Interview: Noah Stewart, Singer

With a lead role at the Royal Opera House and a CD out this month, Noah Stewart looks every inch an a-lister in waiting. But his journey to the top has been anything but straightforward

When Noah Stewart walks into the lounge of the hotel, everyone looks at him. It’s quiet so that actually means three Italian tourists poised with their pull along cases, but trust me, if there were more people they’d all be looking at Stewart, 33. Why? Mainly because he is very, very handsome. He also happens to be wearing tomato red jeans topped off with a double-breasted navy blazer with brass buttons and a crisp white shirt. You’d look, wouldn’t you?

As he strides across the sunny room I’ve got the feeling that this is the perfect moment to meet the opera singer, as though he’s on the cusp of something big. His name has already started to appear on ‘ones to watch in 2012’ lists, his first album comes out at the end of the month and before that he makes his debut at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in Judith Weir’s eagerly anticipated new opera Miss Fortune. Things are happening for Noah Stewart.

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In a way, it seems hardly surprising. Stewart has a beautiful tenor voice. He has already garnered fine reviews for performances in Madama Butterfly, Tosca, Carmen and La Boheme. There’s also the fact that he wears a tuxedo as well as James Bond and in person he’s utterly charming. He’s the kind of man who you might think could rely on talent and charm to get him to wherever he wanted to go. And yet, things haven’t been straightforward for Noah Stewart. Not at all.

“I can’t really believe it,” he says settling into his seat. “It was only three years ago that I remember hearing talk like ‘did you hear about Noah? Is he still singing?’ People gave up on me entirely. So it’s hard to believe that I’m sitting here with all this going on.”

If you read the sleeve notes of Stewart’s debut album you’ll get the impression that his journey to being one of the fastest rising tenors in the world has been as predictable and straightforward as the most hackneyed rags to riches stories can be: Harlem to Covent Garden, just like that. It’s not that it’s untrue, more that it’s a version that leaves out the details that make Stewart’s story so interesting.

Raised, along with his sister, by his mother, Patricia, in Harlem, New York, Stewart sang in his first voice competition when he was 12. He won. From there he enrolled in LaGuardia High School of Performing Arts in New York, which he says was just like Glee. “I loved it. We sang everywhere. We had eight classes a day and in between every one of them we’d sing. There was dancing and so much laughing. Everything was so emotional. I was so happy. I never missed a day of school.”

Stewart first learned about opera by sneaking into the music department and watching a recording of Verdi’s Requiem every morning before his classes started. It featured the great soprano Leontyne Price and for Stewart, seeing a black woman sing such glorious music, it opened his eyes to what he might do. He was given the nickname ‘opera boy’ by his friends and went on, unsurprisingly to win a scholarship for the prestigious Juilliard School of Music. So far, so predictable, but at Juilliard things didn’t quite go to plan.

“When I got there I was ahead of the curve. I already knew Italian, I knew how to sight read. My colleagues had really good voices but I knew how to express myself because we’d been singing and dancing and doing back up for Coolio and Hootie & the Blowfish and Sesame Street.

“I had all these musical experiences and these guys were much more reined in. I’m more like that now but back then I was not. Arriving in Juilliard was like putting on a straitjacket. It was a real shock.”

Stewart speaks fast. He’s enthusiastic, almost bubbly. But when he talks about Juilliard it’s clear that his time there was very difficult. He felt as though he wasn’t given opportunities because his voice hadn’t “solidified” into its range and that he didn’t get enough performance time to build his confidence and ability to sing in an unfettered way.

“You’re facing different pressures and I just didn’t sing well,” he says. “My colleagues being there, my teachers being there – I just couldn’t do it. I’d practice and be fine and then I’d go out there and be something else.”

It’s hard to reconcile the man sitting opposite me, oozing self-confidence and self-belief with the idea of someone struggling to be heard, but there’s no doubt that his time at Juilliard left him 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. He’s not bitter, why would he be having turned things around so successfully? But it’s clear he’s still smarting.

“After I graduated I found it very difficult to sing freely without criticising myself. I was always watching myself. The singers I love are Aretha Franklin and Sarah Vaughn, there’s a certain amount of baring the soul. It’s almost like they open their chest and let everything out. I was so guarded, not guarded but so careful, worrying about doing it wrong because I wouldn’t have a career. I was just burnt out. I was always in love with music but I was burned out with the criticism. Every time I sang it was like this is what’s wrong with it or this could be better. I just thought, you know, I’m just not really enjoying it.”

And so he stopped.

Stewart decided to take a year off. He gave up a scholarship to continue his studies and decided to cool his heels. At first, it worked. He partied and had fun and stopped worrying about his singing career, but then reality set in. Stewart realised he didn’t know what to do. He was lost.

Even his mother, Patricia, whom he clearly adores, speaking to her almost every day, couldn’t help him.

“I grew up in Harlem with a single mom and my sister. Our lives, even in New Orleans were just so far away from an operatic career they just didn’t have anything to tell me. My mom always had the answers but when I left Juilliard and was having these problems for the first time she just didn’t have any advice. I just sank.

