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