By Michael H. Margolin
When he was 16, Noah Stewart, an American tenor, met legendary soprano Leontyne Price when she was autographing records in a New York store. He said he wanted to go to Juilliard to pursue his music career. She encouraged him. After graduating high school he auditioned and Juilliard gave him a four-year full scholarship.
Today at 33, he has a Decca album of operatic, spiritual and pop songs that came out March 26 in the U.K. (available from Amazon UK; U.S. release date not set yet) and just a few weeks later, on April 14, he will take the stage at the Michigan Opera Theatre’s opening night of “The Pearl Fishers.”
Stewart went to the “Fame” (La Guardia High School) school in Manhattan, commuting “downtown” from Harlem. One of his first teachers, Josephine Morris, told him, “You could go someplace” when he took choir in the early years of high school, he explained by phone from London where he is promoting his album.
When he had a solo in a tribute to Katherine Hepburn – she was there – “I felt the energy, I felt OK in the spotlight; no nerves or stage fright.” Still, he did not select opera as his first choice. His family is from New Orleans and he grew up listening to jazz.
Other friends wanted to be pop stars, but “I just didn’t enjoy pop. I wanted to be solo, be out of the ordinary, strange.” Until he went to the “Fame” school, he didn’t know what that would be. But there he made two significant discoveries.
He went to the school library and watched videos. In the film of Verdi’s “Requiem” he saw Leontyne Price for the first time.
“She was the first person of color that I heard and saw performing in classical, operatic technique. I wanted to do for men (of color) what she had done.”
Then, “I went to an opera workshop in school, and when I walked in I saw odd people, like the Muppets” – later he changed that to the Goonies, after the motion picture – and said to himself, “this is where I belong.”
The die, it seems, was cast.
Other opportunities presented themselves to him – tickets, for example, to opera. He went to the Met and heard great voices, such as one of Pavarotti’s final performances of Cavarodossi in Puccini’s “Tosca,” one of the great tenor roles and one which Stewart sang, in the second cast, at MOT two years ago. (In the final act, I wrote that his voice sounded like it would be right for Rodolfo in “La Boheme,” which he subsequently performed last year with MOT, also in the second cast.)
“The neat thing was hearing the voice travel over the orchestra. It sounded superhuman.”
When he got to Juilliard, though, one of the nation’s most esteemed schools of music, the other shoe dropped. “Juilliard was competitive, not nurturing like high school…When I finished, I was happy that I got through. The summers were better. (Among other things) I went to Italy to study the language.”
Offered a scholarship at another prestigious school, he felt he needed a break. “I had been studying eight years, so I took off a year which became three, took lessons and tried to get singing jobs.” To no avail: He worked as a receptionist, carpenter and host in a restaurant to pay for lessons. He lived at home.
“It was depressing, I felt angry” as the big break did not occur. “No one had answers for me. I felt I would quit but took one last audition” for the Merola program at San Francisco Opera. Named for the first director, Gaetona Merola, each year hundreds of young singers audition, but only 23 are taken.
“Where have you been?” Stewart was asked at the end of the audition. He studied, then, under the aegis of the SFO which was the site of the U.S. debut of, yes, Leontyne Price.
From there the Stewart train was on the career track: A few years later, he appeared in the small tenor role of Ismaele in MOT’s production of Verdi’s “Nabucco.” (When I saw him, I was impressed by his strong presence, the handsome, big voice and the tone of that voice.) Each time he returns, he takes a higher rung on the ladder: This time he opens in the lead tenor role of Nadir, last performed here in 2004 by William Burden, also a Merola graduate.
“I have sung in Detroit more than any other place in the world. It is like coming home. I know the people, feel comfortable…I am really lucky that David (DiChiera, MOT’s general director) is a big supporter of mine and has been loyal to me.”
DiChiera says, “I think he has star material.”
“The voice has a beautiful timbre to it – a real sound that fills the note,” continues DiChiera. “There’s that certain quality that some singers have, they own the stage.”
There is another dimension to Stewart’s career: As a gay, black man there were barriers in opera in the past, but that may be changing. Stewart feels he has not faced prejudice. (Though a restaurant co-worker said to him, when he sang Don Jose’s aria from “Carmen” for her, he couldn’t portray the character because he was black.)
“Having a black President, a man of color in power” does change thinking, he believes. His baritone co-star in this production, Nmon Ford, is also black. One of DiChiera’s goals at MOT has been to “nurture and advance African-American singers.” Many, such as Leona Mitchell, have appeared for MOT over the years and, famously, the debut of Detroit-born soprano Maria Ewing in one of the first MOT productions. She later went on to become a foremost “Salome,” an infamous “Carmen” and the mother of film and stage actress Rebecca Hall (“Vicky Cristina Barcelona”).
“Being gay has not affected me (in opera). I just approach each role as a unique character…I don’t hide my gayness, but I don’t go around shouting it from the rooftops.”
Are gay men in opera more closeted than, say, the theater? “I’m sure. Probably.”
“I would love to be a role model for other gay men, gay men of color. I would hope for younger persons to follow in my footsteps.”
The door is opening and the footprints lead on to stardom.
‘The Pearl Fishers’
7:30 p.m. April 14, 18, 20, 21 and 2:30 p.m. April 22
Michigan Opera Theatre at Detroit Opera House
1526 Broadway St., Detroit ($29-121)