nights in White Satin’ in Italian, Stewart ditched the dodgy microphone for ‘Amazing Grace’. Now the whole room realised that this man could really, seriously sing. 

His first solo album hasn’t malfunctioned at all. It has whooshed to no.1 in the classical charts, making Stewart the first black artist ever to top that category. Meanwhile he has been attracting attention in opera. He made his Covent Garden debut last month, in Judith Weir’s Miss Fortune; he sang Lieutenant Pinkerton in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly at Opera North; and he is currently in Detroit, tackling The Pearl Fishers by Bizet for the first time. Later this month he’ll be back in the UK for his first solo tour.

Still, to misquote Joanna Trollope, it can take years to become an overnight success. Stewart’s journey may have landed him a five-CD recording contract – “a dream come true,” he says – but he’s had more than his fair share of tough times. 

Stewart grew up in Harlem, the son of a single mother who worked as a cashier in a supermarket. He owes everything to her devotion, he says; she made sure he went to a good school and put his education first. When he was 12 a teacher recruited him for the school choir, with encouraging words about his voice. His mother thought he would be a comedian, “because I always loved making people laugh”; and young Noah, testing his wings in musical theatre, found he loved acting. “I was quite heavy as a kid, and I was happier playing someone else,” he admits. 

His first passion was jazz, not least thanks to his mother’s New Orleans background. Then, attending an arts school, he spotted a laserdisc of the Verdi Requiem with a picture of the great mezzo-soprano Leontyne Price on the cover. “She was the only person of colour in the image and I was immediately drawn to it.” The performance proved a giant shockwave: “It was the first time I heard a person of colour sing with an operatic technique in a different language. The combination of the voice and the orchestra drew me in immediately. Everyone around me in high school wanted to be a pop star or a gospel star. But I felt that, for me, this was the way to go. It wasn’t a road much travelled.” 

Role models were few. “I didn’t see images of any coloured men singing opera. I knew about Paul Robeson, Bobby McFerrin, Marian Anderson and Jessye Norman, but the only tenor I could see was George Shirley, who retired from the stage when I was in middle school. I heard an interview with Leontyne Price, recorded in the 1970s, in which she said ‘I wish there were more black men in opera – I wish they would choose the operatic path.’ That only inspired me more to stick to it even when times were bad and people wouldn’t give me a chance.”

He won a scholarship to the Juilliard, New York’s most famous music college, but when he wanted to go to the summer school at the Aspen Music Festival, his mother couldn’t afford the fees. She wrote to the comedian Bill Cosby, who was appearing at a nearby club, and took the letter round to the doorman herself. Cosby sent a cheque. That summer in Aspen proved a seminal experience for Stewart. 

Breaking into the profession later, though, proved so tough that his confidence plummeted. While his former classmates were “ushered into theatres and young artists programmes”, he received rejection after rejection. He reached rock-bottom after auditioning for a conductor who told him he should reconsider his decision to be a musician. For three years he took other jobs – as a salesman, a restaurant host and a receptionist in Carnegie Hall, where his supervisor ordered him to stop singing at work. 

Finally, after studying with a new vocal coach, he auditioned and was accepted for the young artists’ programme at San Francisco Opera. There his big break arrived in classic style: he was understudying Macduff in Verdi’s Macbeth and had to stand in for the scheduled tenor at the last moment. “After that people started talking. I was singing for artist managers and so on, and they said, ‘Noah, where have you been?’” His answer: “Carnegie Hall!” 

His confidence came back. “I knew I had a lot to learn – but I knew that I could do it, because I did it for myself. No-one gave me the opportunity; they needed me and I was able to capitalise on that, but I was able to do it because I worked for it. 

“My mum told me early on: ‘You are a black man. You have to be better at everything you do.’ Not that I went around with a chip on my shoulder, but I knew I had to be the best that I could be, so I lost weight and worked on my languages and took coaching. My will and determination have just got stronger over time. People think it’s a ‘rags-to-riches’ story, but it is totally not. I got a couple of contracts, but when I wasn’t working I went back to the restaurant and back to temping, because I was so thankful I’d learned some trades. Growing up in New York was not only about education – it was also about how you survive as a person. 

“I’m not Noah the Opera Singer; I’m Noah the Person who loves to sing opera. I love jazz, I love hip hop, I’m a person with many different interests. I chose opera because I didn’t see people who looked like me doing it. And I’ve developed skills to be competitive. I’m still in love with it, but if it all fell apart tomorrow I’d be OK, because I know who I am and I could develop other skills and go into any profession I desired. There are so many young people now who feel so lost and I always say to them: ‘You have so many abilities, you can do anything you want to – just don’t stop believing.’”

What would he say to opera buffs who, having heard him sing Puccini, Massenet and Verdi, wonder why he’s also recording pop songs translated into Italian? “Just because I sing opera, that doesn’t mean it’s the only style I enjoy,” he insists. “I remember, early on, telling one a friend who was specialising in musical theatre that I was going to sing a musical theatre song. She said: ‘You can’t sing that – you’re an opera singer.’ And I thought maybe she’s right, maybe I’m not going to be taken seriously. But how can I let someone else dictate my life? If I want to sing a pop song, I’m going to sing a pop song! I’m going to sing it in its correct style, put my own spin on it and make it mine. 

