Interview: Noah Stewart’s journey from Harlem to the opera

Scottish Opera's new production of Carmen. Noah Stewart, left, as Don Jose, and Justina Gringyte, right, as Carmen. Picture: Robert Perry
Scottish Opera's new production of Carmen. Noah Stewart, left, as Don Jose, and Justina Gringyte, right, as Carmen. Picture: Robert Perry
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US tenor Noah Stewart has always felt like an outsider, but his unusual route to the opera marks him out as a fighter as well as a true talent. Stewart opens up to Claire Black on staying versatile and why Glasgow reminds him of New York

I feel fairly certain that when I’ve listened to or watched Bizet’s Carmen, I’ve never thought of Don Jose’s mum. But for tenor Noah Stewart the reason he loves singing the role of the young soldier who becomes obsessed with the seductive and sensual gypsy girl, is not the lure of Carmen but Don Jose’s mother. “Jose is close to his mother,” he says, “which is why I love this role. The only person he really listens to is her.”

It makes sense if you know anything about Stewart. He loves his “mom”. He talks about her a lot and speaks to her on the phone pretty much every day. She was the woman who brought Stewart and his sister up alone in Harlem, New York. She didn’t exactly push her son towards becoming an opera singer. In fact, when he told her that’s what he wanted to be she looked a bit perplexed and said, “I thought opera was for old people?” But she never told him that he shouldn’t follow his dream, or that young, black boys from Harlem don’t usually end up as internationally respected opera singers.

“She never said that I couldn’t do anything,” he says. “She didn’t say you shouldn’t do that or you’re wasting your time. I’d say, ‘mommy, I’m wasting my time. I’m throwing my money away. People are mean and rude. It can be very critical: auditioning, the reviews, it never really ends. And that’s why it’s so important to know why you’re doing it.”

Sitting in the cafe of Scottish Opera’s rehearsal space, Stewart doesn’t really look like a man who’s just finished a day of rehearsals. He’s full of chat and charm. I last met him in 2012. He was appearing at the Royal Opera in Judith Weir’s Miss Fortune. He also had a CD about to come out, an album of crossover tracks that highlighted his beautiful voice along with a booklet of glossy photographs that highlighted his beautiful face. He had already garnered fine reviews for performances in Madama Butterfly, Tosca, Carmen and La Boheme and his own life story - as well as his silhouette in a tuxedo - had marked him out as one to watch.

Stewart sang in his first voice competition when he was 12. He won it. From there he enrolled in LaGuardia High School of Performing Arts in New York (which he says was just like Glee) was given the nickname ‘opera boy’ by his friends and went on, unsurprisingly, to win a scholarship for the prestigious Juilliard School of Music. The tale gets a little more bumpy at that point - Juilliard was “like a straitjacket”, he lost his confidence and wondered about whether a singing career was for him. A few years later, after dropping out of a scholarship, after a stint of working in the reception of Carnegie Hall, he was a host in a Manhattan restaurant. Stewart’s career seemed to be over before it had begun. And then he turned things around.

Scottish Opera's new production of Carmen. Noah Stewart, left, as Don Jose, and Justina Gringyte, right, as Carmen. Picture: Robert Perry

Scottish Opera's new production of Carmen. Noah Stewart, left, as Don Jose, and Justina Gringyte, right, as Carmen. Picture: Robert Perry

“Was it three years ago or four that we met?” he asks, settling into his seat. I tell him it was in 2012. “This is 2016 right?” Ah the lot of the opera singer - never knowing what year it is because they get booked for jobs way in advance. “Recently I told people I was 37,” he says. He’s actually only 36. “I think it’s because in this job we want to be older.” The last time I met with Stewart he told me how he was waiting for his voice to settle and he felt that it was in some ways keeping him away from roles that he wanted to sing.

“It’s still not settled,” he says with a grin. “I have to constantly remind myself - and my teachers do - that I’m still growing. The possibility to do a lot of things is still on the table. I want to be taken seriously or seen as mature but I want to keep my voice as flexible as possible.”

Grand opera, crossover, spirituals, concerts - Stewart wants to mix things up. “I love singing in Italian but I don’t want to do it all the time,” he says. “I love wearing black jeans but I don’t want to wear them every day, it gets old. Sometimes I want to dress up. I want to feel different. People saying they don’t take me seriously because I’m singing musical theatre or crossover. Why? Why do I have to choose something and stick to it? I refuse to be put in a box. We are constantly judged, we’re judged way too much. We have to encourage each other much more.”

