Like Azealia Banks, another Harlemite is taking the music world by storm. Last month, tenor Noah Stewart became the first black singer to top the UK classical album chart in its 25-year history. From a tough childhood in Harlem, raised by a single mother, to performing at the Royal Opera House in London and Carnegie Hall (where he once worked as a receptionist), the 33 year old declares: “There are lots of roles I want to sing. I haven’t even started yet.”
His musical development began in Harlem, studying classical music at the Harlem School of the Arts. He fell in love with opera at 15. He had won a singing competition at 12 and enrolled at the LaGuardia High School of Performing Arts, but had no interest in opera until he saw a video of the great American soprano Leontyne Price singing the Verdi Requiem. “I thought, holy cow – the tone, the intensity, seeing her with a 300-member chorus and an 80-strong orchestra and Herbert von Karajan conducting. I want to be that.” When Price signed discs at the local Tower Records he was fourth in line. “‘Ms Price,’ I said, ‘you are an inspiration.’ ‘Go to Juilliard,’ she told me. ‘That’s where I went.’”
His mother was surprised when he announced he wanted to be an opera singer. But she accepted it. “I wouldn’t have achieved anything without her support,” Stewart says. By the end of his senior year at Juilliard, Stewart was already receiving attention from the professional classical community, but it was very cliquey, he says, and he felt he was given few opportunities. He was starting to learn that life was tough for black tenors. “Decision-makers are not comfortable seeing a black male hero with a white heroine.” Black basses are fine, he says; they tend to play the dodgy characters. Ditto black sopranos (natural victims). But a black Romeo? The only plus was that the stress of studying at Juilliard made him lose weight, and the fat kid turned into a handsome young man.
He took a four-year break afterwards, doing odd jobs and singing only sporadically. He took a position as a receptionist at Carnegie Hall in the hope that someone would give him a break, but his boss just told him to stop humming. He sang in restaurants, only to be told by one diner it was a shame his color meant he would never sing Carmen on stage.
Eventually the break did come, on a young artists’ program at San Francisco Opera. He was understudying Macduff in Verdi’s Macbeth when the singer playing the role fell ill. Other roles followed, and then Universal spotted him in 2010, invited him to make a demo, then gave him a five-disc deal – an offer even the world’s most established singers would kill for. His debut disc, Noah, combines opera with lush recordings of popular standards.
With a brilliant career ahead of him, Harlem’s Noah Stewart is a name to watch, he is definitely the complete package.
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