“I’m happy that I’ve lived a sheltered life, so I did not have people influencing me. It wasn’t easy. I spent many times being alone while people made fun of me because I didn’t dress or speak like a guy from Harlem. It’s hard being different. But it’s much more fun. You get to create your own rules.”

Noah Stewart’s debut album is out now on Decca. His UK tour begins on 17 May at The Sage, Gateshead

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Fate is...a counter-tenor?

The UK premiere of Judith Weir's new opera  Miss Fortune, a co-commission with the Bregenz Festival, was indeed a blend of the ups and downs its story suggests. Life is a roller-coaster, its protagonists point out. But whatever happened to free will?

If Fate is a counter-tenor, then we're all doomed. It's a Sartre-esque choice of a voice, inescapable as it shadows the powerful lead soprano, Emma Bell, in the most claustrophobia-inducing way. The psychological, or psychiatric, implications of his presence as the voice inside Miss Fortune's head could have been the most interesting thing about this opera, had they been explored a lot more. But they weren't. The implications of her awful relationship with her ghastly parents, too, could have been explored a lot more, but... yes, exactly. And is her supposed saviour, a nice, very rich boy called Simon, actually that nice? Come off it - he wants to pull down Donna's laundromat and build pied-a-terres for his City chums! Amid many uncomfortable dramatic choices, some of which are more uncomfortable than ever inside a place as plush as the ROH, Miss Fortune offers a tantalising glimpse of what might have been.

Miss Fortune's personal Fate - Andrew Watts - isn't to blame for that. He, his colleagues and the dazzling breakdancers of Soul Mavericks made the show a treat in its own way; so, too, the designs and its special effects (set: Tom Pye, lighting/projections: Scott Zielinski, Leigh Sachwitz, Flora and Faunavisions) - projected video effects are clearly flavour of the operatic zeigeist at the moment. The orchestra, under Paul Daniel, and the chorus provided all the sympathetic backup you should expect from a top international opera house.

Bell held the stage throughout, a scarlet flame in voice as well as costume. The men in her life - the American rising star tenor Noah Stewart as Hassan, the man with the kebab van, and the South African baritone Jacques Imbrailo as Simon - should have been a tough choice for her at the end, although she apparently doesn't even consider the penniless Hassan. I'd have wished she'd gone off with him had Imbrailo's gorgeous, luminous voice not beguiled heart and mind every bit as much. And had it not been for the quality of the singing, the breakdancers would have had a walkover triumph (though walking is perhaps the only thing that doesn't happen in breakdancing).

I wonder if the Bregenz request for an opera "for an entirely normal audience" became perhaps a shackle to one of British music's most enticing imaginations? Weir's story is linear, told "from A to Z", but supposing it wasn't? Supposing there'd been carte blanche for her to turn more fantastical, to go deeper, to go wild with all the possibilities that music, drama, stage technology and fabulous musicians can offer? One way or another, that didn't happen. The music felt as hamstrung as the drama. It just doesn't get off the ground - not even when Noah Stewart sings his Aubade from the roof of kebab-van-ex-machina.

The trouble with updating folk stories about Fate to the modern world is that we have to believe that that is how things work. Covent Garden's programme uses a quorum of chopped-down trees trying to convince us: among several essays on the topic, there's even a fascinating one about chaos, randomness and astrophysics. But what happened to the fact that the financial crash - which sparks the entire story - was entirely man-made? It is a miserable history of cause, effect, ideological idiocy and the seven deadly sins, a true tragedy that unfurls the fatal flaws in human nature - Greek in more ways than one. That in itself would make a much better story. Yes, things do happen to us that we don't plan. But sometimes, somewhere, some of those things are the result of someone else's stupidity, greed or megalomania. You can't entirely avoid cancer or multiple sclerosis. But financial crashes can be prevented by sensible economic management. And this opera is about a financial crash.

Here's my alternative scenario for Tina and her missed fortunes.

* The sweat-shop workers join forces with the breakdancers and organise themselves into a powerful protest lobby. They hold Lord Fortune's bossy wife to ransom and remind him of those modest, hardworking roots of which he boasts so copiously. His conscience is swayed.

* Instead of losing what remains of his offshore riches to pirates, he gives his daughter a trust-fund so that she doesn't have to work in the laundromat but can devote herself to becoming Director of Communications for the protest lobby. He then agrees to stand as an independent MP to fight the cause of liberty, siblinghood, equality.

* Simon, instead of telling her to throw her winning lottery ticket away, uses his portion of the proceeds (because Tina's going to share it all out) to chuck in his horrid City job and become a full-time baritone, donating the income from his first album to an inner-city regeneration project.

* He and Tina and Hassan can't choose between one another, so they set up as a menage-a-trois and finish the opera by singing All You Need Is Love.

* Somebody seizes Fate by the throat and chucks him into the orchestra pit.

If you want to see it - and you should, for the singing and dancing at the very least - there's a special offer from the ROH for 23 March, when you can get the best available seat, a kebab and a beer for £45. More details here.

(Photos: Bill Cooper/Royal Opera House)