In the rehearsal space of Scottish Opera, Stewart and his co-star, Justina Gringyte, who won a 2015 International Opera Award, are being guided through a scene in which Don Jose is making his transition from soldier to smuggler, a life of enforcing the law to one of lawlessness lured, of course, by Carmen.

The chorus is being guided through their parts. In the lulls, as director Benjamin Davis explains the mood and the tensions, talking to the leads about where they might stand and how they might move, most of the chorus relax and chatter. At the back of the room the technical crew and the musical team take notes and discuss tweaks and changes.

Stewart has sung Don Jose four times before but he’s never sung in French dialogue. “The dialogue makes it a much more earthy Carmen. It’s political, it’s grounded.” He says it’s a challenge to speak as well as sing. He’s out of his comfort zone, but he’s loving it. “It’s easier for us singers to only sing. It’s much more a challenge to speak than to sing. We want to get it right - get the accent right - we have a great dialect coach who is French and a singer too. She’s the boss.” He loves the drama of the role, he says. The passion and seduction, the fact that Jose is transformed through his doomed passion for Carmen. He talks about Jose and Carmen as though they’re soap opera characters. “We all know people in our lives who we look at and are like I can’t believe that they would do that,” he says, his eyebrows heading skywards. “But it only takes a catalyst and for Jose, that’s Carmen. She creates a monster.”

Stewart has changed in the few years since we met. He seems, not less enthusiastic exactly, he still bubbles with energy, but maybe a little less bright eyed. He knows the realities of making a living as an opera singer even more now than he did then. “The life of an opera singer can be very lonely,” he says. “It can be depressing. There is so much studying, you can’t talk because you’ve got to save your voice constantly. It’s not for everyone.” And yet, in a way he also seems more satisfied, more settled with his life and his careers the ups - making his living doing something that he loves - and the downs - living out of a suitcase, spending a lot of time alone.

He’s delighted that the length of tour planned for this production means that he will be in Scotland for much longer than any engagement would usually allow. “The people here are amazing,” he says. “Glasgow really reminds me of New York. People here love interaction. I’ve been living in London for the past seven months and when I got here, just a couple of days after I arrived someone just came up to me and talked to me on the street. It kind of startled me.” He laughs. “He said, ‘oh, I’m just being friendly’ and it was like I had to remind myself that I was in Glasgow not London.” He’s used to it now. “It’s nice. I like it. In London I was also so surprised by how quiet it was on the tube. In New York City, there people screaming, performing, there are announcements. It’s a whole different thing. Glasgow has got something of that going on.”

There’s no doubt that his time at Juilliard left Stewart more than a little bruised. He talks about never being part of the in-crowd, about feeling like he was left to fend for himself. Now, it seems like he’s settled into believing that he can do what he wants and achieve what he wants.

“I put a lot of pressure on myself because I want to do things right,” he says. “But we also have to accept that it is a process - we’re not born wise. That’s the beauty of life - we learn.

“People get into this because they want to be a star, I got into it because I had something to say and I had a new voice that I didn’t hear, or see on stages or on TV. And that’s why I still do it. Sometimes I have bad days and I think I don’t want to sing anymore. Or I’ll think I’m not doing enough in terms of community awareness and social issues. But that’s also why I do my concerts because not everyone goes to the opera.”

He pauses, which is noticeable because Stewart speaks fast, fizzing with ideas. “I think I was chosen to do this. That’s not an arrogant statement, I just think I was chosen to look this way to do this and it’s my responsibility to do it. Sometimes it’s really tough. There are so many people who are behind me, following me.”

He’s talking about younger singers and artists who are “not the default”. He’s talking being different and finding a way to be what you want to be when your difference sets you apart. He gets plenty of emails from younger singers telling him that he’s a role model, an inspiration. What does he tell them?

“It doesn’t have to be opera, it doesn’t have to be classical music. Find something that you like, follow your heart and your dream and do what you like because ultimately it’s you who has to wake up each morning and say this is what I chose and I like it.”

• Scottish Opera’s Carmen is touring Scotland from Wed 7 Oct-Sat 14 Nov. For details long on to