Harlem-born and -raised Noah Stewart has become classical music’s newest sensation and the first Black musician to top the classical records chart. His debut album for Decca Records, simply titled Noah, topped the UK classical music chart at no.1, and even reached the No. 2 slot in the U.K. right after Madonna’s latest album, MDNA. And after an appearance on NPR, his album debuted at No.1 on Amazon’s Classical Chart.
Raised by a single mother, it was obvious from an early age Stewart had an extraordinary voice, and while in junior high, he even recorded voiceovers for Sesame Street. But it was his meeting his idol and mentor Leontyne Price that started his career rolling when she encouraged him to attend the Juilliard School of Music in New York, where he was awarded a full scholarship and afterward received the Adler Fellowship program at the San Francisco Opera.
Aside from concerts, he’s been busy making waves at opera houses around the world, appearing in productions in Paris, London’s Convert Garden Royal Opera House, the Michigan Opera Theater and the Glimmerglass Opera in New York.
EBONY recently had a wide-ranging talk with Stewart (he was at London’s Heathrow Airport shortly before boarding a flight to Singapore for series of engagements), in which he spoke about the joy and struggles of being a Black opera tenor, how legend Leontyne Price became an inspiration, and how to lose 70 pounds.
EBONY: When did you know that you had a voice?
Noah Stewart: I knew that I had something special when my choir teacher pulled me aside back when I was in junior high school. I took choir as an elective because I wanted to be a mathematician, a scientist or an engineer. I took up choir because my mother worked some 40 hours plus a week, so I needed some extra outside activity. I was admitted into the choir primarily, I think, because I was a boy and there was a deficiency of men. But like I said, my teacher pulled me aside and said, “I think you have something special there.” But I didn’t believe her, to be perfectly honest, until probably my second year at choir when I won my first competition. And that’s when it was very clear to me that I had something special to offer.
EBONY: One thing that I constantly read about you is that when you were younger, you happened to see video of Leontyne Price singing in Giuseppe Verdi’s Messa da Requiem, and it was a transformative experience for you.
NS: It was the first person of color I saw singing in an operatic technique on film, and I was transfixed by the vision of her with an all-European orchestra, with all European soloists, with a European conductor. So I went to the library and looked for male equivalents. And there was George Shirley and Roland Hayes, but I didn’t see many Black men, so I said I wanted to be the male representative of what she was able to accomplish in her career. To try to make a dent somehow in the career of opera.
EBONY: She was pretty much in a class of her own, wasn’t she?
NS: Yes yes! She was something special. What she did, you can’t really teach that. I think that great artists and great singers are really born, they’re not made. You can’t teach what Leontyne did. And she couldn’t teach it to anyone else. The other thing about her is that she never sounded like anyone else. And that’s a great challenge I had and have being a Black tenor. There are not many who I sound like. So it’s been very challenging for people in terms of casting. But it’s also been great, because people are interested to hear me in a wide range of repertory, which is great for me because I never get bored.
EBONY: You definitely pursued you own path. Did you have people telling you that you were crazy, that Black people don’t do opera?
NS: Oh yeah! It wasn’t so much “Black people don’t do that.” It wasn’t so direct, but there were some instances where it was very direct. The reactions were like, “You’re a singer?” “Yeah, classical music. I sing opera.” And they go, “Wow, opera? Oh, that’s interesting.” Like it was a letdown. They would be excited first, thinking I was a rapper or pop singer. Like classical music was a downer.
But I never paid it any mind, especially in high school. I was very focused. Sometimes I didn’t have many friends. But I knew what I wanted to do, and there were very few people who wanted to do what I wanted to do. I don’t want to say there was aloneness; I definitely felt alone in many ways. But I just went and did my own thing.
EBONY: I understand what you mean. There are things you like that no one else does and all you can do is to pursue your interests if it makes you happy and forget everybody else.
NS: Exactly! I saw myself on the opera stage. I saw myself there. Other people didn’t get it. That’s fine.
EBONY: You’re bringing up the point that there is no one single definition of “Blackness.” It compasses everything and it can defined whatever way you want.
NS: Absolutely! I remember when I told my mother I wanted to become an opera singer. She said, “What? Well, that’s for old people, that’s not really for young people.” But when I was at Juilliard, I took a break for a year to join to the workforce, which stretched into three years. And I did all sorts of jobs—working as a receptionist at Carnegie Hall, working at Macy’s selling watches, working at the Met Opera gift shop and working as a host in a restaurant. And often I would often sing "Happy Birthday" to the guests, or on occasion I would sing an aria.
And I remember once one of the waiters, who was French, came up to me after I sang the Don José’s "The Flower Song" from [Georges] Bizet’s Carmen for someone. There was some were cheering and people saying I was awesome and she said to me, “Noah, you were so great! Even your French is great, but what are you going to do?” And I said, “What do you mean?” And she said, “You can’t sign José because you’re Black!”
And it was like the blood was drained out of me. I said to her, “How could you say that to me?” But I thought if she could feel that way, then I’m sure a lot of people are going feel this way. At first I was angry, but then I became determined to really buckle down to be the best that I could really be in terms of my technique, my language, my style. Because I didn’t anyone to have an excuse. I even lost 70 pounds when I was at Juilliard.
EBONY: Well, now you have a hit a best-selling recording here in the U.S. and the U.K., an international career on the opera stage, and you're constantly in demand. You can say that what that waitress said motivated you.
NS: Oh, it definitely did! When I met Leontyne Price a few years ago, she told me, “Give them hell.” And I did! Those artists had to be tough, and it’s the same today. There’s nothing more intimidating than a Black man in a room, still to this day. Singers who are basses or baritones usually are fathers or villains. But singing a tenor role, we’re lovers, always. And if they’re giving President Obama a hard time every day because they just can’t bear to see a Black man in a position of power, I’m sure it’s the same singing a tenor role in major opera house.
Check out Noah Stewart’s website: www.noahofficial.com.