“Mom was really disappointed. It kind of broke her heart. In a weird way I felt like I wouldn’t sing again.”

Stewart’s mother may not have had answers but it was her example that helped him to get himself back on track.

“Mom has always worked. All my life. The famous story is that she left New Orleans on Friday, she arrived in New York on Saturday, she went looking for a job on Sunday and started working on Monday. She hasn’t stopped in over 45 years. Even now when I go home she’s always gone before I wake up. She’s amazing.”

So Stewart did the same. He got a job selling pots and pans and then coffee makers. He went back to Juilliard in summers – he couldn’t bear to be there during term time – to work in the office and he worked as a receptionist at Carnegie Hall.

“There was a bit of me that thought just by answering the phone someone would hear that Juilliard-trained voice and I’d get a break,” he says, explaining that he used to hum as he went about his work in the hope that someone would hear him. They did, only it was his supervisor who proceeded to give him a telling off for distracting his colleagues. He left. The fact that he saw so many of his Juilliard colleagues “ushered into their careers” was hard and Stewart spiralled.

“I got sidetracked. Instead of putting money aside for lessons and two coaching sessions a week it was just one coaching session a week. I was really discouraged. I didn’t even have any friends who were singers.”

Stewart did a bit of cater-waitering and he got a job as a host in a Chelsea restaurant called the Red Cat.

“There was no better way to get used to that audition suit,” he says, raising an eyebrow.

Push Stewart on why his voice wasn’t working and he’ll tell you that a tenor voice doesn’t settle until a singer is around 40 and his voice just wasn’t ready. But there’s perhaps another context too. Stewart had always known that being a black opera singer would be tough. It’s not that there are no role models, but they are few and far between and there are many more women than men. It meant that when things were tough, Stewart felt very much alone. Ask him if he experienced racism and his answer is straightforward, “To say that there’s no racism in opera is like saying there’s no racism in the world, I think it’s unrealistic. But I don’t have time to think about that. If I don’t get a role I just have to accept that I wasn’t good enough for it or it wasn’t for me. At this stage, I won’t even say I wasn’t good enough for it, it obviously just wasn’t for me.”

Stewart’s brand of self-belief is the kind borne out of being forced to find his own way. It’s the kind that comes from knowing that talent isn’t always enough on its own, and even people who should succeed, don’t always make it. It’s clear that the voices of the people who were saying they just weren’t sure whether Stewart had what it takes to have a career in opera still follow him. But Stewart found his own way. In what he calls “the lull” he listened, as he’d always done, to recordings of the greats – Italian tenors mainly – in whose voices he could hear something to emulate. He also found work with small, quirky companies in New York, “the odd balls of opera” he calls them.

“They looked odd, they sounded odd,” he says with a laugh. “They had unorthodox ways of doing things. But I found that I was at home. I found my niche. They were different to the cookie cutter singers and I found my voice again. That’s where I started to sing. Even if I had technical deficiencies I was still out there doing it and the audience was moved and I was happy.”

It was the odd balls that started Stewart’s journey back. He rebuilt his confidence but still he wasn’t sure that a career beckoned. He remembers telling a colleague that he was preparing for one last audition and if it didn’t go well he’d quit singing and do something else. He auditioned and got a place on the prestigious Adler Program at San Francisco Opera. “When I started singing they were all looking around. They said ‘you have an amazing voice, where have you been?’ I said Carnegie Hall. But of course I was answering phones. They had no idea about the three years I’d gone through.”

In his last year in San Francisco, Stewart got the break he’d been waiting for. With 15 minutes’ notice he went on to sing Macduff in Verdi’s Macbeth. Stewart had been booked to sing Malcolm but he was understudying the bigger role.

“People didn’t think I could sing the role because I was so young and I hadn’t done anything. The chat was ‘Noah’s so young’ and I wasn’t supposed to hear it but I did. I just thought I’m going to show you. It wasn’t a huge part but it was huge for me because it was San Francisco Opera.”

It was a major success for Stewart and put his name firmly on the map. When he got back to New York things weren’t easy, but he got an agent and a couple of offers came in. And in between bookings, Stewart went back to waiting tables.

“One of the first jobs after San Francisco, when I got back to New York, I went to my suit to look for my bow tie. I found my slips from taking people’s orders. It was just like wow, this is the same suit.”

Stewart isn’t bitter about the route his career has taken. In fact, he’s grateful for it. As he prepares for a year of debuts he does so with the confidence of someone who knows that he can survive when things don’t go to plan. It’s been hard won, but I can’t help feeling he deserves it.

“The three years of everyone saying no to me forced me to figure it out,” he says. “Forced me to figure out my voice, forced me to listen to my voice inside. They taught me to find out what I really want and taught me to trust myself. I have that now.”

• Noah Stewart’s CD, Noah, is released on 26 March on Decca. He appears at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden in Judith Weir’s Miss Fortune from Monday and will sing on the finale of Dancing on Ice on STV later this month.